Posts Tagged product marketing

Hubris

In classical mythology, the concept of hubris is often illustrated by the story of Icarus. The son of the master craftsman Daedelus, Icarus let his pride overpower his humility and paid dearly for his mistake. Wikipedia says it best:

Before they took off from the island, Daedalus warned his son not to fly too close to the sun, nor too close to the sea. Overcome by the giddiness that flying lent him, Icarus soared through the sky curiously, but in the process he came too close to the sun, which melted the wax. Icarus kept flapping his wings but soon realized that he had no feathers left and that he was only flapping his bare arms.

How many times have you been in a meeting where the topic of competitive threats come up? And how many times are those threats answered by assertions of “Maybe, but we’re better!” Better technologically, better in some specific attribute, or just downright better overall. Whether or not the customers believe you (and one only look to the sales and market share numbers to quickly learn the answer to that question), some people will forever hold on to the idea that being better is enough.

This morning Dave Winer posted on Google+ and an incumbent’s ability to innovate against the status quo. It’s an interesting piece, especially when he argues that the incumbents become too enamoured with the status quo (aka “Why would we leave money on the table?” syndrome), while anyone they could bring in to shake up the status quo would probably fall prey to office politics.  I’m not sure how much I agree with those conclusions, but they are interesting food for thought.

The larger question here is whether it’s possible to get out of your own way long enough to attack the big issues head on. While it might be true that your product is technically superior to the competition’s, if the customer is buying the competition’s products, you’ve got a problem in desperate need of solving (viz: Kris’ piece on Being Good Enough).

If you’ve got yourself convinced that you’re infallible, impervious, or otherwise untouchable, you might spend some time thinking about what happened to IBM, Microsoft, and DEC, or what’s currently happening to Nokia and RIM, or will no doubt ultimately happen to Google, Facebook, and even my beloved Apple, when a young, small, agile upstart comes along and puts a technically superior product out of business.

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Skype: An option for a brain drain

UPDATED 12:01, Monday June 27, 2011:

According to Silicon Alley Insider, the executives who were let go will be receiving some/most of the equity compensation in question.  While it’s still difficult to know exactly what’s going on or the motives behind it, it’s still a good illustration how bad publicity and the appearance of impropriety can travel very quickly.  I still think what I wrote below applies: the changing tide of compensation, and how it’s perceived in the market, could severely stifle innovation in this country, at least as much as any tax, levy, or tariff.

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A few weeks ago news broke of Microsoft’s purchase of internet VOIP/VidOIP service Skype. At the time I wrote about what the strategic play might be for Microsoft, what they might consider doing with the service, and how I’d like to see it incorporated into my work digital lifestyle. Now, a few weeks later, news about Skype is again breaking acrosss the interwebs, but this time it paints the service – and specifically it’s management team and a key investor – in a much different light.

Sunday morning Michael Arrington wrote on TechCrunch about stories of Skpe employees being terminated and their stock options being reclaimed by the company (he uses the word “worthless” in the title). Rob Beschizza at Boing Boing had similar thoughts on the matter (he invoked the word “screwed” in his title). Over on AVC.com, Fred Wilson had slightly more tempered thoughts on the matter but does recommend the entire system be rethought.

The intricacies of employee stock options in general and these stock options in particular aside, there’s a larger issue that Skype and Microsoft need to consider. Whether or not it’s true, it appears as if Skype terminated a bunch of people just before a big payday and then took away one of the major incentives that convinced the person to work at Skype in the first place. What’s more, they did it in a way that has been called disingenuous and perhaps even actionable.

At some point, the current Skype management team is going to want to start another company, and they’re going to have this reputation to overcome.  Their other investors are going to want to invest in another technology company, an organization who’s employees might flee the moment the deal is announced. Ninety nine times out of 100, acquisitions and investments are for the people, not the technology.

We talk alot about the impact of taxes, tarrifs, levies, and other monetary vehicles on innovation and advancement. But what of the impact of this type of behavior on technological innovation? Silicon Valley, one of the major hotbeds on American innovation, has long depended on the promise of equity compensation in lieu of cash. If employees no longer trust equity compensation, start-ups and small businesses might be forced to switch to more traditional cash-based compensation, which could severely limit their ability to bring enough people on staff to get things done as quickly as necessary, thereby stifiling technology innovation.

The people that really have to be carefule here are Microsoft. If Skype’s people start to view their options as completely worthless, then there becomes very little incentive for them to stay. Since the talent should be at least as much of a concern as the technology in any acquisition, Microsoft could find themselves holding a shell of a company worth much less than the $8.5B they paid for it.

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Simplicity Sells

Flip CamPeople who own Flip cams will tell you how much they love(d) them. I’m one of them. If you are too, ask yourself one question – are you carrying around your flip? Do you have it within an arm’s length of you right now? Probably not. And that my friends is why Cisco ended up closing up it’s Flip business. In it’s heyday it was pure cinematic magic. It fit in your pocket, was easy to use and may have even recorded in HD.

Today, those things are still important but now you’ve got your iPhone, your Android or (gasp) your Blackberry. Mine is 8 inches away from my left hand and it’s rare for it to be much further than that. And oh besides pics and movies, my smartphone also has music, texts, apps and this crazy thing called e-mail.

Do you know who is the #1 manufacturer of cameras in the world? …wait for it…. Nokia. That’s right. The world’s #1 camera maker also happens to be one of the worlds top cell makers. Now you could quickly interpret this as a blog post advocating feature integration, and it is to a degree, but simplicity doesn’t have to be about integration. In fact – adding more features isn’t necessarily a good thing. But it’s important to note that simplicity of yesterday may quickly become the inconvenience of today (which I surmise is why flip struggled to make it in today’s environment).

