Competition – Research and Share

As we build (software) products, the competition is something that we need to stay ahead of, but how?

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Especially building products for different markets, you always have others building similar products for probably same or different markets. There are already established products that you have to compete with, there are other products that are getting built as you build your product, there are new technologies that throw up new opportunities or challenges that will help new products to build that could surpass yours.

How it’s different from services ?

In services business, you just have a few competitors that you are competing for “a customer”.  You know what this one customer is looking for and its often not very difficult to create a competitive strategy. But in case of products, it’s a huge challenge to identify first of all who could be your competitor and if you are lucky to identify all of them, how your products stand out in the market, not just a customer.

So what you need to know to stay ahead of competition ?  I try to share couple of key elements that I have focused on in this area, as part of building software products : Research and Communication

Competitive Research:

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As software product leaders or product managers, one of the key activities that we need to be focusing on is Competitive Research.  This cannot be optional and has to be mandatory task with clear deliverables. If you are lucky, especially working with larger enterprises, there are focused research colleagues who track and share insights about competition. If not there are external agencies that you can engage who can research a bit and share insights about competition. But personally I feel that as the product owners, its best for product leaders or product managers to be closely doing their own research as the expertise that you carry or the interest to get your products successful lies with you.

Tools, Tips and Techniques for Competitive Research:

  1. Don’t cross legal boundaries – while researching your competition, one of the most critical and important aspect of what you can find out should be based on publically available information and within the legal boundaries of access. This is super critical, while it’s a no brainer, its best to understand legal guidelines laid out by company and if you are startup, better to get some legal advise or attend a course to understand the Dos and Don’t
  2. Competitors website  – Thanks to internet, there is already enormous information available about the competition, especially if you are looking at existing established products.  Checking the websites of the competition helps a bit, taking at their value proposition and what customers are talking about the products are very important.
  3. Social media – This is an interesting channel in last few years where we get lot of information about the competition. From youtube, linkedin, twitter, we can follow and understand what the competitors are doing, what leadership in the competition are doing as well as some of the key stakeholders involved with the competition are saying. From whom they are hiring, which location they are talking from and tit bits are very valueable information you can know about the product
  4. Community and Blogs – Another great channel to understand competitors is through communities and blogs written by users, partners and employees about the competitive products. There are forums where products are discussed and there are blogs that are written that helps get an informal view of the products
  5. Analyst – IT industry analyst are a great source of information to understand competitors and their strengths and weakness. Its always better to understand different perspectives of the industry analyst. Your product may still not be in the overall review in the space, but you may want to analyze the market potential through whats being said about the analyst reports.
  6. Partners website – partners or implementors of software website is key source of information for research. This helps us to understand products better as partners are typically very close to the products and often share some details. Typically a demo of the product posted by partner is often more detailed and really very helpful
  7. Knowing and following competitor key people – one of the opportunity we have with internet is to know the people better. From a competitive research perspective, one of the important aspect would be to know and follow the key people who are involved in the competition. It could be the CEO of that company, few of the key technology folks there who are involved in the solution area. This gives a great perspective on what they are trying to do and help understand whats in store
  8. Involving in sales cycles – One of the best way, especially if your product is already out, is to involve in sales cycles. Talking to sales /presales as well as customers. You definitely get insights on how your competitor products is addressing the problems. This can also be done by listening to sales calls as well as just being part of some of the meetings or conference calls. Sometimes customers give you direct feedback on how your products fare and at other times you may get indirect inferences. Participating and contributing in some of the win loss analysis can help take back some of this information.

Having done the research, what do we do with this information to use this effectively as you build your products. While you can have a structure way to incorporate this information into your knowledge base, the important aspect of sharing and communicating this information. Often I have noticed that we share one set of information for different stakeholders, which may be not a good approach.

Prepare and Share

1. Sharing with Sales and Field : Sales organization in your company would like to know exactly how your products are better from your competitors products. What is the key value propositions and some differentiations. This could be addressed at different levels, at the overall product strategy level, on product feature /functionality and the fit with respect to solving key business problem in a better way, and based on customer usage.  How competitive fud can be resolved with a capability that exists or likely to addressed in the road map.

