Your Product is Already Obsolete – How to Survive by Des Traynor

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All startups go through three distinct phases – birth, growth, and survival. You start by making the product work, then you have to grow the product, and then, crucially, you have to focus on survival – on keeping it relevant. Des Traynor is the co-founder and Chief Marketing Officer of Intercom, and in this hilarious and insightful closing keynote from Mind the Product San Francisco he shared his experiences of keeping Intercom relevant.

The more successful you are in building and then growing a product, the bigger the obligation to keep it going gets. And yet we don’t have as many frameworks or discipline for how to keep your product relevant and your company alive as we do for establishing new ones.

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Your product is already obsolete

If you have any traction whatsoever, there’s another startup out there looking at you and your market thinking “we can do that cheaper and better”. And there will be a newer, faster, cheaper way to deliver the outcome your customers want – and it might not involve you.

The problem with being disrupted like this is that it’s asymptomatic – you don’t feel it coming.

For example, 2007 was a fantastic year to be a satnav company. Both Garmin and Tom Tom were both hugely successful and valuable, and yet since the introduction of the smartphone their values have been cut to 1/10th of what they were. And these things happen fast. Really fast. Customers don’t wait around for you to write new Jira tickets…

The thing we as product managers have to constantly be aware of is the butterfly effect. The iPhone didn’t kill off Windows Phone but did actually prove to be an existential threat to Windows itself, and the start of the decline of desktop computing in favor of mobile computing.

No technology is the centre of a system, but rather a constellation of bodies under the influence of each other. – Steve Sinofsky

We’re still feeling the impact and repercussions of the iPhone and Android. And these impacts can add up in ways you might not realise. If you combine Stripe, Shopify, and Postmates you can set up & incorporate an on-demand, same-day delivery store in less than 30 minutes. That’s revolutionary.

So the repercussions are reverberating around us – and as a product manager we have to acknowledge this and spend time thinking about how it might impact our products.

So how do we keep going?

It can be disheartening to think too much about how our products and businesses might be disrupted at any moment. It’s also easy to overreact or run around like a headless chicken and not meet these challenges head on.

Fundamentally, your customers needs don’t change much. Messaging has been around since we passed notes to each other in class. Logistics has been around since antiquity. The needs don’t go away – what happens with new technology is that you can change how you meet those needs. The one key question all product managers need to ask when evaluating the importance of any new technology is therefore:

Does this make it cheaper, faster, or easier for our customers to make progress in their lives?

If it does – you better be adopting it, or your competitors will.

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Speed matters

When reacting to new technology and considering this question Des recommends following the OODA loop – observe, orient, decide, and act – developed by military strategist and United States Air Force Colonel John Boyd. And how quickly you can move through this loop is important too – because if you’re moving faster than your industry you can stay on top, but if you move slower than the industry and adopt new technologies slower than your environment you’re walking backwards into the future.

Des then takes us through some of the trends affecting our industry right now, from the consolidation of apps, through artificial intelligence, to messaging and chat bots, and shares his view on how to look at them through this filter to consider how they might affect our products and companies.

Your product isn’t a set of screens

The most important trend Des highlights is that your product is no longer a set of screens, a single destination, a workflow, jobs to be done or user flow. Your product is a system and understanding this is critical. How, when, and where your users will interact with a system will always change which is why it’s so dangerous to think of it as a single destination.

The bottom line with all these trends is that the internet is being rebuilt around people – and if you’re not how will you survive?

Mind the product

As product managers this is what we do – we create the systems that connect all of us. We are the glue that connects strategy with execution and we are responsible for looking to the future and drawing it in. This is an era of product focused companies, and as product managers that is what we do – we mind the product.

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