My Top Ten Tips for Developing Successful Products

Are you about to invest your life’s savings into developing a new product or just a few million of your company’s cash?

Then take a few minutes and read this article to learn how to avoid the half-baked product syndrome, crush your competition and captivate your customers.

While there are many different approaches to product development with lots of fancy buzzwords, the reality is most products succeed or fail because of the following ten items.

So read on, learn and give me a call if you have any questions.

1. Get the organizational buy in to do it right.

Getting organizational buy in to do it right is by far the biggest challenge, since doing it right generally requires committing additional up-front resources, time and organizational heartburn (i.e. change) for a vaguely quantifiable longer-term payoff.

If you are in senior management, this means challenging your troops to try new product-development tactics and committing the required resources. You have to build an atmosphere and culture that accepts change, welcomes outside ideas and incorporates learning into every facet of the organization.

For middle managers and below, the challenge is getting senior management buy in. Unfortunately, there is no guarantee that senior management will agree to commit the required resources – or as I’ve had to learn over the years: “Middle management and below proposes. Senior management disposes.” The only saving grace is the fact that it’s a Dilbert world and that most of your competitors are in exactly the same boat.

2. If the problem’s unclear and the benefits fuzzy, then you’ve got a Wuzzy.

What’s a Wuzzy? I don’t know. And I shouldn’t start building anything until I figure it out.

You must be able to clearly articulate the problem you are solving and the expected benefits to the user. And most important, they must make sense to your customers.

If they don’t, then you’re either targeting the wrong customers, building the wrong product or need to clarify your marketing message. If after a few go-rounds it still doesn’t make sense, then it’s time for the next step.

3. Don’t be afraid to a kill the product.

If you’ve got a Wuzzy or you can’t get senior management buy in to do it right, maybe you should kill the project sooner than later. Or even if you are doing everything right, you may discover that the product will never make significant revenue or will just cost too much to do it right. Whatever the reason, it’s usually better to kill the product sooner than later – even if you have already sunk six or seven figures into it.

The reality is that most products wind up being distractions that siphon resources and focus from the primary moneymaker.

Of course most corporate cultures would sooner kill the messenger than a pet project or product, so tread gingerly.

4. Admit you don’t know what you don’t know.

New technologies and markets often require new approaches. One reason why most companies fail to the make the transition from one market or technology successfully is they try to apply their existing skill sets and processes verbatim, rather than ask how or what is different than before.

The classic example is software companies transitioning from Mainframe/DOS products to Web products. In the command line world, there was no need for a design department since the user interface was a black & white command prompt. No pictures. No pointing. No colors. No need for designers. In the Web world, it’s all about using design, color and content to improve the user experience. As a result, developing a successful Web product requires different approaches and skill sets that traditional engineering organizations lack.

5. Borrow, buy or partner whenever possible. Don’t reinvent the wheel if you don’t have to.

Chances are the majority of what your customers want already exists. There is very little that is truly new –it’s mostly just innovative uses of existing technology or processes. So look in parallel industries for similar products that with only slight modifications can meet your customers’ needs.

Focus on what makes you truly unique and adds value to your offering. Anything else, borrow, buy or partner for. Customers don’t care whether you developed the code or created the mold, they only care whether it meets their needs. And the best way to meet their needs is to:

6. Ask questions of your customers and observe the users.

Your opinion is worthless. What matters are what your customers think and users do. Customers may not be able to envision the solution to their problem or even clearly articulate their pain, but interview and watch enough of them at work and you should be able to identify where they spend their time and money – and whether it’s in activities that provide value or distract them from their ultimate goal.

Asking customers isn’t enough, because most people don’t even notice nor track much of what they do. Observation, and not just once but multiple times at multiple locations, is the only way to ensure you understand the issues facing them.

Just because you understand the problem, doesn’t necessarily mean you have a workable solution. The only way to know that is from prototyping.

7. A picture is worth a thousand words.

The beauty of the written or spoken word is that rarely do two people interpret them exactly the same way. That means there are typically a thousand different ways to implement the same requirements, no matter how simple, clear or detailed the initial document is.