The communication here needs to be very broad based, especially if you are selling to different markets or user base. Some                   information of the regional competitors may also be very useful

2. Sharing with Development : Product Development including product managers are very emotional and close to their products and its often difficult for them to digest to hear that the competitive products are better than your products.  But here the communication and comparisons should focus on where the products are weaker then competition, don’t have to be highlighting the strengths but focus on where differentiations can be fulfilled, or how products can catch up with competition. Even an equally good product could be very successful due to other considerations such as price, market and geography focus, as well as mere ability of sales people. So its important to compare and highlight lagging product areas, and get to focus on competitive catch ups or differentiations. Some of the information collected from Analyst could be very useful as it could lead to good insights of competitive products.  All of this information also helps in prioritizing backlogs.

3. Sharing with Top Management: Assuming you are not the founder, its important that competitive insights are regularly shared with top management in order for them to get a feel of specifics that competitors are doing in this area. This will help getting the attention for investment into those areas, potential acquisitions as well as help them engage better in their customer/investor interactions.

Competitive Research and Sharing is a key activity that needs good time investment to stay ahead in the race as make Software Products.

Share your thoughts on other

Need 9 months to get baby out

One of the pressures and challenges of working on products is to get it out soon – the release. But I often recollect one of the leaders that I have worked with saying “need 9 months to get baby out”.

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What’s the right time for a product release – Some Considerations?

Build for market, not a customer

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Remember products are not built for one customer, its built for several of them, for a market. I highlight this as especially in India, we have abundant  services companies and people with great experience driving innovations and solutions for one customer, and often the release time for such delivery can be done in a shorter duration as we are working towards a specific requirement set.  Its different to build it for a market or many customers in mind.

Enough research time to iterate

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The other key aspect of building a product is to spend good time on researching the market, understanding user problems and figuring out what to build, before start building it. In certain cases it could also be some initial prototypes to get the thinking process going. Often this time is ignored when building products.

9 moms cannot make 9 babies in 1 month

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By getting more people assigned is not the solution to get the products out faster, actually it could be counter productive as there may not be enough components that can be built parallel and also could result in confusion on co-ordination.

It’s not just about development

Many software products fail primarily because they put all the time and effort only in engineering and developing the product and do not plan for an effective early adoption and go to market (including pricing) launch time planning. They consider this as lesser important task and often consider this as a post product release activity. But the market readiness and go to market should be planned well ahead, and enough time to be allocated to early adoption and launch cycle.  The other aspect that gets ignored many a times is user empathy and design for user interaction and interface.

Focus on quality, differentiators

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Bugs are fine in software, can be fixed is the typical attitude in software industry. But depending on the mission critical nature of the products, quality is going to be key criteria. Thorough testing and quality is an important part and while dates can be compromised, quality should not be compromised as the word spreads if its buggy. Get it out with good quality.

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Many products compromise on features and differentiators, to deliver a product in time. This again can be dangerous in the current extremely competitive world.

So usually the right time of the release should have key focus on quality and differentiators.

Alpha, Beta….

We come across examples of products that get released to market without alpha, beta cycles – without being taken to first few customers or users to try out. This can be dangerous, inspite of the time pressures or the brutal confidence that you may have about your products and self testing, there should be time allocated for alpha and beta trials.

Rapid release cycles

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The other side consideration here is that while products have to be planned, it can’t take too long as well. Many of the established players get into this syndrome where they spend too much time planning and laying it out but by the time the product comes out, the market is lost or captured by some one else. This is where agile methodology comes in handy. Products should be planned in such a way that there is minimum viable scope covered coming in from the research and there is agility built into cover a rapid release cycle post the first launch, where more enhancements can be planned, based on customer adoption.

So if you started reading the blog hoping to get the answer on the right time for a product release, sorry for disappointing you. But from my experience where I have been involved with enterprise software products that were built in 3 months, 6 months, 1.5 years, 3 years etc. , some of the above points were the learnings for the success or failure of the product. Plan time for the ideation/research, design, development, thorough testing, beta and GTM launch planning before getting your baby out…

Share your experience or other considerations that I may have missed here…

First B2B Bootcamp for product startups – last day to apply

The last date to apply for this bootcamp has been extended to 16th August especially for Product Nation subscribers.

TiE-IQ Bootcamp is a no contract and free  60-day bootcamp where the participating startups will have an opportunity to create products, launch companies and walk away with their spoils and a lot of learning.

