Hitting the Product Sweet Spot

Getting a product out the door requires a tremendous amount of time, money and effort. There’s nothing worse than going through all that and then have little to no market adoption.

Unfortunately, there is no crystal ball when it comes to getting your product right. But there are a number of strategies at your disposal.

Imagine you are standing in a room where the other end of the room is pitch dark. Now also imagine there is a dartboard somewhere in the dark part of the room. This is a simple analogy to building products and hitting the illusive market bullseye. Each dart is costly. What are your options?

You could build one dart and hope to get lucky. Or, rather than building one expensive dart (I suppose darts have different aerodynamic properties based on shape and materials used), you could build a whole bunch of low cost darts and hope one of them hits the sweet spot.

You could do market research, but that’s like asking people who’ve wandered about in the darkness where they think the dartboard is.

Alternatively, you could do what the Lean Startup movement is all about: You build several low cost darts that have a light on each. And each time it lands in the dark side of the room, it illuminates a part of the wall so within a few darts, you can see the dartboard. If you’re having trouble with this analogy, the light on the dart is what user data analytics is all about and Google and many other companies take this approach.

Lastly, you could do what Apple does. You turn off the lights in your side of the room, drop some acid, put on some Dylan and wait till your eyes adjust to the darkness and are able to see the outline of the dartboard :). Few companies have mastered being able to see into the dark like Apple has.

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My Core Coding Principles

Over the years, I have worked on and lead several development teams. The following core principles have helped guide me.

  1. Prime directive:  Let no one have cause to alter your code
  2. When meeting your manager/team lead/peer, be as prepared to tell them what you should be working on as they are
  3. If you spot bad or faulty code, find the person responsible and have them fix it or fix it yourself. Never scroll past bad code and think it’s someone else’s problem
  4. It doesn’t matter if some other part of the program is broken – if it’s broken, your product is broken and you are at cause. Take it personally
  5. Do not let your code cause other people’s code to break. Test, document and communicate
  6. Do not write code that, when you come back to months later, requires you to have to re-learn your thought process. Make your code self-evident. Otherwise, document/comment in detail
  7. Pay attention to what my change above or below your code in the architecture stack and code defensively – wherever possible, have code break at compile time instead of runtime
  8. Quality of code beats quantity of code any day. Bugs are a bigger measure of your skill level than late delivery
  9. If you have a gut feel that what you are coding is not good code/design. Stop and ask for a second opinion from a peer. Talk it out – never rush to completion
  10. Take effort to make your team aware of what areas of the product you are working on and what outcomes they can expect from your work instead of simply reporting timesheets
  11. Always be learning – share cool new concepts that you come across
  12. Take ownership of the product’s success even if someone else’s way of doing things prevails. It is after all, the sum of all our efforts

I hope they serve you as well. You may also wish to write down your own and share them with your team. Nothing is static in our ever changing field. I intend to review and update these from time to time.

Brainify Sneak-Peek

Project team

I had the pleasure of presenting Brainify to a select group of attendees at the Sauder School of Business BAMA 513 (eMarketing) tradeshow. During this sneak peek, most of the conversation with the 50 or so attendees was about what Brainify could do for them. While we did not go into the specifics of the application, one thing was clear – everyone wanted to get their hands on the application. We got that message loud and clear and the engineering team at Brainify continues to endeavour to launch as soon as possible. Thank you all for your attendance, encouragement and feedback.

“The Strategy Paradox” by Michael Raynor – a brief review

Michael Porter, of the Porter’s-Five-Forces fame, is a leading authority on competitive strategy. Based on his writings, firms pursue one or at most, two of three key competitive strategies:

  • Quality Leadership
  • Cost Leadership
  • Service Leadership

Competitive strategy forms the basis of how marketers position their products and brands in the marketplace. Those of you who are familiar with brands like Nordstrom’s, Disney and Wal-Mart would also recognize their respective marketing messages, namely: Service Leadership, Quality Leadership and Cost Leadership.

In the book “The Strategy Paradox”, Michael Raynor challenges these long standing approaches to strategy. His analysis shows that the companies that adopt these strategies (perhaps inadvertently) expose themselves to extraordinary risk in the face of universal uncertainty. While there are many more ventures that fail, the companies that do succeed not only attain a dominant position amongst investors and consumers but also become the basis of what defines successful strategies. Unfortunately, these decision making processes do not clearly take into account the risks taken by these firms.

To illustrate his point, the author asserts that in order to connect with customers, the firm has to capture its value through a strategy that is challenging for competitors to imitate. This “must commit” mentality forces the firm to leverage its assets and capabilities towards this end. While this approach results in capabilities that are difficult for competitors to imitate, it forces the firm to commit to capabilities in the face of uncertainty. He further observes that the longer the time horizon of the commitment, the greater the degree of uncertainty faced. If the commitments happen to be the wrong commitments, it is often non-trivial to make corrections and may result in lost opportunity or outright failure. It is this impetus to commit in the face of uncertainty that exposes the firm to risk. He calls this “The Strategy Paradox”. In his book, Michael Raynor takes a risk adjusted approach to strategy versus the survivorship bias that currently permeates business analysis and literature.

