“Build it and they will come.”— Field of Dreams
It’s unfortunate. More often than not, we build it… but buyers don’t buy.
Because we haven’t built a solution to a market problem.
I’m often contacted about how to sell a new product. “We’ve finished the product. Now we need help finding buyers.” Hope. You’re doing it wrong. Find buyers first, then determine what product to build.
Many product managers have been hired to work on a product for which there is no market validation. And no clear product strategy. And it’s not even particularly clear what the product is, who it is for, and what problems it will solve. More than a few product managers have been hired to launch a product only to find the sales team doesn’t want to sell it or wants to give it away to close a bigger deal.
In a recent study, the three worst sources of product ideas are executives, salespeople, and company “idea portals.” No wonder so many product ideas fail to achieve success.
“I talked to a guy” is not a valid research study.
A product idea is a collection of hypotheses. "We think" this is the problem. "We think" these people will buy it. "We think" this is what makes it unique.
“We think” is not a product strategy. Neither is hope—as in “we hope people will buy it.”
Defining a product strategy is simple enough:
- Identify a market or persona you want to serve
- Understand their problems deeply
- Determine which problems your organization is qualified to solve
- Document a potential solution
- Validate everything
The Product Vision Canvas
When taking on a product—whether it’s still in the idea stage or already released, and even if it’s in version 4 or 5—document what you think and what you know in a Product Vision Canvas. Think of the Product Vision Canvas as a one-page business case.
The Product Vision Canvas has fields for the things we need to know: the product name, the executive sponsor (without which you’re unlikely to get much leadership support), and a score that represents the value of the opportunity. Use a prioritization method to quantify a relative score on the value of your idea. (I use a technique called ASPIRE+SCORE in my Fundamentals of Managing Products workshop.)
Think of the second row of boxes as a storyline. The BUYER has a PROBLEM that provides an OPPORTUNITY for us to solve with a VISION that leverages OUR ADVANTAGE. This row is effectively your initial product positioning.
Include in your canvas the alternatives available to solve the problem. Don’t limit your thinking to competitors with similar products. Think of alternatives from the buyer’s point of view: they can do it themselves; they can hire more people; they can use Excel.
Snuggled away in the middle are RISKS and METRICS. Risks include anything that will hamper your progress—such as limited expertise or resources. Metrics are how you will measure success. Success isn’t always about money; it can be customer satisfaction, reduced costs, improved leadership position.
In the bottom row, explain the basic financial model: sources of costs and revenues and the channel you plan to use. If you’re at the preliminary product idea stage, you can’t possibly know ‘how much’ in costs or revenue but you can identify sources.
One of the fundamental ideas in Lean thinking is to avoid waste. Spending any time estimating costs and revenue values is a fool’s errand at this stage; you simply have no idea until you’ve done more research.
The bottom row provides another storyline: if we spend money on customer research, development, marketing promotions, and sales enablement, we can sell the product via these channels and expect to get revenues from license fees or subscriptions or ad sales (or whatever sources).
Use the product canvas to summarize your product idea. Whether for a new product or an existing one, this document can be completed in a few hours. And it’s enough information for you to explain the product idea to anyone: executives, salespeople, potential customers. It’s enough information for marketing to build a landing page or development to create a few prototypes.
Let’s do an example using a COVID test.
Product Vision Canvas Example
There’s a problem in the world—not nearly enough people are being tested for COVID. We believe a key reason is that today’s tests must be performed by medical practitioners. But why can’t COVID tests be done at home? A COVID test should be as easy as testing for pregnancy or testing blood glucose levels for those with diabetes.
In this case, I have focused this product strategy on a specific market: Nursing or retirement homes in the United States. These homes have medical practitioners available in their health centers and also buy in bulk. One small retirement home here in Virginia spent $1,000,000 in 2020 for COVID testing—an unplanned expenditure. They would likely be attracted to a simpler, less expensive test.
But are they?
Every item on your strategy canvas is a hypothesis. Will this option be attractive to buyers? Will they buy this type of product? Will they buy this type of product from us? Which is the real problem: ease of testing or expense? Are other vendors already serving this need?
If I was planning to offer the COVID test in other geographic markets, such as Canada or China, I’d need a new strategy canvas because I’d have to change “Sold Via” to channels other than my current sales channel and website. It’s likely I would need to increase costs to accommodate approvals in other countries as well as other internationalization costs. And I’d need to validate with these new buyers.
I might next want to develop a product for individuals, once we’ve worked out the kinks in selling to nursing homes. The distribution issues change because you’re not selling hundreds of kits at once. New product strategy; new canvas.
What’s your strategy? Who buys it? Who uses it? What exactly is it? What is your vision? What is your advantage?
The product vision canvas summarizes what you think and what you know. It helps you identify the risks in your assumptions and helps guide a plan to validate those assumptions.
It ain't what you don't know that gets you into trouble. It's what you know for sure that just ain't so.—Mark Twain
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About the Author
Steve Johnson is an author, speaker, and product coach using modern methods to move products from idea to market. His approach is based on the belief that minimal process and simple templates result in a nimble product team.
Steve has been a long-time advocate for product management, serving as an executive and advisor to many technical product organizations and industry associations.
Steve is a former instructor and vice president at Pragmatic Institute as well as co-creator of the popular QuartzOpen framework.
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