My Product Failed. Now What?

Your product failed, and now you’re wondering what to do. First things first: Don’t panic. (Unless your executive team is walking toward your desk. Then, yeah, panic.)

Okay. Now that you’ve gotten your breathing under control and you’re talking instead of shouting, the first thing to do is step back, take a wider view of the situation, and ask yourself if your product has actually failed. The problem, as you’ll see, often lies elsewhere.

There are plenty of possible reasons why, when your product met the market, its performance didn’t live up to your expectations, or the expectations of your executives, or your investors, or your customers. So before you get all emotional — and either defend your product to the death, or write it off as a total bust — you should first find the answers to some important questions.

Learn the Anatomy of a Product Launch ➜

5 Questions to Ask Yourself After a Disappointing Product Launch

1. Have I appropriately defined success (and failure)?

Product managers often define success in very specific terms, with their product hitting certain metrics in a set timeframe — say, reaching $6.5 million in sales in the first 18 months, or signing 500 corporate customers within a year after GA release.

Generally speaking, such estimates are okay and even desirable to set beforehand. They give everyone on the team a benchmark, something to aim for, and a guideline along the way for determining if their product is performing according to plan.

But you need to remember that these were all just estimates. You had no way of defending the notion that $6.5 million would constitute a success while, say, $5.4 million would be a big fat failure.

It’s worth revisiting your actual criteria for what you and your team would deem a success or a failure, and maybe cutting yourselves and the product a little slack.

2. Did I overestimate the size of the product’s total addressable market?

Again, you might want to revisit your initial assumptions and your initial research.

You might find, for example, that in those wildly optimistic early days of your product’s journey — back when everyone was excited and coming up with cool feature ideas and brilliant taglines — you simply let your enthusiasm for the product spill over to your estimates of just how many of your customers would also find the product insanely awesome.

And perhaps in your new calm and objective frame of mind (assuming you actually stopped shouting like I suggested earlier), you’ll realize that your product has a smaller total addressable market than you assumed early on.

Now, assuming your product isn’t actually some extremely niche offering, and that it still has something approaching the addressable market you originally estimated, perhaps the answer now is just to readjust your definition of success.

In other words, you don’t have to write this product off because it can’t generate the unrealistic amount of revenue you predicted back when it was in development. Even if its numbers are smaller, you might still be able to enjoy some real success — some redefined success — with it.

3. Is the problem really with our pricing — and not the product itself?

Here’s a mistake that can sink an otherwise viable and even terrific product, because the friction created by the high price-point is enough to turn off prospects who would have bought the product and even become its raving fans.

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“Ask yourself: Is the problem really with our pricing — and not the product itself?”

This is another key piece of intelligence you’ll want to gather as you investigate why your product isn’t performing the way you expected. It might just be that it’s priced unattractively for the customer persona you were counting on.

4. Is the problem actually with our messaging and value prop — and again, not the product itself?

Perhaps you and your team have built an outstanding product that offers tremendous value to your customer personas — but your marketing team has sent your sales team out to sell it using a second-tier set of value propositions.

And yet again, we have a situation where your product didn’t fail so much as the infrastructure built up to support that product in the market is failing.

So here you’ll need to do your research and learn whether or not your sales force, and the marketing materials they’re using, are clearly and cogently making the case for why your customers will be better off if they use your product.

5. Are we actually getting negative feedback — both from the prospects who examined the product but chose not to buy and from the customers who actually bought it?

This will probably be the most difficult information to look for, because you might not like the answers. If your product has fallen short of your customers’ expectations, or using it is disappointing them in some way, then you might have reason to say that your product itself has indeed failed.

But even here there is good news. Because if you are truly listening to your customers — again, without emotion, which can only make matters worse — you might uncover the answers to making the next version of your product the success you were hoping this one would be. Hey, you were always going to update the product anyway, right?

Okay, So Your Product Did ‘Fail.’ Now What?

Let’s now assume you’ve run through all of those questions above and determined that the problem actually lies with number 5: You are, in fact, hearing from customers and prospects that the product let them down. So the issue is with the product itself, not with ancillary matters like its price point or messaging. Your product has, in fact, failed — at least for now. What do you do next?

First, you’ll need to kill the self-doubt, silence any emotion-based doubts you’re now having about your team, and get to work. Here are the steps I’d suggest you take.

1. Accept the failure.

Failure is part of every endeavor, every innovation, every business. Everyone fails. Apple failed. Google failed. Amazon failed. (And if your executive team doesn’t cut you any slack, show them those links.)

Tweet This:
“Failure is part of every endeavor, every innovation, every business. Everyone fails.”

Remember, you need to keep your emotion out of the work you’ll have to do now to bounce back from this. So accept that this product release missed the mark — like a zillion other product releases from a million other companies — and move on.

2. Diagnose the problem.

Now it’s time to go on a listening tour. Talk to your sales force. Talk to your customer support reps. Talk to your users. And if possible, get your sales team to put you in touch with some of the prospects they pitched but who ultimately said no.

Look for a theme in the feedback.

You might find that the problem is a relatively easy fix — maybe the functionality that’s most useful or crucial to your users’ workflow is buried too deep in the tool, or it’s otherwise just too difficult to use. If that’s the case, then you have the functionality already built — you just need to improve the experience.

Or — and this will suck — you’ll find you’ve missed some important functionality. Now you’ve got a bigger problem, a fix that is going to require more time and more resources.

Still, though, at least now you have identified the specific reasons your product failed. Which means you’re ready for the final step in the process.

3. Start fixing it.

Steve Sasson, the inventor of the digital camera, said that “Failure is a valuable learning opportunity that allows us to be equipped with the knowledge and power to adapt to any situation.”

Now that you have calmly listened to all of the relevant sources and learned where the problems are with your current product, you are ready to chart a new plan, update your product roadmap, and set your team on its new mission to make this product a success.