“There’s a gap in the market, but is there a market in the gap?”

As a follow up to last week’s post on business strategy, this week’s theme is product development – in particular, the perennial debate over “product-market fit” that start-up businesses and incumbents both struggle with.

Launch it and they will drink it….. (image sourced from Adelaide Remember When via Facebook)

The link between business strategy and product development is two-fold: first, the business strategy defines what markets you are in (industry sectors, customer segments, geographic locations etc.), and therefore what products and services you offer; second, to engage target customers, you need to provide them with the solutions they want and are willing to pay for.

The “product-market fit” is a core challenge that many start-ups struggle to solve or articulate. A great product concept is worth nothing unless there are customers who want it, in the way that you intend to offer it, and which aligns with your go-to-market strategy.

I appreciate that there is an element of chicken and egg involved in product development – unless you can show customers an actual product it can be difficult to engage them; and unless you can engage them, how can they tell you what they want (assuming they already know the answer to that question)? How often do customers really say, “I didn’t know I needed that until I saw it”? (Mind you, a quick scan across various crowd-funding platforms, or TV shopping channels, can reveal thousands of amazing products you didn’t know you couldn’t live without!) Of course, if your product development team can successfully anticipate unmet or unforeseen needs, then they should be on to a winner every time! In fact, being ahead of the curve, and understanding or even predicting the market direction is a key aspect of business strategy and product development for medium and long-term planning and forecasting.

Then there is the “build it and they will come” strategy. A bold move in most cases, as it involves upfront deployment of capital and resources before a single customer walks through the door. The image above is the only visual record I can find of a soft drink marketed in South Australia during the late 1960s and early 1970s. And you read the label correctly – a chocolate flavoured carbonated beverage (not a chocolate milk or soy concoction). It was introduced when the local manufacturer faced strong competition from international soft drink brands. No doubt it was designed to “corner the market” in a hitherto under-served category and to diversify against the competitor strongholds over other product lines. Likewise, is was launched on the assumption that people like fizzy drinks and people like chocolate, so hey presto, we have a winning combination! It was short-lived, of course, but ironically this was also around the time that soft drink company Schweppes merged with confectionery business Cadbury, and commentators joked that they would launch a chocolate soda, or a fizzy bar of chocolate….

With data analysis and market research, it may be possible to predict likely successes, based on past experience (sales history), customer feedback (solicited and unsolicited) and market scans (what are the social, business and technology trends). But obviously, past performance is no guarantee of future returns. In my early days as a product manager in publishing, we had monthly commissioning committees where we each presented our proposals for front list titles. Financial forecasts for the new products were largely based on sales of relevant back catalogue, and customer surveys. As product managers, we got very good at how to “read” the data, and presenting the facts that best suited our proposals. In fact, the Chairman used to say we were almost too convincing, that it became difficult to second guess our predictions. With limited production capacity, it nevertheless became imperative to prioritise resources and even reject some titles, however “convincing” they seemed.

Then there is the need to have a constant pipeline of new products, to refresh the range, retire under-performing products, and to respond to changing market conditions and tastes. In the heyday of the popular music industry from the 1960s to the late 1990s, the major record labels reckoned they needed to release 20 new song titles for every hit recording. And of course, being able to identify those 20 releases in the first place was a work of art in itself. For many software companies, the pipeline is now based on scheduled releases and regular updates to existing products, including additional features and new enhancements (particularly subscription services).

An important role of product managers is knowing when to retire an existing service, especially in the face of declining or flat sales. Usually, this involves migrating existing customers to a new or improved platform, with the expectation of generating new revenue and/or improving margins. But convincing your colleagues to give up an established product (and potentially upset current customers) can sometimes be challenging, leading to reluctance, uncertainty and indecision. In a previous role, I was tasked with retiring a long-established product, and move the existing clients to a better (but more expensive) platform. Despite the naysayers, our team managed to retire the legacy product (resulting in substantial cost savings), and although some clients chose not to migrate, the overall revenue (and margin) increased.

Finally, reduced costs of technology and the abundance of data analytics means it should be easier to market test new prototypes, running proofs-of-concept or A/B testing different business models. But what that can mean for some start-ups is that they end up trying to replicate a winning formula, simply in order to capture market share (and therefore raise capital), and in pursuit of customers, they sacrifice revenue and profit.

Next week: Who fact-checks the fact-checkers?




“I’m reframing, the situation….”

