What is a Greenfield Project?
A greenfield project can describe any project that a team starts from scratch. The term comes from real estate, where it conveys the image of a literal green-field site for development, undisturbed by previous construction.
Product managers use greenfield to describe developing a new product, as opposed to enhancing or building on an existing product. We can segment this concept further into two types of new products:
- A product that’s new for the company making it.
- Example: A grocery chain wants to build a mobile ordering app.
- Other grocery retailers have released similar apps to customers, but it will be the first time this company builds one.
- The first product of its kind anywhere.
- Example: An automaker plans to build the world’s first electric-powered car.
- This is a true greenfield project in that the automaker will be starting with no comparable product anywhere to analyze.
Note: When a team builds on existing infrastructure or upgrades an existing product, the industry calls this a brownfield project.
What Does a Greenfield Project Mean in Software Development?
For software companies, a greenfield project refers to kicking off a new app from scratch. That means, for example, that the product team will be starting without things like:
- Earlier versions of the product (or similar products)
- An existing codebase
- A well-defined user or buyer persona
- Feedback from key personas
- Research estimating the product’s total addressable market
- Historical data indicating the most effective selling messages and pricing models
For these reasons, starting a greenfield project will require much more upfront work from the software product team and more coordination across the company.
What Are the Benefits of a Greenfield Project?
Despite the additional work and risk of launching a brand-new project, many teams eagerly seek these opportunities for several reasons.
Note: For the benefits and drawbacks sections below, we will discuss kicking off a greenfield project in terms of creating software.
1. You won’t be constrained by legacy processes.
Building a newer version of an existing product can limit your team’s options. But if you’re working on a greenfield product, you won’t find your team constrained by things such as:
- Coding language
- You’re starting from line 0 of the code, so you can choose what’s best now.
- Project management framework
- If your team has worked on previous product updates using the waterfall method, here’s your chance to start fresh with an agile process.
- Team roles
- Again, if you’ve always used the same breakdown of team assignments for every new release of your existing product, here’s your chance to shake things up. You’re starting from scratch, so this is a great time to redefine some roles and responsibilities.
2. You have a chance to build from the ground up.
Real estate developers appreciate the opportunity to build on a greenfield because it gives them the freedom to define everything as they see fit. The same opportunity holds for a software greenfield project, which is why teams jump at the chance to join these projects.
Developers can see the missed opportunities, clunky code, and other imperfections in the products they’re responsible for maintaining and enhancing. Many of them would be thrilled to work on a new app, helping to write those first lines of code.
3. It’s fun and rewarding to start something from scratch.
Being part of the team kicking off a brand-new software product can be exhilarating. You’re creating something from nothing. You have a chance to bring in new revenue, give your company’s brand a boost, and impact your market.
And if you’ve ever been in a brainstorming session with a product team, you know how much fun that process can be. The brainstorming team members throw out ideas more quickly than anyone can capture them on the whiteboard. The whole team is enthusiastic. The possibilities seem limitless.
Those moments of feeling pure entrepreneurial adrenaline are awesome. And they grow fewer and farther between as your product matures. Can you imagine such an exciting, high-octane brainstorming meeting among the product team overseeing Microsoft Word? That’s why many teams love to work on greenfield projects.
What Are the Drawbacks of a Greenfield Project?
Kicking off a project from the ground up has its downsides as well.
1. Greenfield projects are exhausting.
Overseeing the development and release of any product can be a draining experience, even if you’re only updating your product from version 3.0 to 3.1.
But when you start working on a product from scratch, you’ll need to start everything from scratch. Just a few of the many tasks your team needs to complete include:
- Writing user personas
- Researching your target markets
- Validating your idea
- Building processes for team collaboration and project tracking
- Earning decision-maker approval to proceed with the project
2. Greenfield projects are risky.
If you’re updating or adding functionality to a product on the market, those enhancements probably won’t represent a make-or-break for that product’s future. Worst case scenario? Your new features fail to make a splash with users or bring in additional revenue by attracting new users.
But if you bring a new product from concept through launch—and it fails—that’s a catastrophe. Your company will view the entire investment as a loss. Worse, the misfire will be a public embarrassment that could hurt your company’s brand and credibility.
Remember Microsoft’s first foray into digital music players, the Zune? If you do: ouch, right? And if you don’t, well, that’s the other side of the problem.
And keep in mind, the Zune wasn’t new to the world. The iPod and several other mp3 players were already on the market. Microsoft had the benefit of studying the market trends of those products and learning what customers liked and disliked about them. With a first-of-its-kind solution, finding product-market fit will be even more difficult.
3. Greenfield projects have many unknowns.
When you kick off a greenfield project, your team will be charting new territory. The upside is that anything is possible. But that’s also part of the downside: anything is possible.
Because you’ll be starting from scratch, your new product will take longer to bring to market. During that time, outside forces could undermine your plans. A competitor might launch a similar product before yours is ready. A sudden downturn in the economy or your industry could lessen the chances of the early revenue you were counting on upon launch.
And perhaps the biggest unknown: When your product becomes available, will your user and buyer personas want it?