Not every product makes it to maturity, but every product does potentially have a lifecycle of growth, maturity, and decline. A mature product has found product/market fit, it’s stopped growing, and its role is to be a cash cow for the business. What simple steps can product managers take to ensure their mature product continues to thrive?
- Tracking performance helps you determine if your product is mature — with that knowledge you might explore ways to breathe new life into it
- Managing mature products is not without its challenges. You’re up against competition, product bloat, technical debt and delivering to multiple cohorts with different needs
- Strategies used to manage a mature product might include extending your product’s reach or segmenting for different users
- To stay competitive, manage your salespeople carefully, be conscientious about best practice and keep testing your competitors
1. Work out if your product is mature
First, you need to track a product’s performance to work out if it is mature. This means being clear on the value it creates for the users and business. A tool like the Product Vision Board from product coach Roman Pichler can help you with this.
Next, as Roman says in his post Strategic options for mature products, you should select the right key performance indicators (KPIs) and then measure how much value your product creates. If the data shows a largely flat performance over the last few months, then the product is likely to be mature.
If you track performance regularly, you should quickly become aware that the product is stagnating and becoming mature.
2. Can you take it back into growth?
You may be able to breathe new life into a product by improving its capabilities and adding new features. It’s what Apple has done for years with the iPhone, as Roman Pichler points out. You could declutter instead — Roman says Microsoft periodically works to rejuvenate MS Word by removing features and simplifying the software to make it easier to use.
Going back to growth may not be the right approach, says Roman. It will depend on a number of factors — how deep it is into maturity, available resources available to invest in the product, market attractiveness, code quality, and so on.
3. Problems that come with a mature product
If you can’t or don’t want to take your product back into a growth phase then you’ll need to tackle the issues that come with a mature product.
If you’ve built something that generates interest, someone else will have a go at building it cheaper and/or better unless it’s protected by patents or regulation. Competitors are great for customers, but present plenty of negatives for product builders. They may compel you to keep innovating, but they can also stifle growth, affect the way you market a product, devalue the market through second-rate products, and more besides.
Salespeople want to keep the customers they have happy and may pressure the product team to add in features that they think will make a big customer continue to buy a product, or that they think will be the one thing that persuades a new customer to come on board. So there may be pressure to relax your rigour over what features make it to the product.
Says Alicia Dixon, Principal Product Manager at Walmart: “You get more bogged down in trying to satisfy salespeople, rather than focusing on prospects in discovery. You end up having product bloat — where you’re not being good at prioritisation and not being disciplined about what you add to the product.”
Greater technical debt
Obviously, you can’t always be nimble and react quickly when you work on a mature product. Your technical limitations increase, because, as Alicia points out, if “you break it, it’s going to be catastrophic”. She adds: “You can’t just throw something in there, things have to be more complete. And your technical debt can take you down to a point where you can’t manage it anymore.”
Multiple cohorts of users with different needs
The mix of customers who use a mature product has different needs and expectations. When a product is new, as ProdPad CEO Janna Bastow points out, customers and product are aligned: “When ProdPad was three weeks old, all of our customers were three weeks old,” she says. “Five years in, those first customers are now super-advanced users, but you also need to keep the product accessible to new customers exploring it for the first time. It gets very difficult to sell to every cohort.”
4. Strategies for extending the life of a mature product
Managing a mature product requires a shift in skill set, says Alicia, from a focus on value creation to a focus on profitability and business management: “It’s about keeping the business running, keeping everybody happy, keeping relationships going, as opposed to what cool things can we do?.” There’s still discovery, she adds, but it shifts from solving a problem to looking at who else might have some version of the problem.
Here are some thoughts on strategies that are commonly used to manage a mature product.
Extend its reach
A cash-cow product won’t necessarily need new functionality, says Janna, but you may want to extend its reach by looking into new territories and new sectors and industries that use the product. “It’s less about product development and more about market development,” she says.
Segment for different cohorts
This approach can be fraught with problems, though plenty of businesses take it — just think about all the free and premium versions of products that are available. But you can end up having products that are more difficult to manage through this approach, says Janna. She points to a product like Salesforce, which now has an ecosystem of consultants and experts to implement it for large businesses, and a different startup-ready version that poses as the same brand.
Choose one focus and own it
There are plenty of examples of companies that have taken this approach. They’ve decided on their market and stuck to it, rather than trying to segment their products. Buffer, a social media management tool, for example, styles itself as the “all-you-need social media toolkit for small businesses”. It’s not trying to compete with products designed for social media management in big companies.
5. How to stay on top of a mature product
Here are some dos and don’ts from our product leaders on how to stay on top of managing a mature product.
Do be conscious about best practice
Don’t be complacent about your cash cow, and make sure you carve out the time to keep up best practice, Alicia says. Keep tracking its performance and reviewing your strategy. Make sure you keep speaking to customers. Don’t rely on salespeople, block out the time for customer visits, or set up a customer advisory board, “force to have that contact with the customers in order to get feedback. Don’t just get your feedback through going on sales calls”.
Don’t let salespeople take control
Try to stay on top of the product strategy and direct which sectors the salespeople target. Otherwise, you may end up with the product being sold into markets that it’s really not suitable for – Alicia says this has happened to her in the past.
Do keep testing your competitor
If they can pinch your good ideas, then you can pinch theirs.
6. Recognise when to call it a day
At some point, as Roman says, the effort and cost of extending the lifecycle of a product will become too big and it will need to be retired. It can sometimes be a hard decision to make. Janna advises: “I always tell companies that, regardless of your size, or the stage you’re at, always consider how you’re going to disrupt yourself before someone else can.”