As a break from my consulting and business development work, I have been taking lessons on picture framing. My significant other is an artist, and she has commissioned me to mount and frame a number of her works for a forthcoming exhibition. Things got off to an interesting start, when I inadvertently framed the first print the “wrong” way round (see the image below). Because there wasn’t an obvious top or bottom, I didn’t realise that I hadn’t placed the image in the way she intended. But, luckily, this “error” created a fresh perspective, and I realised that I was simply doing what I do all with the time with my clients when I reframe the information, problems or situations they present.

"Eclipse" (© Margaret Manchee)

“Eclipse” (© Margaret Manchee)

Some recent examples of where I have helped my various clients to reframe a situation and make a breakthrough when they have become stuck or blocked in their own thinking include:

  • shifting from a “retail” sales model to a “wholesale” strategy that focuses on aggregators and distributors;
  • treating an employer as just one part of a mixed portfolio of clients, rather than thinking that the regular job was a barrier to acquiring more direct clients;
  • refining the sales process to avoid giving away too much proprietary information during the RFP process, but still demonstrating value by delivering the best solution in terms of quality and technical capabilities;
  • repositioning the business to leverage proprietary data and analytics to build long-term revenue streams via commercial relationships and partnerships, rather than competing for increasingly price-sensitive, commoditized and transactional work;
  • adopting a more client-centred approach when designing a new on-line product that hitherto had been viewed internally as simply a technology-driven service extension;
  • using a service-design model for developing and delivering a communication strategy that needs to engage multiple stakeholders who simply want to know “what’s in it for me?”

Another useful insight that my picture framing has given me is the use of complementary and contrasting mount boards and mouldings to emphasise certain colours, to bring out highlights, to add depth and perspective, or to the give the illusion of infinite space and/or possibilities. Again, all things which I bring to the discussions I have with my clients.

Next week: FinTech Melbourne’s latest pitch event

Who needs banks? My experience of “We R One World”

This past weekend, I participated in the “We R One World” game hosted by Carolyn Tate on behalf of the Slow School of Business, and facilitated by Ron Laurie from MetaIntegral. The game is an immersive learning experience in the form of a simulated global strategy workshop, based on the work of Buckminster Fuller. I joined a team whose role was to represent the interests of the commercial banks. It was a rather sobering experience, because as the workshop unfolded, it soon became clear that in the context of the game the banks were almost redundant – which partly reflects what is going on in the real world, as banks face increased disintermediation and disruption by FinTech, crowdfunding and the shared economy.

The Fuller Projection or Dymaxion Map

The Fuller Projection or Dymaxion Map

The Premise – Earth as Spaceship

Without going into too much detail, “We R One World” mimics elements of the board games “Risk” and “Monopoly”, and takes the form of a narrative-based hackathon, combined with a meetup and an unconference. Played out on a floor-size version of the dymaxion map, the game also draws on Fuller’s concept that the Earth is a spaceship, of which the players are the crew, and the “fuel” is the inventory of global resources at the crew’s disposal, including people, technology, capital, food, energy, munitions, water, etc. The participants form teams to represent various geo-political regions, supranational NGOs, multinational corporations and banks. The goal is to achieve (through trade negotiations), the best socio-economic outcomes for everyone, with a few surprises along the way!

There is a lot of information to absorb, as well as the structure of the game. One challenge for the players is to not get hung up on the presented “data” (which is more representative, rather than precisely factual). Even though we live with access to real-time, on-line statistics and research, and despite the Internet and search engines, in real life we still experience considerable information asymmetry.

The Prelude – We Are Star Dust

As a prelude, we were shown the documentary “The Overview Effect”, which includes the comment by former Apollo astronaut Edgar Mitchell that we are made of star dust (a now common concept echoed in various songs such as Moby’s “We Are All Made of Stars” or Joni Mitchell’s “Woodstock”, depending on your musical taste/cultural perspective).

It was also a timely connection, given the increased media coverage of space exploration, and Hollywood’s renewed interest in space travel. The recurring theme (in reality as much as in fiction) is that human survival will depend on relocating to, or harnessing other planets.

As examples, in the real world, we have the latest discovery of an Earth-like planet, tweets from Philae on a frozen comet, and the remarkable images from Pluto. While the entertainment world is enjoying critical and popular success with films such as “Moon”, “Gravity”, “Elysium” and “Interstellar” (plus the forthcoming “The Martian”). Even veteran Sci-Fi writer Brain Aldiss has bowed out with his final space novel, “The Finches of Mars”.