The author builds his case by combining historical data with specific cases to craft his message that failures are not just a clear cut case of bad strategy but usually “great strategy coupled with bad luck”. One such case is the infamous VHS versus Betamax format wars between Sony and Matsushita. In this example, he shows how most analysis of Sony’s failure and Matsushita’s complete dominance is largely polluted by hindsight. Attempts to determine best practices based on this approach is therefore inherently flawed in that it does not really provide today’s manager the tools to make decisions in the face for market uncertainly (which is something we wrestle with everyday). In this case, Sony managers naturally utilized existing core competencies and capabilities that it had used in developing highly successful products such as the Sony Walkman to the video standard battle. Michael Raynor demonstrates that Sony carried out detailed analysis of the situation and made sound decisions at each step of the way. It was therefore not the lack of attention or execution that was the cause of Sony’s ultimate failure. In this case, Michael sites Sony’s commitment to video quality over VHS’s longer recording time was a key difference between the competing standards. Both Sony and Matsushita made this decision in the face of market uncertainty and not because they possessed any special information or magic crystal ball. Sony’s decision was of course rooted in the very core value (quality) that had made it a success story. When it ultimately became evident which way the market was leaning, a series of missteps by Sony to re-position its product sealed Betamax’s fate to that which we know of today.

Given that market uncertainties are a reality of life, is it then merely a matter of luck or is there a rational approach that managers can prescribe to in order to tilt the game in our favour? Students of portfolio theory learn of numerous mathematical tools that, in the hands of a skilled manager, can result in better returns then those left to chance alone. These tools typically rely on statistical factors (e.g. uncorrelated returns) to eliminate idiosyncratic risk to achieve their ends. While the concepts of portfolio theory apply here, the practice is quite different since strategic managers do not have the option to really mix and match decisions like one does stocks and derivatives. Instead, the important aspect that managers have to understand is that locking in decisions in the face of uncertainty exposes the firm to both the upsides as well as the downsides. In the book, Michael Raynor, goes through numerous frameworks for how managers could characterize the nature of the uncertainty they are dealing with and how they can borrow from the world of financial derivatives in their decision-making. For instance, managers could defer commitments to a later time while continuing to invest in core initiatives that maximize the options for the firm when there is better information. This is very much akin to how derivatives such as options work – an essential element of this tool is the leverage gained by the firm by investing in core initiatives versus the outright commitment to one particular outcome. All the tools laid out in the book are beyond the scope of this article however, here are some of the realizations that I got from this reading that I would like to share with you. Wherever possible, managers, when faced with long term strategic decisions should:

  1. Understand that uncertainly is the basis of opportunity – it’s not a bad thing
  2. Appreciate that the time horizon of uncertainty is related to risk
  3. Devise experiments to determine the nature of the uncertainty
  4. Maintain an adaptive stance (i.e. do not commit) while significant assumptions remain untested
  5. Maintain investments in core initiatives that maximize the future options that the firm can exercise
  6. Understand that there needs to be significant leverage in the options, otherwise, you might as well have invested in the final decision
  7. Match the pace of organizational change to the pace of environmental change

Regardless of whether you agree with Michael’s assertions, his book is incredibly thought provoking and an excellent addition to any strategic manager’s business book collection.

Brainify – Why it is so important

In Murray Goldberg’s blog, he outlines his reasons for why Brainify, his latest venture, is so important for the higher education community. As the Architect of the Brainify Web 2.0 application and underlying engine, I have my own reasons for being involved in this project. I would like to share one of these with you today.

I have spent close to twelve years of my adult life in higher education: seven years as an undergrad and five years now as a graduate student. It just so happens that the eight year period in between my undergrad and graduate years is when the Internet really took flight (1998 – 2004). Upon returning to school, like many of you who have done the same, I saw a marked difference in the use of the Internet when compared to my undergrad years. Apart from the numerous academic resources now available electronically to students through their educational institutions, there are numerous resources available by third parties.

While content from third parties has always been available to students, typically, this content was reviewed by the faculty through a peer review process prior to distribution to students. Professors typically judge the credibility of an academic paper based on the credibility of the citations therein.

The Internet has revolutionized publishing – anyone can now publish original content to a worldwide audience easily and cheaply. It is this ease of publishing that has made the Internet the “wild west” of opinions. It is therefore not surprising that there is a great deal of questionable content out there.

In many ways, the Internet is the last bastion for freedom of the press (see Democracy Now) and this is a great thing for the citizens of the world. However, we still live in a time where individuals are subject to personal biases and anthropomorphic tendencies and not the pure pursuit of knowledge and truth. I recognize that this is not always malicious and we will likely never outgrow it. Brainify is an attempt at introducing the peer review process of traditional content onto the vast knowledgebase on the net. Brainify’s success is very much up to those of you who participate. We certainly hope that you choose to do so.