Prototypes are cheap ways of identifying whether your product meets the market needs without building the actual product. In addition, it enables you to refine the requirements – the must haves from the nice to haves – and eliminate the what- were-you-thinkings before investing significant development or manufacturing resources.

The goal is to do the minimum amount of work required to elicit the maximum feedback. After all, if you develop a product that is missing a key feature that is only identified after it’s in production, you’ve not only wasted a lot of money but you’ve probably pissed off a few customers and lost critical time/opportunities.

8. Identify the key features – the absolute must haves that make the product sellable.

The phone is a great concept. And there are endless possibilities for features to add to the phone – conference calling, call waiting, caller ID, etc. but a phone isn’t a phone without a speaker and a microphone.

While that seems incredibly obvious, then why do so many companies build products that are the equivalent of a phone without a speaker and then wonder why they don’t sell?

They never took the time to identify and separate out the absolute must haves from the nice to haves. Instead they viewed all the requirements as being about equal and committed enough time and money to develop a phone with a microphone and call waiting, but put off the speaker till the next version.

Surprise! Surprise! The initial version flops and then investment is yanked because the “market wasn’t ready for the concept.”

Market research, prototyping and proofs of concepts help eliminate these oversights.

9. Identify and address the changes required of your organization to successfully develop, sell and support the product.

Execution is everything. It’s not enough just to have a good product, since success in the marketplace is generally the result of multiple factors. Again, identify successes in other industries with similar products and ask both the customers and vendors what was required to be successful.

In enterprise software, the implementation, e.g. change management, systems integration, etc., actually determines the success and value of the product. If you view yourself as strictly a software company or just lack the skills to successfully implement enterprise software and that’s your new market, you will most likely fail, even if you have a great product.

On the flip side, don’t forget rule # 5: Borrow, buy or partner in order to offer the complete package your customers want.

10. Get the word out!

You’ve now built a better mousetrap. It’s just a matter of time before customers and investors start throwing more money at you than the dancers at Dirty Dan’s.

Not so.

Two of the most critical components that most technology companies overlook are marketing and sales – believing the old adage if they build it, they will come. Sure, and money grows on trees.

Your message to the market should already be highly refined at this point if you followed steps one through 9. Therefore, you will just need to focus on delivering the message.

First you need to find out where to reach your audience. Second, what do they want to see, hear or feel in order to buy, try or just take the next step in the sales cycle.

Different audiences will want different types of information in different types of formats – so provide a variety of options, e.g. an ROI calculator for the CFO, a Flash presentation showing the actual user how easy it is to use or a case study illustrating how someone else succeeded with the product.

In reality, there is very little difference between executing your marketing and creating a successful product, almost all the steps illustrated above apply to developing a successful marketing campaign.

You’re Done! You can relax. You’ve successfully launched your baby.

Not so fast. Now it’s time to gather feedback and work on the next version. No one is perfect – and despite all the prototyping and proofs of concepts, there will be unexpected kinks to work out.

Most importantly, you need to carefully nurture your new product so that it can begin generating significant sales and revenue. All too often products are pushed into the market and abandoned while the company runs off in pursuit of the next big thing.

Finally, take some time to celebrate your successes and identify items for improvement and then move on. And if you need any help with steps 1 through 10, give me a call.


  1. Fantastic and insightful post about how the traditional publishing industry is going to have to look at embracing change and reinventing how users consume their content. I agree that the media is going to have to adapt. Newspapers need to have an online RSS strategy.

    You can read more about New Media Trends and Technologies at

  2. Katie Sauer says:

    Hey there,
    I have a very good product that could easily work its way into home decorations.. but only being a poor college student majoring in English and History right now… what’s the best direction to begin this project? Right now I’m just sketching the product with a good friend and researching on marketing. Soon we will make a live model of the product. However, I’m very cautious on who to trust. I’m afraid someone will steal this product or rip us off. What’s the best way to begin contacting people to consider and invest into my product? And companies that won’t take advantage of me?

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