Growing up in Southern California, I spent a lot of time at the beach. Since I preferred being in the water to lying on the sand, I took readily to body surfing. I loved the feeling of crashing down the face of a wave, riding a swell all the way into shallow water, and pretending not to notice the admiring stares of the young ladies as I returned to the surf. OK, that last part never happened, but body surfing was great fun, and taught me three lessons that I've applied in my product management and strategy roles over the years.
Start Swimming Before the Wave Gets to You
I quickly learned that you'll always miss the wave if you wait for it to arrive before you take off swimming. The energy of the wave is ahead of its crest, and you have to start swimming when that part of the wave gets to you; it will sweep you up to the crest where you can push forward and catch the wave.
In product strategy terms, swimming before the wave gets to you means that you have to see the trends in the market, industry, technology, and other relevant environments before they become obvious (to you and everyone else). Unless you're getting hot tips from Johnny the Shoeshine Man (Department of Obscure References), reacting to a trend when it's defined will not put you out front in the market. At best, you'll come in with a me-too product which will never deliver home-run types of returns.
It's late summer, 2003. Our CTO is on a sales call with a major bank. The sales team is explaining how the iPass mobility management service will save the bank hundreds of thousands of dollars in access charges. The bank executives seem distracted; many are checking their pagers and leaving the meeting. Back in the office, I notice that my access card doesn't seem to be working.
The next day, the news hits about the SoBig and Blaster viruses. Many companies are forced to shut down all outside access to their networks, a "nuclear option" to control spread of the viruses. While we were pitching the bank on a solution that would save hundreds of thousands of dollars, the bank was losing far more than that when it had to shut down network access to its remotely connected loan origination agents.
We realized that, as one IT Manager put it, "IT departments will only get one free pass". Another virus outbreak and heads would roll. We expanded our search for companies with security technology that would complement our existing security services. We acquired a company that offered a solution for managing devices "in the wild" and quickly rolled out an upgrade to our mobility management service that incorporated this device management technology. In short order, the notion of fine-grained device security and management went from a nice-to-have to a must-have, and we had a solution available.
"Outside!" is a well-understood refrain for body surfers. It means that there's a wave coming that you probably can't see (because you're in the trough of the wave in front of it) and probably don't want to miss... or at least want to put yourself in a position to miss without causing great bodily harm (more on that in a moment). It seems like every set of waves has one that's a little bit bigger, and breaks a little farther out, than all the others. Failing to look outside (or heed others' calls to do so) can mean missing the best wave of the set.
Failing to "look outside" happens to lots of companies. You don't want to take your focus off of the product you're working on now, which is understandable. But you have to have the discipline to "look outside" at regular intervals: has anything changed to make this opportunity more attractive? less attractive? Is a different approach becoming required?
We certainly seemed to be "riding the wave" when iPass went public in 2003. Sales were up, margins were good and we were gaining recognition as a leader in our field. Most of our customers were using dial-up access to the Internet and (from there to) their corporate networks, and we were hard at work "federating" Wi-Fi networks in the same way we had done this for dial access networks.
What we didn't fully appreciate was that many iPass users were dialing up to the Internet and their corporate networks from home. Sometime starting in 2004, these users switched to a "home broadband" connection--one provided by the cable television company or phone company and not iPass--to get to their corporate networks. As if that weren't enough of a problem, coffee shops and other venues starting offer free Wi-Fi access. And all of our systems were set up to "monetize" our service by charging for use of iPass networks. Houston, we have a problem!
We got people from Marketing, Finance, Product Management, and Engineering together to frame the problem and come up with solutions. We were able to create, implement, and promote a "per user"--vs. per-session--fee for use of any network accessed through the iPass service. We installed pricing plans that gave enterprise IT managers the flexibility to mix and match types of access--dial, Wi-Fi, home broadband, and networks not supplied by iPass--along with usage-based and flat-rate charging methods. We extended our security software integrations to provide better support for user exposure to "rogue" networks of uncertain safety. The result was a significant recapture of value (and revenues) that otherwise would have been lost.
It happens to every body-surfer: you find yourself staring at a giant wave that's sure to wipe out everything in its way when it crashes on the shore. The tide is running out quickly, as if the water itself is scared to hang around. Pretty soon it's going to be you, the wave hitting you full-force, and nothing but sand to hide under. You have to decide whether to run/swim toward the wave and dive under it before it breaks, or run like hell toward the shore and escape the brunt of the wave when it breaks.
And you have to decide now.
We've all been around people who have trouble making decisions about important stuff. They ask for innumerable analyses, "what-if" scenarios, and so on. They convene meetings to decide what to do, and decide that further study is required.
As with body-surfing, there are times when a decision--any decision--is required. Knowing how to recognize those times is a critical skill. And knowing what you need to know, in order to make a decision, is also critical.
As we brought out a new WiMax product at SOMA Networks, there was an ongoing debate between Sales and Engineering, concerning the required level of lightning protection for the tower-mounted radios. Sales felt that the solution had been over-engineered and was too costly. Engineering felt that the risks and costs associated with a lightning strike and power surge justified the extra expense. As we moved toward product release, a decision had to be made if the project was going to stay on track.
We gathered those with expertise and strong opinions together to get the facts and considerations on the table. On one side, there was the argument that initial cost was a barrier to sales. On the other side, there was the argument that a resettable surge protection device would reduce the number of "truck rolls" required to visit a site and reset the radio. After everyone had their say, we opted for a one-use surge protection device at the radio, together with resettable devices for rooftop-accessible equipment. Overall cost was reduced, the forecasted consequences of a lightning strike weren't appreciably changed, and we kept the project moving.
Ride the Wild Surf
Managing product strategy and development is always a challenge in technology companies, given the constant state of change. Pay attention to these lessons: you'll do a better job of riding the waves to your company's benefit and spend a lot less time coughing up sand and salt water.