So here are three more products besides the Flip, who in my opinion, are on similar paths. At one time great products, these now face some serious issues in simplifying their functionality, whether it be a more integrated experience, changing market dynamics or simply better competition.

1) Rhapsody Music. I love the idea of Rhapsody. I never have to actually “pay” for music. For a flat fee, I download as much music as I want to multiple devices and I never have to worry about backing it up. That said, Rhapsody to-go, due to digital rights management, only works on a select number of handheld devices. It’s great if most of your consumption can be via computer and streaming but bad if you are a commuter or frequent traveler. And it should come as no surprise that Rhapsody and Apple haven’t really figured out how to play ball on this particular issue.

2) Time Warner Cable – or cable companies in general, at one time a must have in every American household. The advent of DVR and on-demand programming likely helped stave off some user attrition but cable companies are in for some rough times as most of the major networks are already giving content away for free and on demand. Then add in services like Netflix. Paying for cable and DVR subscriptions is quickly becoming more of an annoyance than a convenience. Most services still haven’t figured out how to let people access their recorded content remotely, not to mention we as consumers have gotten use to getting content for free.

3) Healthcare providers. I’m continually shocked by how few providers actually provide value added services like remote consultations via video conferencing. How few actually let you schedule appointments online. How many still confirm appointments by phone rather than text or email. Healthcare is in a sorry state. The only saving grace right now is that everyone is more or less in the same boat – competing against mediocrity. But sooner or later, that will shift and the winners will quickly be separated from the losers. Here is a great article from Fast Company that paints a very encouraging picture for the future of the patient experience.

I’m sure collectively we can think of dozens more but these are the products/services I use today that I believe face some serious challenges if they are to compete in today’s integrated market, one where consumers in a singular voice are demanding simplicity. Marketers can no longer create products in a vacuum where they address a singular need. Needs are converging and the lines are becoming blurred. What others can you add to this list?

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The vocal minority

IMG_0512.jpgTell me if this has ever happened to you …

You’re sitting in a review meeting for Product X. Someone questions why a certain feature was included or why another one was excluded. Engineering/Product Design responds exactly how they’re supposed to, with “That’s what the requirements document said.” And then someone in marketing jumps in the clarify:

“The Customers want it that way!”

A hush falls over the room as the Marketing Manager basks in the glow created by invocation of The Almighty Customer. Moments pass as people look thoughtfully around the room at each other, nodding and scribbling in their notebooks.

From the back of the room someone squeaks meekly:

“Does the customer research say anything about how they’re trying to solve their particular problem? Could a different feature do a better job?”

And that’s when the wheels start coming off the proverbial tricycle.

Marketing Manager: “Well, we didn’t do huge amount of customer research. But we talked to customers!!”

Questioner: “Oh, I get it. So you talked to customers … how many customers?”

MM: “We talked to our best customers, of course!! Customer A and Customer B!!”

There’s a fine line between talking to customers and only talking to a few customers. Sometimes its all too easy to fall into the trap of focusing on the vocal minority, those few customers that you talk to the most, whether it be because of geographic proximity, how much they buy, or your own personal relationships. And with marketing budgets being what they are these days, it might be easier to talk to a few, easily accessible customers than to lobby for the funds necessary to do the segmentation and targeting work on a larger scale.

But ask yourself this: Would the iPhone be as wildly popular had Apple listened only to the uber-geeks? Would Google Mail be more appealing if Google had listened to someone _other_ than the uber-geeks? Would your PC be less frustrating if Microsoft had listened to someone other than the Old School Corporate IT Departments?

And so its marketing’s responsibility to keep asking those questions, to keep pushing for better segmentation, better targeting, and a better understanding of where we’re getting our information, what we’re doing with it, and what outcome we’re trying to achieve.

Because it might just mean the difference between making a product that two people like versus one that two hundred million people like.

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When sentimentality keeps you from making a good product great

The next iPhone killer

Over the past few days the gadget blogs have been all a-twitter over the new Blackberry Bold 9800. An update to the recently released Bold 9700, the new 9800 features a touchscreen/keypad combo, better resolution, and an all new incarnation of the Blackberry operating system.

Along with the specs, the device comes with the requisite “iPhone killer” rhetoric. Will the new Blackberry be RIM’s salvation? Will it put Apple out of business? Will it be the new standard against which we compare every smartphone to come to market?

I’m not sure, but I’d be willing to bet that it won’t. The reason? Because RIM is just too sentimental.

Consistency at all costs

Blackberry, in an effort to provide consistency for their users, has elected to keep many of the OS’s historical design elements. Elements that in 2002 (when the first BB smartphone was released) were new and charming but now, only 8 short years later, seem quaint and just a bit dated. As one blog put it, it might be a bit like trying to “… put lipstick on a pig.”

The thing that Apple did well with the iPhone (antenna notwithstanding) is not so much sacrificing the sacred cow as it is ensuring that there are no sacred cows to begin with. Whether it be eliminating the floppy drive on the original iMac, replacing serial and parallel ports with USB, or even eliminating their favorite Firewire ports, Apple has shown again and again that sentimentality for “what was” only gets in the way of good design.

Sacred cows

All too often product design gets mired in the mundane, the list of things that “… we have to have because our existing customer base demands them.” The trick, of course, is to accurately and dispassionately separate the things that the customers want from the things that we want the customers to want, either because they’re things we ourselves want or because there’s a pet project someone doesn’t want to give up. There’s a sacred cow in the room that no one can put out to pasture.

Thar be growth

And as we plan for growth, either through market expansion, adjacencies, or white spaces, we have to continually ask and challenge ourselves on the things that we hold sacred. Its hard to give up on the thing that we created, the thing that we championed, the thing that we’ve come to think of as iconic. The problem is when another product comes along and turns your icon into an anachronism.

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