The no Product management Product - A Cautionary Tale

When starting a new job as a product manager, you are occasionally handed the reins on a product that has never had ANY product management, whatsoever. There are many reasons for this. In this specific case, it was a hardware technology product that came out of a small startup. My then current company provided some interim funding during the development process, and then about 5 years prior to my hearing about it, they decided to bring it in and commercialize the system. All good so far.

But, as part of the initial folding this small, engineering heavy group into our larger organization, no product management was assigned to this product. Since I wasn’t around at that time, I can’t offer any insight on why this decision was made, but the result is not surprising.

The initial product requirements were about 1/2 of a page of a double-spaced typed sheet of paper. I found it early in my tenure. In summary it said: “Turn the existing prototype into a saleable product. Acknowledge that it is missing functionality. Acknowledge that it is expensive to build (read: we will not meet profitability targets).” Nothing about performance, market segments to target, user experience, projections of sales, how to take on entrenched competition, and the like. Sigh. Naturally, a business case was built, but with such wildly optimistic assumptions, that it is a wonder why finance didn’t drown in their own disbelief. Yet it was approved.

Inheriting messes is part of the parcel for Product Management, although some may be beyond hope. Dive right in and make the best of it

So, the existing package was hammered into a product to launch. About 6 months later, to great fanfare, the product was launched. However, they immediately experienced difficulty in the market. There was a class of less capable (performance wise) systems that were about 1/2 our price. Competition from this sector was fierce, and instantly we were compared to this class of system. Then the smaller systems all added a very important analysis package that we were lacking. Suddenly, they were beating the pants off us in pricing, AND capabilities. Increasingly, our sales funnel came under pressure. Lots of lost orders. You don’t need much of an imagination to see how sales took that.

But, our technical, engineering led organization kept dismissing these real-world issues. “Look at our performance, we beat the pants off the low-cost segment” and other arguments were offered. Basically “you are incompetent for not being successful”.

Oh, and one additional point. While the company is a large, fortune 500 company, they had virtually no market footprint in this space. This class of instruments are dominated by four major players (who between them have better than 80% of the market sown up, making it a difficult market to enter) with about 40 years each in experience in the technology. We were unknown, and struggled to get their name associated with this market.

Fast forward 5 years

Sales are sluggish. The missing capability that all the competition had turns out to be required for over 80% of the deals. Instant lockout. Additionally, the costs are still high (no effort has been made to reduce costs). Out of box quality is awful. Just about every unit sold needs to come back to the factory for repair. Field service is well neigh impossible (need a clean room environment for many/most repairs). And the killer: Software has not changed since the original launch. 5 years with no releases that address the missing features, while our competition has moved to add capability, AND improve the UI/UX with sensible touch interfaces, gesture-based commands, and a suite of automation features that greatly reduce the need to skilled users to get great results.

Sigh. How does this happen? How would Product Management help prevent it?

The primary reason this occurred is that a small, engineering driven organization was brought into another organization, and not given any direction. This freedom was not channeled into product improvements, but instead into their personal research. Complete lack of focus.

The secondary reason is that by quickly turning the prototype into a shipping product, many warts were discovered. There is a big difference in a hand-full of instruments assembled by 4 Ph.D.’s, and transitioning it into a manufacturing organization, staffed by skilled, but not expert technicians. Systems took a lot longer to build, and there was lots of rework on every system built.

Quality of the suppliers was not on the radar of the original design. The principal criteria was performance. But once volumes ramped, significant variability in incoming supplier quality reared its ugly head. Failure rates were high (and some failure modes were unexpected, and quite surprising).

Finally, at (launch + 5 years), an honest assessment of the UX and capabilities shows that they had become even further behind the complete spectrum of competition.

You might be asking “Didn’t you have a roadmap?” Of course, there was a roadmap. There were new designs, new capabilities, and a path to get us to compete well in the marketplace. It was crafted by Sr. Management and the Engineering team. But, without a guiding hand to write specs, requirements, and to guide the efforts, the engineering team continued on their intellectual investigations, and were continuously dragged into production escalations. Roadmaps were revised, dates pushed out, and finally, changed to reflect their preferences. The missing component in this, was any connection to customers, and market needs.

Result: They remained behind the 8 ball, with a product that has profitability issues, missing many usability features, and doesn’t fit into any of the key market segments for the technology.

In all my years or product management/product marketing, this was the most dire state of a product I picked up. I am used to post acquisition blues (“How the %^&* did we EVER lose an order to that POS?!?!?”), and gaps in maturity of processes/products. I understand that startups are a bit loose, and just getting ‘it’ out the door is “the” challenge. But to bring a product and technology in, and let it languish like this for 5 years? Argh.


While I departed that company some years ago, I had tried mightily to get them healthy. Alas, that particular product group, and product was mortally wounded. It was shut down with little fanfare, and apart from knowing that it was mercifully put to rest, I do still think back to how I could have done more to help it.

Photo by: W A T A R I

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Product Manager, physics educated, avid cyclist, dog rescuer, guitar noodler.
San Jose, Callifornia Website
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