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Why Products Fail and the One Thing Product Managers Can Do to Avoid It

UPDATED AT 12:15 PM PACIFIC TIME, 2/4/20

I had no idea when I wrote this article that I would wake up to the #IowaCaucusDisaster. What a shame the people who developed the app used didn’t have a chance to read this.


I had coffee recently with someone who works in academia and is deeply connected to technology companies. During our chat, I shared some of my observations about technology companies being product-led. When I say product-led in this context, I’m referring to start-up founders having what appears to be a brilliant product idea that they bring to market as opposed to being market-led, by which I mean conducting market validation first, understanding customer needs and then coming up with product ideas.

My colleague was a bit astounded that companies would do this. “Isn’t that backwards?” she asked. I nodded my head vigorously in agreement. I then went on to tell her about how the lack of market need is the number one reason start-ups fail.

According to CB Insights, tackling problems that are interesting to solve rather than those that serve a market need was cited as the number one reason for failure, noted in 42% of cases.

Why should this matter to you as a product manager?

So many founders and product managers seem to struggle with deciding what to build next. Whether it’s a new feature or enhancement or a new product altogether, it’s not uncommon for product leaders to simply go with their gut. This is the danger zone.

If you’re a product manager, that likely means you were hired after your company created and launched its initial product. Just because you step into the role after the fact doesn’t mean it’s too late to avoid failure. Simply ask yourself this simple question.

“When was the last time I talked to a customer about their needs and problems?”

If the answer to that is anything more than a month ago, you should stop what you’re doing now (after you finish reading this article, that is) and block out your calendar to spend at least 2 hours in the next week talking to customers and getting to know their pain points.

It is your responsibility as a product manager to step in and redirect the process so that you are getting feedback from your customers on a regular basis. Talking to your customers should inform your decision-making process.

This is an important step that a lot of product teams overlook. All too often founders and product managers think that they represent their customers. To create the “right” product, you have to understand the needs of your customers. It starts with empathy.

To empathize with your customers, you need to put yourself in their shoes. Get to know them and understand what their challenges and joys are by talking to them.

If you aren’t sure about how to even begin conducting customer interviews, or you just need a confidence booster to help you on your way, here are four steps to help you get started:

  1. Build a list of 25-50 customers based on your target. If possible, include at least ⅓ prospective customers so that you can learn what’s preventing them from using your product.
  2. Target conducting 5 interviews each week based on this initial list. As you talk to people, trends will start to emerge. You can then circle back to people you’ve interviewed previously for follow-up interviews or you can continue to build a list of customers you can schedule for future weeks.
  3. Decide on how you will meet with your customers. If you can visit them in person, that’s the best way. Thankfully, it’s easy to also interview users via video chat tools like Zoom and Google Hangouts.
  4. Repeat the process regularly by interviewing approximately 5 customers each week.

Want even more information about conducting market validation? Check out my in-depth series on product discovery which includes market validation.

If you’d like even more help, sign up for my PM Power Hour. This one-hour call with me will provide you with the clarity you need to move forward. I’ll give you no-nonsense advice that you can put into action immediately. Click here to sign up!

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