Failosophy 101: Fail. Learn. Repeat. Succeed.
Embarking on an honest journey of my first steps in product.
Failure isn’t close to the opposite of success. If failure is defined as ‘achieving a suboptimal outcome’, then we fail more often than we realise we do, and this is especially true at the start of our product career when product traps await around each corner.
Fear is a trap, failure is a step
As kids it can feel natural for us to take risks, experiment and play around. This allows us to gain new skills and absorb information. At some point in time, the fear of failure enters surfaces as a consequence of physical pain, social norms, peer pressure and more.
Failure is often experienced as embarrassing or shameful, even paralysing at times, therefore we naturally avoid it. The fear of failure can influence us badly, to the extent that it can make us want to crawl back into our shell.
On one hand, the failure experience is massively underrated. On the other hand, enticing as may seem, success feels falsely sweet and comforting but comes with a toll. Success robs us slowly and expensively of the opportunity to learn and develop the best products possible.
While this sounds like philosophical reasoning, from my experience it is just as applicable to the product space.
“Failure is simply the opportunity to begin again, this time more intelligently.”
~ Henry Ford
Zero to one, or kind of…
Imagine there’s a startup. All the right ingredients in place:
a validated idea by about 5 potential customers as a beachhead market (existing customers to one of the founders’ main business)
founders with sound domain knowledge
early signs of an emerging market niche
years before market saturation point and a great team of engineers.
A finger licking good mix from a business and product perspective for a startup project!
So next, the startup team and I ran an extensive market and competitor analysis. Drafted a vision and brought the team on board by communicating the business context to them. Eventually, as a result of a combined effort with the team, we identified a list of features for MVP release and beyond.
Despite the good start, here are some of the ways the product/project/team failed, and my learnings from this.
Involvement from key stakeholders/sponsors
Although the key stakeholders (also sponsors in this case) ensured that the project had a kick-off and had provided sufficient business context as a start, they only attended a few of the major ceremonies.
This didn’t feel like an issue in the beginning, however after several months passed, I had a growing feeling of misalignment so I raised this issue with them. No corrective actions were taken and things went back to the old way. In hindsight, I admit my failure here was not making enough noise to get them more engaged. The involvement gap between us was widening to an irreversible state where trust began to suffer. That already felt like the beginning of the end.
Takeaway: As a product manager, not engaging key stakeholders in what's being built is like a car without a steering wheel - it is probably going to take you somewhere but chances are that you will crash sooner or later.
Sense of urgency for product-market-fit
Looking back at the same project, I literally get sad reflecting on the way the money was used. Here comes the terribly familiar YET SO COMMON mistake that inexperienced startups make, thinking “let’s just finish this or that before we ship it”. The team continued working on various improvements for months.
Slowly, the market where we initially had a starter advantage was now saturated to the point that we realised there were so many similar maturing products out there. Many of those ventures had achieved tremendous successes in terms of customer base. Others were startups who had attracted massive investments. This niche landscape looked much more different compared to about 2 years ago! Instead of launching a seemingly imperfect product to the customers and watching them use it and enjoy it or not, we were stuck in a state of constant ‘final’ polishing.
Here is where I see another rookie mistake of mine for not realising that before it was too late. If I had recognised that earlier, I could have convinced the team to release our Minimum Viable Product (MVP) sooner in order to harvest the benefits of collecting early feedback and observing the customer’s behaviour.
Takeaway: The saying “The best time to plant a tree was 20 years ago” reminds of this trap. The sooner a product meets the real market out there, the more iterations ahead of it, the higher its chances for a bright future.
Designer on the project (in-house)
The decision to not hire an in-house designer was made in agreement with the founders with the clear intention to hire one after the MVP development phase. For various reasons during the course of the project, e.g. designing the brand book and other elements, we had no choice but to hire freelance designers. However cost effective that might have seemed at first, and with the MVP being functional and free from (critical) bugs, it was not even remotely as attractive as most of the software nowadays.
Hereby pulling a link to the ‘UX pyramid’ which Richard Williams elaborated on in his previous Product Breaks article. I believe that without an in-house designer onboard, a product will likely reach levels 1-2 of the UX pyramid (functional and reliable), possibly level 3 (usable). Unfortunately, this score barely covers the lower ‘Foundation’ layer and leaves the upper ‘Experience’ layer completely untouched (levels 4-6 being convenient, pleasurable, meaningful).
Takeaway: Humans are driven by emotions. The UI/UX designer is one of the product manager’s best friends. He serves as a bridge between the inherent biases of irrational human behaviour and the rational realm of technology and the systems we build.
The above paragraphs tell the less glamorous side of my first product experience. Which as you can tell by the examples given, was also generous in terms of growth opportunities, both individually and as a team. Our failures turn into success once we use their lessons wisely.
Product Breaks community's motto says ”product breaks, but together we can fix it”. Likewise, as product managers we fail too, but together we can “begin again, this time more intelligently”.
Thanks for reading Product Breaks! Subscribe for free to receive new posts and support my work.