This first edition of the TiE-IQ Bootcamp is restricted to B2B technology product startups. It builds up on the successful bootcamp conducted by IQ earlier this year. Selected startups will walk in to the TiE-IQ Bootcamp with just a minimum viable product (MVP) and take back the following :

  1. Mentorship and Workshops by entrepreneurs leading successful startups to help you.
    • Refine and finish the minimal viable product (MVP) into a ready to buy product
    • Market your product
    • Get the first few customers
  2. Peer Learning
    • Learn from some of the best startup brains developing B2B products alongside.
  3. Working Space for two months in the heart of Mumbai.
  4. Software credits with some of the bootcamp partners
  5. Interaction with some of the best brains in the venture investment world.
  6. Demo Day: Your chance to pitch to investors in Mumbai  (and Bangalore – to be confirmed)

Who should Apply?

  • Enterprising (co-)founders and technology enthusiasts who want to build disruptive technology products or services for the Indian or global market.
  • Teams with 2-3 members that are capable to design, code and release a beta version of their product to market & sell it.

How to Apply?

To apply, visit this page for more details on eligibility criteria, and how to apply. The last date is extended to 16th August exclusively for Product Nation subscribers. For updates follow the twitter hashtag #TieBootCamp.

 

How far should you go with Professional Services in your product business?

Turning on a giant switch

For any products company, product support is a given, and part of the products business fabric. However, almost all Enterprise Products Companies end-up offering the professional services beyond basic product support. These services could range from simplistic implementation support, to integration, to solutions-building, to architectural consulting, to IT advisory support. The decision to perform professional services could be driven by customer-demand, or by the intrinsic need of the product being sold, or even driven by the business strategy itself to generate peripheral revenue.

It’s important to understand where the boundaries lie, and what goal does a certain type of professional services serve. The decision to commit to a particular type of professional services needs to be driven by a conscious thought process. This is important because the time & resources required to build various skills & operating models for serving the various flavors, change dramatically from one to the other.

Professional Services in Products Business

1. Product Support

This is the core to the products model and serves as just that – support to the main products revenue, and to ensure customer satisfaction. While the core strategy for any product should be to make it so good that it requires minimal support, there’s always a need for support – offline and real-time for the customers.

2. Implementation Services

An ideal product is ready-to-use off-the-shelf, however, in case of Enterprise products the need to configure & customize could wary. Most times, customers demand for an implementation service packaged in the license deal initially, in order to ensure success. Most times, products businesses have to employ this mechanism also to close sales cycle and to ensure a consistent source of post-sale revenue from such services, and also indirectly to ensure expansion of the product usage through consistent personnel presence on the customer premises.

3. Integration Services

This is where it starts going slightly further away from the core skills that the organization may possess organically. Integration with the existing IT systems and other products at the customer premises would require the skills & management practices beyond the core areas of the organization. An extra source of revenue is one of the temptations, but there are also scenarios where integration of the product is critical to the success of the product, making such services mandatory. This is especially true if the product interfaces are not built with open-standards, and require the integrators to know the details of how the product is built internally. The correct approach would be to build the product interfaces in a way that doesn’t force the business into such compromise to induct professional services for integration. There’s an indirect impact of diversion of core product resources to such integration projects unless such professional services are pursued by design, and resources built accordingly.

4. Solutions & Consulting Services

This is where the game gets strategic, and resources expensive. And the reasons to do this are not any more intrinsically important, but strategically targeted to higher value to the customers and hence, access to the larger pie of the wallet. However, this is easier said than done. Unless there’s enough scale & case in the existing business to allow the focus on such services, strategic, and by design, a business is better off focusing on building the core products business stronger by investing resources there. This makes sense for the products, which are more like Platforms that provide larger leverage than in a Point-solution product.

5. Advisory Services

This is important for the products that are targeted for larger ticket sizes and are built for Enterprise-wide deployments. The IT strategy alignment as well as the strategic positioning of the product becomes important, and it also requires much larger IT leadership level involvement. For Enterprise Platforms, or even for departmental level strategic investments, this approach to professional services can bear fruits. However, building it into a business line requires the core product business to be strong, ready for the leap.

So what?

While the Businesses can look at starting off with the lower scale of Professional Services and build up over time, the decision is very strategic and long term. Professional Services, while offering additional top-line, could actually be a resource-intensice and money-draining proposition if not built properly. The mindset that governs the professional services line of business is drastically different from the product side of business. The operational efficiency is paramount, & profitability can very quickly take a hit. Even more importantly, professional services are more intensely people-driven and the skill sets required to build and sustain this business over long term are not trivial. Look, think, and think hard, before you leap.

PS: There are other considerations on Professional Services that directly or indirectly impact the core product business. I will cover in those in the next post. Until then, hope this helps! 🙂