4 Steps to New Product Success: Tech Leaders Discuss Keys to Launching the Next iPhone, Tesla & AWS

Philip Levinson, Contributor

What are the greatest high-tech products and services ever launched? Apple’s iPhone? Tesla Model S? Amazon Web Services? Adobe PhotoshopWindows XP? How about the groundbreaking Netscape Navigator?

This past year, Silicon Valley technology product leaders launched a Product Leader Summit series hosted by Spero Ventures and sponsored by The Omidyar Network, Women in Product et al. to discuss the keys to developing innovative tech products like these. The participants discussed the key principles for tech product managers to follow in developing new products and services.

Will your company’s new product be the next Amazon Web Services success? Or the next Amazon Fire Phone disappointment? Product Summit leaders focused on four product management principles as fundamental to success:

  1. Assemble a High-Performing & Empowered Product Team

The first step to new product success is assembling a high-performing product team that is fully empowered, according to HBS alum and Spero Ventures Partner Ha Nguyen (MBA ‘00).

“You want the product team to be very empowered to make the decisions,” says Nguyen. “If you’re simply giving your product team a list of projects or roadmap, you’re doing it all wrong.”

Nguyen adds that high-performing teams should have key members in specific roles, including a product manager, designer and engineer – and that it is critical they are co-located to enhance their collaborative work. “When I say sitting together, it doesn’t simply mean that you’re in the same building,” she says. “You want them to be co-located. Together.”

She also adds that these teams need to be focused on results, not simply steps and tasks. “You want to allow teams to make decisions based on the data and on outcomes,” Nguyen says. “Give the product organization a set of KPIs or objectives and then allow them to work through a process of customer discovery, product discovery and product validation.”

  1. Identify Your Target Customer & Their Underserved Needs

With your product team assembled, how do you ensure you are focusing on the right goals?

Dan Olsen, author of The Lean Product Playbook and host of the Lean Product & Lean UX Meetup, emphasized the importance of putting target customers and their specific needs at the center of the product development process. He outlined how target markets should be defined:

“You define your target customer by capturing all of the relevant customer attributes,” he says. “These attributes can be demographic, psychographic, behavioral or based on needs.”

The latter – needs-based segmentation – is critical, because target customer segments may wish to buy the same product for very different reasons. Olsen also discussed how to prioritize opportunities and identify which underserved needs to target by using what he calls “The Importance vs. Satisfaction framework.” He encourages companies to think about the degree of importance their target customers place on the solution they’re developing as well as on customers’ satisfaction today with current solutions.

Olsen points to the growth of ride-sharing services such as Uber and Lyft as stemming from successfully addressing multiple important but underserved needs, including convenience, affordability and reliability. He adds, “Customer needs in [this] quadrant… offer excellent opportunities to create customer value.”

  1. Avoid Overkill by Building a Wedge First

With target customers and needs in your crosshairs, Box co-founder and CEO Aaron Levie adds some parameters to the focusing process by emphasizing the importance of starting simple.

“You see a lot of early-stage products that are insanely feature-rich,” he says. “They will never be disruptive, because you’re trying to be more comprehensive than the incumbent as opposed to simpler and just focusing.”

Levie’s advice to product teams at emerging companies is for them to ask themselves, “Is there a better way to create a wedge into a user base that you can then expand from?”

He points to his own example with Box, which focused on simple and secure file-sharing for enterprises as a wedge against feature-rich Microsoft SharePoint at just the time that file-sharing across users and devices was becoming exponentially more important. He says companies and teams need to be disciplined in their focus because feature creep and feature requests “can truly wear down your entire product or engineering organization if you don’t think about these properly.”

How do teams balance and prioritize external requests and needs with the need to focus?

These are “moments of truth,” explains Levie. “You really have to be insanely clear in your North Star and have the discipline to either say no to those things or find a way to get the customer to feel like they are getting what they want without altering your strategy.” 

  1. Persevere Through the Valley of Despair

With your team, your target customers and needs, and your focused strategy in place, everything should progress steadily, right?

Wrong, says Deb Liu, Facebook’s Vice President of Marketplace.

“You always hear these product stories that are like lightning in a bottle,” she says. “But that’s not how most products are built.”

Liu discusses the frustrating stops and restarts that are required to develop and manage successful products. She describes the initial post-launch struggle and iteration process as the “valley of despair.”

At these junctures, she says product teams must decide if they have the wherewithal to persevere. “This is the test of a great product manager.”

Specifically, Liu describes the arduous process of launching Facebook’s mobile app install ad product in 2012 after several disappointing pilots as a test of will and persistence. She says, “We knew nothing about ads. None of us had ever worked on mobile, and we said, ‘You know what? We’re just going to figure this out together.’ And we did. Each time we had a challenge, we sat in that room and we puzzled it out.”

Liu’s team succeeded in piecing the mobile app install product puzzle together to the tune of hundreds of millions of installs and a run rate of hundreds of millions of dollars per year within two years. Her team’s tenacity paid off.

Facebook’s Current Challenges

Now, with Facebook facing major challenges resulting from data privacy issues and breaches, the company as a whole is facing an entirely new “valley of despair.” How the company’s leaders respond, along with the new services and features they launch to protect end-users, should prove to be an even greater case study for product leaders.

So, as we watch and learn from Facebook’s ongoing ordeal, product leaders can benefit from other examples by checking out the speaker presentations for the 2017 and 2018 Product Leader Summits. Or you can pick up a copy of Olsen’s Lean Product book – available on Amazon, of course.

Philip Levinson was in the HKS graduating class of 2012. He is Vice President of Marketing at VC-backed EdCast with enterprise customers that include HPE, Walmart, Schneider Electric, Accenture and others. His previous articles for The Harbus include pieces on Cloudflare, Rent the Runway, ThredUp and Zumper. Follow him on Twitter @plevinson.