Does a kick-ass product guarantee success?

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Yesterday I read a post on the StartupCFO blog titled “It’s all about product….” It’s a really insightful post about how a kick-ass product is key to startup success.  Being a product person, I would really, really love to be able to agree with his argument that nailing the product, user experience and value proposition is a recipe for success.

Unfortunately, that has simply not been the case in my personal experience.  I can count at least two products that were done right in every conceivable way – end users loved them, usability was wonderful, all that good stuff.  In both cases the products failed miserably.

The first one didn’t fly because for all the success we had in nailing the needs and wants of the end user, we had failed to meet the needs and wants of the sales channels.  This product ended up fighting for attention with another of our own products which cost 10 times as much.  Needless to say, the channels had to protect their own interests first. They kept right on selling the older, costlier product and ignored the new segment that was supposed to get us exponential growth. The product was taken off the market within 18 months and died an uneventful death.

The second one didn’t fly because the company never quite found a business model that worked.   Once again, we focused too much on the needs and wants of end users and nailed everything we could nail, but we failed to focus on the needs and wants of the buyers (huge global entities that moved to a glacial timescale in comparison to our needs).  Eventually all product development ceased while sales continued valiantly to try and figure out some angle to sell this wonderful, wonderful product that end users loved – up until the day when the company closed its doors.

I agree with the author that nailing the product is crucial to success. But much as it pains me to say this, a kick-ass product is at most half the equation.   Kick-ass execution all the way through the whole value chain is the other half.  Success won’t happen without one or the other.


11 Responses to “Does a kick-ass product guarantee success?”

  1. 1 Jim Holland December 2, 2009 at 10:19 pm

    Elaine, great insight and post. I agree that having a “kick ass product” is a small part of business success. too often, entrepreneurs, technologist and even product managers “fall in love” with their products and fail to look at all of the systems in place and ensure that if one or more moving parts fail, no product will save the company. Let’s hope that the startup leaders, seasoned product teams and those who invest in new opportunities will recognize that execution is what makes it all happen.

    • 2 Elaine Chen December 2, 2009 at 10:28 pm

      @themadpeacock, thanks for sharing this!

      Jim, thanks for the kind words. In my mind product is a crucial part of a very big puzzle that starts with goal setting and alignment from the corporate BHAGS all the way down, then you define various strategies in various functional organizations, and then EVERYONE must execute. Only then, and with some luck, would we succeed.

  2. 3 Isaac Sacolick December 2, 2009 at 10:32 pm

    I actually think, in most situations, startups need to aim for mediocre first products. Kiss principle. Let your customers – and all of them, not just users – tell you where you need to make improvements. Focus on what you need to achieve scale and make the business successful which is not necessary what’s needed (or desired) in a great product.

    • 4 Elaine Chen December 2, 2009 at 10:46 pm

      Isaac, the Kiss principle is great as is the MVP approach for software. If you throw in some hardware inventory, improvements become costly on a whole different scale. So hardware products need to be nailed a bit more for a V1 release. But I agree that one should never overdesign a first product, but should put in just enough features to solve the problems it is designed for.

  3. 5 Erin Schreyer December 2, 2009 at 10:41 pm

    Great post, Elaine. I agree that a great product is NOT the only thing needed. It’s an important piece, for sure, but it’s still only a piece of the entire puzzle that’s needed.

    A product can be perfect, but if there is not effective marketing, communication, sales, distribution…it’s simply not going to be successful. All the pieces need to be working together – end-to-end, just as you suggest. And an unmotivated sales force will almost always be a killer!!

  4. 7 David Locke December 3, 2009 at 12:20 am

    I worked in a company where the sales reps were busy selling the yet to be released version 2.0, instead of the current release, version 1.2. As a result of not making revenues, we were taking on additional investment dollars to make payroll. Version 2.0 kept slipping away, so this was no short-term problem.

    If you are going to get something out the door, just to get it out the door, ensure that your sales force will play this game. Don’t commit beyond the next release. You might also find that existing customers are not serviced as well as a new customer. Look for that.

    Offers tend to include more organizational capabilities as a product matures into the late market. It won’t be about software features for very long. The product manager has to build influence in all “in offer” elements as early as possible, long before those elements get into the offer.

    • 8 Elaine Chen December 3, 2009 at 6:42 am

      David, I’ve seen the vaporware-cannibalizing-sales problem too – nasty! This is why cross functional goal alignment is so important. Best practices for effective governance of various functional disciplines is a topic for another day.

  5. 9 Mark MacLeod December 3, 2009 at 8:40 am

    Hi Elaine,

    Thanks for continuing the discussion on this. As mentioned in my comment back to you – for sure you need more than just a good product. To me though, a solid product foundation establishes a set of values for a company that impacts those other disciplines. Everything is thinking from the same mindset – great experience and value.

    Every single startup success requires an amazing team, good timing, luck, capital. But without a solid product foundation you won’t get full value from those other elements. There is only so much that an A team can do with a C product. We have too many choices as consumers these days. We won’t buy a pig with lipstick on it.


  1. 1 kick-ass product ≠ success | themadpeacock Trackback on December 2, 2009 at 9:27 pm

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