Love the problem

Product managers often place the cart before the horse. We love to think about the product, the features, how “cool” the UI is, and how we can make the product better.

Steve Ballmer was once quoted saying, “The lifeblood of our business is that R&D spend. There’s nothing that flows through a pipe or down a wire or anything else. We have to continuously create new innovation that lets people do something they didn’t think they could do the day before.”

But, when it comes right down to it, your product is the third most important thing you should be worrying about.

Yes, you read that correctly. There are two much more important things than your product you should focus on if you want your company to be successful.

The second most important is how you go to market. It’s more important to have a good go-to-market plan than to have a good product. It may be a bit shocking, but it’s true. There’s an old adage, “build a better mousetrap and the world will beat a path to your door.” I believe the mousetrap with the better go-to-market process will beat the “better mousetrap” if the better mousetrap has a terrible go to market plan.

Well, most of us don’t want a mousetrap anyway. Fine—that brings us to the most important thing in product management—the market problem your product is solving. This is more important than your go-to-market plan, and far more important than the product itself.

On the other hand, if it’s a big market problem, if it’s very important to the market, and your product does an adequate job of solving it—especially if no other competitor does it any better—then your product has a much higher chance of success…especially if you have a good go-to-market process.

In fact, the market problem is so important, there are many products that aren’t very good based purely on the product attributes like look and feel, features and effectiveness, but that nonetheless are hugely successful.

My favorite examples are:
• Product A. There’s a $24.6 billion industry (source) in the U.S. for products that, according to science, won’t kill you but also don’t have any measureable benefits.
• Product B. More than 60 million people a month in the U.S. (source) use this product that is incredibly unpolished, has no fancy bells or whistles, and remains essentially unchanged since its release more than 15 years ago. The company is wildly successful in terms of revenue and profits, and the mere existence of this product has put several industries on the ropes.

Do you know what these products are?

Product A is the vitamins and dietary supplement market. The latest science, and all that preceded it, finds the use of vitamins and supplements has zero effect on longevity or morbidity. But people are so interested in extending life (death being one of the biggest problems we face) that they will spend nearly anything to gain a small, or non-existent, benefit. (Note: This market is about five times bigger than the painkiller market in the U.S. Headaches are not as big a problem for people as death.)

Product B is Craigslist. It has had essentially the same interface for more than a decade, but has nearly put the newspaper industry out of business. The problem of getting rid of our old surplus of stuff has been with us for the entire history of stuff, and it will probably always be with us.

These examples clearly illustrate how the market problem you’re solving is much more important than the product you’re selling.

Now, I’m not recommending you create a bad product that doesn’t work well or look good. But I am advising that you find a market problem that’s important and ensure your product solves that problem.

• If your product doesn’t solve a market problem, it won’t be successful.
• The more important the market problem your product solves, the less polished your product has to be.
• People will buy a product they think solves a big problem, even if it doesn’t. (Not recommended, but it demonstrates the power of the market problem.)

Do you tend to love the product more than the problem? Do you think you should? Let us know in the comments below.