The Banks – Increasingly dispensable

But back to the game, and what we might conclude from the outcomes.

From the start, in the role of the banks we had a strategy for encouraging “good” behaviour, and punishing the “bad”. We had a catalogue of regional problems, and a set of possible solutions. “Good” behaviour was predicated on regions finding creating solutions to their problems, based on partnering, prioritization, planning and promotion. “Bad” behaviour might include late or failed interest repayments, misuse of funds (e.g., deploying more military hardware ahead of feeding their population), or actions that led to worsening conditions (increased poverty, hunger and illiteracy, or depleted natural resources).

At the outset, the banks’ role was to manage existing loans (by collecting interest due), and to originate new loans for development and commercial projects. In the initial stages, despite Japan’s attempt to renegotiate its existing repayment terms on the fly, the commercial banks managed to collect all interest due, on time and in full (with a small surplus, thanks to some regions’ lax monetary management). One region paid up without much prompting, cheerfully (or ironically?) commenting that “we must keep the banks happy!”.

However, as the game progressed, the banks were basically ignored, as regions switched their focus to responding to new circumstances, such that the consequences of not servicing their debts seemed irrelevant. Even the risk/threat of bankruptcy did not carry much persuasion, as regions were more willing to find new ways to trade with each other, less reliant on bank capital, and more focussed on alternative value exchanges (part of the game’s secret sauce).

For example, we received only two loan applications throughout the game: one was for a worthy but ambitious development project, but when asked to resubmit the request with some further information, the loan did not materialise; and the other was more in the way of a short-term deposit with the bank, to generate interest income to buy food. Given that deposit rates are low, our response was to suggest using the capital (with additional bank funding) to increase food production, but our offer was declined, maybe because of the need to trade out of a short-term food shortage rather than investing in long-term supply.

Towards the end, the banks were almost mere spectators in the game, and were reduced to protecting their self-interests: namely their capital, and their stalled/stagnant loan assets. If borrowers don’t want the banks’ money, where and what will the banks invest in order to generate depositor, investor and shareholder returns? As one regional participant commented, “we are all bank shareholders”. Just as in real life, we deposit money with the banks, we invest in their financial products (especially through our superannuation and pension funds), and we may even buy their shares and bonds. And of course, following the GFC, many taxpayers found themselves indirect shareholders of banks that were bailed out by their respective governments.

The Conclusion – An alternative approach?

I’m not going to give the game away (you can experience it for yourself in September) but the conclusion and outcome reinforce the view that in order to tackle the world’s problems, we all have to take a different perspective – whether that is challenging existing structures, subverting traditional business models, or questioning our personal motives and objectives. For myself, I recognise that this means an increased awareness of “living lean” (mostly around personal preferences and lifestyle choices), and (multi-)lateral thinking.

For institutions like banks (as well as governments, corporations and NGOs) this alternative approach means re-assessing their roles and contribution (which can also be framed as re-connecting with their “purpose”), remodelling their processes and systems, and redefining the measures of their success. As my team member concluded, “the other players only see the banks as a source of capital, rather than a resource for knowledge, expertise and networks”.


Declaration of interest: I participated in the game at the kind invitation of the Slow School of Business.

Next week: “I’m old, not obsolete”






How Can I Help?

My purpose in launching this blog was to develop a personal brand, to engage with an audience, and to provide a platform for my ideas and interests, especially in respect to navigating the “information age”.

At the risk of self-aggrandizement, I’d like to think that this blog is helpful, informative and even entertaining. After two years of blogging, I have a sizeable and regular audience, my content gets shared and commented on by numerous readers, and key articles continue to be read many months after publication. (Two of the most popular articles in 2014 were actually published in early 2013.)

Several of my core followers have mentioned why they enjoy my blog, and these are some of their reasons:

  1. The content is original and well written
  2. The articles make them think about things in new ways
  3. I write about novel ideas
  4. My thinking reveals hitherto hidden or less obvious connections
  5. I’m never afraid to state my opinion

Which all suggest to me that they derive value from my analysis and conclusions.

So, my offer of help is this: If you would like access to this creative process, either in support of a specific business opportunity, or to address a strategic issue you face, or simply to help with your own content development, please get in touch via this blog or direct by e-mail. In return, I will provide you with an initial assessment of the issues as I see them, and an outline solution, at no obligation. It’s simply my way of saying “thank you” to everyone who has made an effort to engage with Content in Context.