Product Culture Marty Cagan

Antidote to Bad Blood

I love product origin stories.  I’ve been able to participate in a handful, and I’ve witnessed quite a few more, but I especially love learning the origin stories of different types of products well outside my own area of expertise.

If you’ve been following the news, you know the trial is currently underway for one of the industry’s most high-profile origin stories that went horribly wrong, which is the story of Theranos.  If you don’t know the story, I highly recommend the absolutely riveting book by John Carreyrou, Bad Blood: Secrets and Lies in a Silicon Valley Startup.  

I read the book three years ago when the book came out, but now that the trial is underway, it’s reminding me again of just how bad a company and leader can be.

I have zero sympathy for the investors in Theranos, but I definitely feel for so many of the employees, and especially for the patients.

While the Theranos story is most definitely extreme, I do think it’s an example of an all too common problem, which is when the founders of a company prove they can sell a product concept (aka demand testing), but they too often don’t understand that demonstrating demand is the easy part.  Actually discovering and delivering a product that addresses the need is the hard part.

I was talking with a friend the other day about Theranos, and he told me about a different medical device company, called Ventana, that tackled a very difficult problem, but actually put in the hard work to discover and deliver a real product, and the result was that they literally changed medicine and saved countless lives.

The founder of Ventana recently published a book called Chasing The Invisible: A Doctor’s Quest To Abolish The Last Unseen Cancer Cell.  I just finished the book, and I loved it.  Just a beautiful example of product discovery in a regulated industry by a motivated and empowered team.

There’s no question that health care is a challenging industry, but I have been encouraged of late to see very impressive product progress by serious product companies.  Check out Grail and Suki as just a couple examples to see what I mean.

There are so many lessons to be learned from the Theranos debacle, but I hope product people at least take away three things: 1) the importance of ethics in leaders; 2) demonstrating demand is the easy part, and it tells you next to nothing about the company’s ability to deliver a product; and 3) product is hard.