While consulting for startups and seeing first-hand the very difficult resourcing and funding tradeoff decisions that are made every day, I started reflecting on how useful it would be if category leaders in larger organizations would bring a “startup mentality” to their roadmap planning process. Startups must be good at prioritizing and only spending their precious and hard-won capital on activities that are going to bring big returns and true differentiation. Startups don’t embark on an activity because it adds a little value to their business. They need it to add a lot of value. They don’t engage with multiple rounds of market research if they believe that they already instinctively know the answer. They don’t choose to develop a new product just because they have the core competency to make it and sell it…they choose to resource an activity, any activity, because it is the best use of their available resources. It is important what you choose to do, but it is more important what you choose not to do.
We are living in a business climate where it is so important to position a company or product line in a unique light and leverage differentiating advantages no-one else has. Sometimes this is hard because it goes against conventional wisdom and “tried and true” approaches. It is hard because there is sometimes new stuff that has to be figured out. It is hard because it often involves the unknown.
Would a startup be able to raise millions from eager investors to do something that anyone else can easily do? …that has been done before? …that isn’t really that unique or differentiated? …that isn’t a “WOW”? Looking at new opportunities through the lens of an investor in “your business” will provide an interesting perspective. Ask yourself these questions, and if you don't arrive at the right answer, stop, check yourself and consider taking a different path:
Can this idea be done easily by someone else?
Will consumers pay a premium for this because of its uniqueness?
Is there a compelling story to tell about this product?
Is this idea a “game-changer”?
The first 10 years of my career were spent “maintaining” core product lines for well-known brands in established categories, and managing modest growth of “base businesses”. I understand the motivations that managers face. We find ourselves saying things like, “this is the product line that keeps the lights on and pays the bills”, or “we need SOMETHING new to hold our place on shelf, even if it is just a refresh of an existing product.” Or “the sales team is complaining that they haven’t had anything new in 4 years and we are at risk of losing the placement unless we do something…anything.”
Newsflash…if that “something new” is a new industrial design or color scheme wrapped around basically the same product, you may want to rethink investing time and energy in that “refresh”. Putting resources into a disruptive new technology, or even a new product entirely, might bring more perceived risk, but the risk to the health of your business if you do not introduce something more meaningful is much more dangerous. If your launch is not bringing meaningful change, your competition may leapfrog your exciting “new” product before the tooling and development is even paid for.
Resist the temptation to just “refresh”. Refreshes can be huge resource drains and at the end of the day often do nothing more than satisfy the retail buyer’s thirst for perceived newness. Why is the product being refreshed? Is the product that is already on the shelf capable of doing all the same stuff for the consumer? Then don’t refresh it. Keep selling it. Cost reduce it, reduce the retail price if you need to, and instead dedicate your precious limited resources into coming up with something truly innovative and fresh that provides meaningful new benefits, stories to tell, and delivers a “WOW”. Ultimately, your sales force, retailers, and most importantly your consumers will thank you.