Your Baby is Ugly! (Part 1)

Last summer, at ProductCamp Austin 11 I delivered a talk  titled, “Your Baby is Ugly (but I think we can fix it…) Strategies for the Inherited Product.”  Long winded yes, but they vote for what sessions actually take place, and to make it you have to get some wheat in behind the chaff!   My premise is that while most product people aspire to building the “new new” thing, the reality of first-time product jobs is more along the lines of stewardship of an “also ran” product.

Most product management jobs don’t start out with a clean whiteboard, a new market, and boundless opportunity.  The far more common situation for any first time product manager (or someone joining a new company) is that you will inherit someone else’s product.  And as luck would have it, as an unproven resource you’re going to be assigned one of the products with the least amount of revenue risk, an “ugly baby.”

What is an “ugly baby” product?  Well, the term comes from the jokes that accompany being a product manager in an organization still run by the founder who created the original product.  It’s the challenge as a subordinate that you can’t tell him or her that “his baby is ugly.”  It’s a Catch-22 situation for the product manager and the organization.  You are now charged with growing the product’s success and as such you talk to the market which is looking for improvements.  At the same time, the product got the company this far, and some of your proposed solutions prompt a “who are you to say it needs improvement,” type reaction.  That particular situation aside, I extended the “ugly baby” definition to include those products that are:

  • “Step-child’” Products – No offense to step children, but running the product step-child is not everyone’s favorite task.  Products in this category have been launched into the market, have enough installed base that company wants to “keep them alive,” but whose prospects for whatever reason have faded.  Resources in the company naturally “move away” from step child products.
  • Out-dated – Sometimes products are built on outdated technology.  Sometimes they suffer from being built on platforms that have the perception of being dead or outdated technology.  In the midst of the massive growth of remote access in the 90’s I couldn’t get the time of day for a product that extended our market to protect access to IBM’s AS/400 platform.  Client/server was the new, new thing, never mind how many mini-computers were still deployed and how easy the extension would be to launch.
  • Starved for resources – Almost by definition, as product manager of an ugly baby product you’re likely starved for resources.  The small amount of revenue and growth of your product dooms it to a smaller and smaller portion of the resource pie.
  • Overdue customer commitments – This may be less a type of ugly baby and more a frequent characteristic.  Since you do have an installed base of users for the product,  and since no software is ever “done,” there are still active (and often vocal) paying customers who at one point were promised “more goodies.” Unfortunately, the specific bell or whistle they were promised rarely overlaps with what your analysis shows the product needs to dig itself out of its hole.
  • Failed to launch – These products come in all shapes and sizes.  Senior management forced the product out too early and fizzled.  Product is fantastic but was too early in the market.  1.0 of the product was released to huge fanfare and then immediately considered “done” by management whose interests quickly pivoted to new things. Etc.
  • Forgotten in the Merger – This is one of my favorites, which I have seen again and again. Company A buys Company B for its strategic assets (e.g. a product line) that provide great synergy with company A’s product vision and strategy.  The resulting politics, jockeying, and merger-energy then all centers around combining these strategies.  Meanwhile, back at the ranch, company B’s second and third lines of business which were healthy and profitable pre-merger, begin to atrophy from neglect.

If you find yourself responsible for one of these types of ugly baby product there is good news and bad news.  The bad news is you’re going to have to fight, cajole, and just plain scrap for resources.  The good news is a combination of lowered expectations from your organization, and hidden opportunity.  “There’s gold in them thar’ products! (sometimes)”   In a Part 2 of “Your Baby’s Ugly,” I’ll describe the steps you can take to unearth that gold.

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