As product managers, we all strive to help our products not just survive but also thrive. Product failure is our nightmare. It’s easy to acknowledge some very basic predictors of successful products; they solve real problems for real people, they help support a profitable business, and they’re able to stand the test of time.
Unfortunately, sometimes even the most well-intentioned product managers manage to fall short in one or more of those areas. Countless products throughout history have been laid to rest due to poor decision-making on the behalf of product management. As the cliche goes, “those who do not learn history are doomed to repeat it.” So rather than mourning the deaths of products that once were, let’s look at a some product failure and see how we can avoid making the same mistakes in the future.
Cause of death: Feature bloat.
ICQ was an early messenger tool akin to AOL’s Instant Messenger that initially launched in the mid 90’s. At one point, it was more popular and widely used than AOL’s competing product, but its success was short-lived. ICQ once boasted more than 100 million users, but that number has declined steadily since. Now, once thriving ICQ seems to be a ghost town.
What exactly went wrong, you ask? The team at ICQ was ambitious. They were eager to innovate and release new features as a means to differentiate themselves from the growing array of competitors on the market. What they failed to recognize is that it is indeed possible to have too much of a good thing. As they developed and released feature upon feature, they didn’t see how they were affecting the product as a whole.
By 2001, ICQ’s core messenger product had become so bloated with features that the sheer number of dashboard options available was enough to scare off new and existing users alike. In addition, the product’s core function (chatting) was hindered by all the extra features due to the incredible amount of technical debt ICQ had amassed over time.
What product managers can learn from the death of ICQ:
- Don’t fall into the “shiny object” trap. Prioritize initiatives thoughtfully and carefully align your product roadmap with business objectives. Stay focused on the initiatives that can move the needle most for your business and get used to saying “no,” even when you’re under pressure.
- Understand the impact of each new feature. you give the green light. How will it impact other aspects of the product? Will it contribute to technical debt?
- Get used to killing features. before they kill your product. Maintaining the health and your product’s core functionality always should take priority over the extra bells and whistles. You have to accept that sometimes this means cutting off.
Cause of death: Product failure to keep up.
Founded in the 1980’s, Blockbuster was once America’s most well-known video rental chain. The company had more than 9,000 stores worldwide and employed more than 80,000 people at its height of fame in the early 2000’s, but by the mid 2000’s the company was in serious trouble. After a long and fruitless struggle to stay afloat, Blockbuster filed for bankruptcy protection in 2010 and was forced to shut down for good in 2013.
So what exactly happened to Blockbuster? The answer is pretty straightforward: Blockbuster simply did not keep up with the Joneses. While companies like Netflix emerged with DVD rentals by mail, and early streaming services began to take off, Blockbuster made very few changes to its business model and was not quick to adapt. The market was changing quite fast, yet Blockbuster wasn’t responding quickly enough to changing demands and buying habits. As a result, customers turned to the competition and Blockbuster lost its market share.
What product managers can learn from the death of Blockbuster:
- The world can’t survive in a vacuum, and neither can your product. As such, you must be keenly aware of what is going on outside the confines of your office and be proactive about predicting how world events, emerging technologies, and changing attitudes, will later impact your industry. At a more granular level, stay on top of how large scale changes are already affecting your industry and how the market is responding to these changes.
- Adapt or face extinction. In our rapidly changing world, expect your product roadmap to make many sharp twists and turns. Your product’s journey cannot be set in stone, you must be prepared to pivot and take a completely different direction at a moment’s notice. The road you need to take may not be paved yet, so you’ll have to either settle in for a bumpy ride full of surprises, or risk sitting stagnant in traffic on the main road with the other dinosaurs—and we all know what happened to them.
3. Google Glass
Cause of death: Premature arrival.
Google Glass was a product several years in the making by Google X. The so-called “smart glasses” were launched to a small group of “Glass Explorers” in 2013 before their release to the general public in 2014. The wearables were intended to support “augmented reality” by allowing wearers to access the web, read messages, and record what they were seeing with the glasses’ built-in camera. While initial reactions from early adopters eager to get their hands on the latest and greatest technology were promising, the glasses never quite took off in the way their developers had hoped for. In 2015, Google X announced they were halting production of the Google Glass prototypes.
