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


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!

12 Habits of Successful Product Managers

I’m a huge fan of Dolly Parton for so many reasons. She once said “If you don’t like the road you’re on, start paving another one.”

Are YOU happy with the road that you’re on? Do you wish you could be on a different road? Or maybe you would just like to get from point A to B as quickly as possible?

The start of the new year is a time when great product managers reflect on which habits to strengthen and build to ensure they are on the road to success.

In addition to my own experience of being in the PM trenches for over 20 years, as well as observing and talking with other product managers, I’ve compiled a list of the best habits for product managers to help you kick start 2020 and set yourself up for success.

Identify the day’s non-negotiables

Whether you do this the night before or the morning of, spend a few minutes each day prioritizing and selecting a small number of ‘must dos’ and organize your day to ensure you get those items checked off your to-do list. This is key to making time for things that often get shoved to the back burner, such as talking to customers or reaching out to that one stakeholder you’ve been meaning to have a better relationship with. Speaking of which…

Schedule regular check-ins

As a product manager, you are the glue that connects the people inside your company. Make it a priority to check in on a regular basis to build and strengthen relationships with your stakeholders, team mates, and peers. And don’t forget your remote colleagues. With so many of us working remotely these days, it’s often even more critical to make a concerted effort to stay connected with the people you don’t see in the office. One product manager suggested doing virtual coffee or happy hours as a way to socialize informally.

Timebox critical activities and commit to them

Here are some of the ways product managers use this technique:

  • Add buffer time before and after workshops or other heavy meetings to prep and debrief with ease
  • Block out a day every other week for research
  • Write reflections weekly. This helps track what you’re doing well, where you need help, the accomplishments you’ve achieved (big and small) and definitely comes in handy during performance reviews and job interviews.
  • Reading relevant articles online. Staying on top of industry trends is a must for product managers so block out a little time to do this every day, if possible.
  • Goal Setting. Something I realized about myself last year is if I set my goals, in writing and especially attached to a challenge attached to it, I am more determined to get it done. I am taking that lesson with me to this year, in hopes of being more productive.

Tame the email and Slack two-headed beast

Product managers are flooded with communications 24/7. With the rise in Slack usage, email communication seems to be less of a problem for some of us, however, it’s still a problem that can distract even the most focused product manager from doing more focused product work.

To tame the two-headed beast, try these pro tips:

  • Keep your email and Slack apps closed and only check them during pre-scheduled, batch sessions. During these batch sessions, respond to messages that require immediate action first. Then use whatever remaining time you have to get organized.
  • Turn on automatic responses when you’re doing focused work. You can do this for both email and Slack. Here’s the message I use for my email account: “Hi, there. Thanks for contacting me. I check my email twice each day so that I can focus on my clients and give them my full attention. As a result, you may experience a delayed response of a few hours. Thanks for understanding and have a wonderful day!”

    In Slack, you can do this by setting a custom status. Many people use this feature when they’re out of office or on vacation, but you, my masterful product manager wizard, can leverage this for those times when you need to concentrate and focus on deep product work.

  • Get to inbox zero every day. If you can’t get to inbox zero, at least organize your inbox, moving messages into folders so that your inbox contains no more than 25 messages that require your attention.
  • Reduce the noise of Slack by switching to the compact theme and use notification settings to mute all but the most important channels and DMs.

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5 Things Product Managers Should Be Thankful For this Thanksgiving

Expressing gratitude every day is a key to being healthy and happy. It’s a practice that product managers, in particular, should practice. Too often, we PMs can be overly critical about our products, our companies, and ourselves. It’s only natural… we’re expected to analyze everything and come up with ways to improve things. It’s hard to switch that part of our brain off.

Today, as many of us in the U.S. prepare to spend Thanksgiving with their friends and family, it’s a great time to reflect on the past year and be thankful for all of the wonderful moments and opportunities we’ve experienced. Here is my list of 5 things product managers should be thankful for this year. This is by no means a thorough list, but merely the things that came to mind as I reflected on my own experiences. I would love to hear what YOU are most thankful for in the comments below.

1. Your Product

As I mentioned earlier, product managers tend to be a very critical bunch of people. Let’s face it… our job is to analyze what’s working and what’s not working and then focus on making the things that aren’t working better. 

Take time to celebrate the successes you’ve achieved with your products this year. How have you added value to your products? Make a list of the big improvements that you’ve delivered to your customers. Commit to keeping a “ta da” list in addition to your to-do list so that you can look back at your wins and successes on a regular basis. You can also use this when it comes time to do your performance reviews or update your resume. 

2. Your Boss

Managers tend to get little appreciation from their staff so why not use this time of year to let them know what they’ve been doing well from your perspective. Think about the things you have learned from your manager. Perhaps they’ve helped you become more strategic? Have they taught you to be more diplomatic? Even if your boss has room for improvement, come up with at least one positive thing you can thank them for and share that with them in your next one-on-one. Not having one-on-ones with your manager? Make that one of your New Year’s Resolutions! 

3. Your Support and Customer Success teams

This one is a no-brainer, but without  your support and customer success teams, where would you be? While product managers are known for best understanding the needs of their customers, the “voice of the customer” typically is coming in loud and clear via these support teams. They are on the front lines talking to customers all day long. They are helping your customers troubleshoot how to use your product. They are convincing customers not to abandon your product. Give them some love this Thanksgiving (and perhaps bring them some baked goodies as a special treat!)

4. Your Network

I belong to several product management communities in Slack and Facebook. The benefits of these groups are that I can connect, chat and learn from thousands of product people all over the world. I am particularly thankful to Women in Product for being so engaging and supportive. I’m also thankful Linked In makes it so easy to stay in touch with my personal network. 

If you’re not actively connecting with your product management peers, commit to attending at least one networking event each month. And check out the great online resources in my article about networking: 50,000 Product Managers are waiting to connect with you!

5. Your Career

Product management is one of the hardest careers to break into. According to a survey by Alpha software, only 11% of product managers began their career in product management. That means the VAST majority were in another role before becoming a product manager. If you are already a product manager, be thankful for being in a role that is in high demand! Show your career some love by spending time to update your resume and Linked In profile (even if you’re not actively looking for a new job). 

If you’re among those looking to break into product management, be thankful for all of the resources available to you that can help you improve your chances of landing your dream job. And make 2020 the year you do just that! In fact, I’ve just opened registration for the Launch Your PM Career Seminar. It’s a 5-week, step-by-step program designed to help you land your dream job. Sign up today!

This post wouldn’t be complete without thanking you, my readers, for taking time out of your busy day to read my articles about product management. I love helping people who love creating products and I am so thankful I am following my passion for helping people grow and accelerate their careers as product managers.

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