As a product manager, it’s important to hone the minimum set of activities that allow you to keep a product line moving forward productively. One of the most important core product management skills: the ability to triage unsuccessful products and avoid spending unnecessary effort on products that are destined to be losers.
In my career, I’ve built several products that wound up being completely useless, wasting time upfront in every case, and frequently wasting a ton of time afterwards when we had to unceremoniously mercy-deprecate our failed features. A few common ways that this can happen:
- Your CEO demands that you build a feature that they’re confident will help you win your market.
- A prospect says that they require a new feature, and they promise / pinky-swear that they’re absolutely going to use it.
- Your head of sales or marketing is pressuring you to tackle a new partnership that they think will up-level your product’s perception in the market.
Building bad products is an unforced product management error. You didn’t have to build these products – you chose to do it. By checking on a product’s value well before it launches, you’ll be able to save hundreds of hours of work building, nurturing, and ultimately deprecating a fundamentally unviable product.
In my opinion in today’s age of SaaS products and Zoom meetings there is no excuse to ever ship a high effort feature that entirely flops. When Google builds things that nobody cares about, it’s an inert, victimless crime. When your high growth company commits the sin of building something that nobody gives a crap about, you’re stealing valuable resources from other projects that matter. At a high-growth company with product/market fit, you will always have more good ideas than you can act upon. Everything you build should add value.
Luckily, avoiding worthless products is really easy for SaaS companies. In consumer tech you often need to guess at which products will work and which won’t. But in SaaS, customers pay you for the pleasure of using your product, and you can literally check whether functionality will bring value before you invest significant effort. Here are a few of the most efficient techniques and tactics that you can use:
- Launch products iteratively as you add functionality. Release first to 10 customers, then 50, then 200. If you can’t get meaningful adoption at any stage OR the product isn’t looking vital for an important subset of your customers, cut the feature. You don’t want to support it. Really live the M in MVP – launch minimal offerings and triple down on the ones that work. For example, if you’re considering a new reporting feature, try pulling data out of your data warehouse and “building” the UI in an Excel chart that you show to your customers before you actually write a single line of code. Your minimum viable product may literally not be a product at all.
- Don’t launch a product until you’ve put a prototype in front of a few customers and gotten feedback. Make sure that they say that they’ll find value in it – key questions include things like “how would you use this feature?” “how useful would this feature be on a scale of 1-10?” “how are you solving this problem today?” For the best ideas, customers will usually react very positively and have consistent strong opinions on how they would use the product in real life.
- Even better, try to sell a product before you build it. Get to the point where you have a clickable prototype and put it in front of a few of your customers. See if you can get any of them to say that they would buy it before you build it.
- Put extra scrutiny on features that none of your competitors have built yet. Recognize that your competitors are (usually) smart – if there’s an obvious-seeming feature out there that none of them have built yet there can only be a few reasons why: It’s really hard to build, you have some unique advantage that makes it valuable for your product but not others, it’s really not obvious (ie you have some unique insight), or it’s not useful. If you’re going to build something that nobody else has, be intellectually honest with yourself about why that is.
The steps above are really easy to do – so easy that they may seem useless. I promise that they’re not. If you start to actually run these experiments at the start of new projects, you’ll be able to cut unviable initiatives before anyone gets emotionally attached and does something stupid like finishing them. If you’re a new PM on a team, one of the quickest ways that you can add value is to run these sorts of checks on any in-flight projects to make sure that you aren’t already embarking on a mission to nowhere.
While cutting unneeded features from your roadmap won’t inherently drive your business forward, it delivers significant value fast: and it frees up time for you to find the products that actually will lead you to the promised land. Don’t delay – cut your worthless projects now.