What killed Google Glass? A few things. First and foremost, society was simply not ready for smart glasses. Aside from the aforementioned group of early adopters who couldn’t wait to get their hands on the new technology, the vast majority of people were uncertain about Google Glass. This was compounded by Google X’s marketing strategy for the product which focused more on how innovative the technology was than on demonstrating its practical use. Marketing did a great job of making the product look “cool,” but not the combination of “cool” and useful that would have incentivized people to drop $1,500 USD on the product.
Perhaps Google Glass could have bought itself more time to get their marketing messages sorted out and to convince the public they could truly benefit from smart glasses, had its “cool” factor not been swiftly wiped out before the glasses were even released to the general public. The glasses’ initial appearances “in the wild” sparked controversy around perceived privacy and security threats tied to their embedded cameras. Tensions ran high due to fear that Google Glass wearers (dubbed “Glass-holes” by the tech media) could be filming them at any time, it wasn’t long until a series of widely-publicized assaults on Google Glass wearers tarnished the product’s reputation.
What product managers can learn from the product failure of Google Glass:
- Look before you leap. Every great product idea starts with a great problem, and a great way to validate whether people are moved enough by that problem to want your solution for it. Whether you’re a startup or large corporation, ongoing market research and user testing are investments you’re too poor not to make. No one is rich enough with the knowledge and perspectives of others to independently determine whether a problem is worth solving, whether the proposed solution is the best one, whether the messaging will be effective, or whether the world is ready for your product.
- Talk to the customers you want, not just the ones you have. When it comes to customer feedback, your sources are important. If you only listen to a small subset of customers, you’ll only get their perspective. Early adopters may be extremely knowledgeable about how your product compares to others and how it fits into the marketplace, but unless they are your target customer you cannot rely solely on their feedback.
“Talk to the customers you want, not just the ones you have. If you only listen to a small subset of customers, you’ll only get their perspective.”
4. Microsoft Zune
Cause of death: Too little, too late.
Initially launched in late 2006, the Zune was Microsoft’s response to the Apple iPod. On paper, Zune may have had a fighting chance to succeed; its design and easy-to-use interface received plenty of praise in early reviews, and it could do everything that the iPod could. However, Zune never captured the market share it needed to survive and in 2011, they discontinued the hardware component of the Zune. A year later, the company also discontinued Zune streaming music services.
Where did Microsoft go wrong with Zune? Not only did Zune arrive late to the party but it also showed up empty-handed. While it was admittedly a well-designed product, Zune’s release more than 5 years after the iPod’s debut meant it would have to truly shake up the market if it wanted to acquire a decent market share. Unfortunately releasing a product that does the same exact things as what’s already out there is not a way to shake things up. Without any innovative technology or extra services to give Microsoft a leg up on the competition, Zune was unable to entice enough iPod users to make the switch to Zune, which ultimately caused its demise.
What product managers can learn from the death of Microsoft Zune:
- The early bird gets the worm… If you’re fast enough to come up with a (decent) idea and get a new, innovative product out in the world, you do start out with some advantages. If you’re early enough ahead of the competition, you can easily establish a stronghold on the market, take advantage of the appeal of being “the first ___ of its kind,” and potentially even lay the foundation of an entire new industry. Innovation at its best, right?
- …but it’s the second mouse that gets the cheese. While being first has its benefits, being second, or third, or even fourth, has a major upside as well: you get to learn from the mistakes and shortcomings of those before you, and seize the opportunity to do it better. If you’re entering a market already saturated with products, you need to think critically about where pieces are missing and how you can differentiate yourself. At the end of the day, it’s only better to be the second mouse than the first bird if you can profit from the missteps of mouse #1.
When we look back at those who have failed before us and dig into the “why” and “how” of their stories, we see that there is no single culprit behind product failure. There are countless things that can kill well-intentioned products, and while we can learn helpful lessons from those who came before us, we also must accept that we don’t know what we don’t know. In times of uncertainty, we can’t expect horror stories of the past to provide all the answers we need about the future. We can only use these precautionary tales as sources of what NOT to do so you don’t have product failure, determining what actually must be done is up to us.