Product Marty Cagan

The New Old Thing

With apologies to one of my favorite authors, Michael Lewis’ “The New New Thing,” I wanted to talk today about what I see as a common misconception among product managers and companies in general. So many companies believe they need to create an entirely new market in order to do something big. The media helps fuel this; probably the single most common question I get, especially from the press, is “what’s going to be the next new thing?”

While it’s always fun to speculate on what the next new big thing is, I have found that much more often than not, the next big thing is not something altogether new but rather a new incarnation of something old. The difference is that the new product does it so much better, faster, and/or cheaper that they end up redefining their category.

Let’s look at some examples: While there were literally over a hundred MP3 players on the market when Apple introduced the iPod, the product was so much better that they quickly redefined the category. (In my opinion, Apple has done the same with their new iMac/MacOS/iLife personal computer, system software and application software lines, but I have no desire to start another PC versus Mac debate).

Similarly, when Google entered the search market many people scoffed as they considered the market “mature” with dozens of search engines already out there. The difference was that Google actually provided useful results. Consistently. So much so that they soon came to define the category.

The same thing happens in the non-tech world as well. The market for sport sandals is pretty far from my area of expertise, other than having been a sandal consumer for 20 years. I have been a loyal Teva customer for most of that time. They last for years and I never really thought twice about their limitations. Then I actually heard about Keen’s and gave them a try, and I can’t imagine going back. The people behind Keen (an interesting Silicon Valley story in itself) saw the unmet need, came out with a new approach to footwear, and in two short years have broken into a very difficult to penetrate market and have established themselves as the new standard.

There are two key methods that smart companies use to create winning products in mature markets. First, they understand their target market and where the current products fall short. Usability testing is my favorite technique for doing this, but unlike traditional usability testing, you do this with your competitor’s products in addition to your own.

Second, great product managers know that what is now possible is always changing. New technologies enable new solutions that may not have been possible or feasible until now. It is not easy to constantly stay on top of relevant technologies and consider how they might be applied to help solve the problems you face, but it can make all the difference for your product.

As I’ve explained elsewhere, great product managers combine what is desirable with what is just now possible. Apple, Google and Keen understand this. Product opportunities exist everywhere, in virtually every market. But you must identify the need, and then search for new ways of applying technology to solve the problem.