Lead on Purpose

Promoting Leadership Principles in Product Management

Understanding your market


Is the discipline of product management relevant outside the sphere of technology products? How big does a company have to grow before it needs a product manager? Do organizations that create products — but do not sell them — need product management? My answers: yes, one and yes respectively.  The following recent experiences illustrate my answers (please pardon my excessive use of first-person narrative):

  • Non-technology: I had a conversation with my brother — a cattle rancher — about a major change he’s considering with his operations. We talked at length about the changes he’s contemplating, why he wants to change and the potential roadblocks he will face. We concluded that before he makes the final decision he needs to understand how the changes will affect his operations and make sure they point toward a viable market. Personal note: My father (also a cattle rancher) spoke often about the importance of “hitting the market.” Even though he sells cattle (a commodity) only a few times a year, he appreciates marketing. Happy birthday Dad!
  • Company size: During a long drive this past weekend my wife and I had a great conversation about a new business she’s considering. She asked me questions like “how will I know there’s anyone to buy the product?” and “how do you find out what people really want?” After miles of engaging conversation I smiled at her and said “honey, you need a product manager.” We talked about what we will do in the next several weeks to gain insight and gather data about this new market she wants to pursue. I told her it’s called “market sensing.” It’s clear to me that no matter the size of your company, you need someone who listens to and understands the market.
  • Non-profit organizations: Groups, institutions and organizations that create products and services for the benefit of others need to understand their markets even if they do not sell their goods. Yesterday I was talking to a good friend of mind about his experience with helping his church. He told me he uses a product management tool to get feedback from others to improve their programs. His service has had a positive effect on his congregation. My church has a significant product management team working on products and services that will never be sold but will have a major impact on millions of people throughout the world. In both instances, understanding the market (though ‘market’ is not necessarily the term they use) is key to their success in improving lives and enriching individuals.

If you are thinking about starting a company — in any industry — you need to understand your market; you need product management. If you desire to improve your company’s success, you need product management. Whether your product is a product, services, solution or other type of offering, you need product management. Whether you call it ‘product management’ or use some other name, you need the discipline instilled in product management. To succeed in an increasingly competitive global economy, you need to understand your market.

The Product Management Perspective: As product managers you already know the importance of what I’ve written here. Help me spread the word!

4 thoughts on “Understanding your market

  1. If every perspective business owner, or senior leader from any company would spend some time, and yes, some CA$H understanding their market, and not “guessing” what the market wants, we’d have less “first-time company” failures, products that connect, and customers that buy with less frustration. And, as the WARNING states; “Don’t try this at home folks — leave it to Product Management to do the heavy lifting.”

  2. There is one time when spending moeny won’t help and that’s when the company positions its product as radical or discontinous. They have to do things very different in that case. That goes beyond doing standard market research, or any of the other elements of the standard “commodity” goods approach.

    They should spend money on trend, futures, and scenario planning instead. They should find a client, and stage-gate that client’s particular vertical using standard market research. This should compensate for the total lack of research on a market that doesn’t yet exist.

  3. @Jim – Spending the time and $$ to understand your markets is critical in any company, but especially in new/startup companies. They need to have a profound knowledge of their markets. Guessing will not work.

    @David – Interesting comment. I’m not sure I understand your thought here; do you mean that (with radical/discontinuous products) instead of spending money on market research they find a similar company and use their results as a basis for planning? This seems risky to me, but perhaps I’m not understanding.

    Thank you both for your comments. -Michael

  4. Micheal, radical innovation is considered risky. It is risky, because most companies do not treat it differently from sustaining innovation. Christensen and Moore outlined approaches that are different to the point that almost no one follows their approaches.

    The reason you can’t spend money to do typical market research is that the market does not exist. You must create it. If you stage-gate the verticals of potential clients for custom applications build around your technology, you have done all the due dillegence you can do.

    You can look at trends and futures, so you can spend money there. I do that as part of my product strategy, but I don’t write code on my dime. I use the Moore approach. I know when we write a client app that that app is going into a vertical to fit a real need. I don’t see the risk.

    The risk is to think that you can get VC money and spend it on a huge marketing effort and hope for traction.

    Technology adoption is a process. You implement that process a market at a time. You do the bowling ally and create eight client visualizations in those eight custom application gigs. Where is the risk? You bootstrap. It takes years. You learn the market learns. You never let your product, market, organization, cost structure, and policy base to get out of alignment.

    Clients reduce risk. Coding your own idea on you own dime is risky, particularly if the underlying idea is discontinuous.

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