Product Marty Cagan

Product Passion

One topic I’ve never written explicitly about is the need for product passion.  I’ve referenced it at the top of the list of traits for good product leaders, but it’s easy to take this for granted especially since the people I surround myself with professionally are generally very passionate about products.

However, lately our industry has seen a resurgence of what I’ll call “product frenzy.”  I hesitate to use the term “bubble” because I’m not sure if it is or not, but certainly there is a form of frenzy going on with people starting product companies at an incredible pace – more than I remember in the late 1990’s.

In the late 1990’s we had many people coming to Silicon Valley to try to get rich quick.  They didn’t care what they were working on as long as they thought could flip it quickly for big profits.

While I think there is some of that going on again now, I am seeing a different sort of problem, that is fueled largely, but not exclusively, by the new mobile market.

Instead of trying to build a company around a vision, many people are essentially equating building a mobile app with building a company.  Build a great app, people will love it, someone will buy us.

Essentially the table stakes for starting a company have dropped.  It can cost very little to build a mobile app.  Of course, a few of these apps are impressive while most are not, but that’s not really my point in this article.  Here I wanted to talk about the difference between those that are pursuing a vision where the app is but one step, and those are just chasing their latest app idea.

Let’s consider three recent startups:

Read It Later indeed has a very successful mobile app, but founder Nate Weiner is in hot pursuit of a much bigger prize; to be the leader in the space of content shifting – being able to read your favorite content on whatever device you want, whenever you want to view it, online or offline.

Flipboard has created one of the best original apps for the iPad, but founder Mike McCue views this as but a step along the way of reinventing how we interact with and consume media.

Lytro may not yet have a mobile app, but founder Ren Ng’s new generation of digital camera technology is not just trying to create a cool new consumer device, but rather to redefine an entire industry.

These are but three examples of founders of product companies that are pursuing their passions.  Not with the view of turning a quick app that makes some easy money, but rather they set out on this journey well aware that it’s going to take many years of hard work to build out their vision of the future.

Let me contrast this with the six different “startup founders” I met with in just the past few weeks that were all just trying to come up with an app that people liked enough to actually install on their phone.  In each case I asked them what they were really trying to achieve with their app and mostly I got confused looks in response.

It’s possible that our industry will evolve to be more like the feature movie industry.  Lots of people create apps, a few make it big, and the audience just moves from one blockbuster to another.  The casual online games industry is working largely like that now.  But even there the best companies are working to create larger ecosystems and not just point games.

If you believe as I do that creating great product companies is a marathon rather than a sprint (albeit a marathon where we’re running 5-minute miles) then to keep the team and your customers motivated for the duration, you need to be pursuing a dream worth getting excited about and staying excited about.

I’ve been using startups as the example here but the same holds true for larger companies.   If you’re trying to create major new sources of revenue for your company, you need to have a vision that is compelling to people not just for a few months but for several years.  You need to show your team, your execs and your stakeholders that you have a longer-term vision, and you must demonstrate the passion required to get the rest of your company excited.

Getting them excited and keeping them excited is a big part of the product leader’s job, and is known as product evangelism.  In an upcoming article I’ll talk about the techniques we have for product evangelism, but they all start with a sincere passion for products that solve real problems.