The problem is your product

“It’s the engineering team,” Cody sighed. “We need video uploads to work, and they’ve been hacking away at it for months and it’s just not happening. It’s a nightmare.”

Cody (not his real name) was the CEO of a startup in the “cause marketing” industry — helping companies gin up their consumer brands and engage audiences running campaigns with a humanitarian theme. Say, Coca-Cola might sponsor an Earth Day event, or Nike help FIFA run a soccer tournament focused on underprivileged youth. 

Cody’s company had a Social angle. This was 2007, and Social-Local-Mobile (SoLoMo) was the hip buzzword in tech. His platform allowed an audience to upload an image with a short caption and share it to a communal photo board. Cody’s team would work with the brand (his customer) to create the prompt for the photo and caption, and seed the board with inspirational examples. The end results would be a crowd-sourced creative collage of love and kumbaya. And the commercial brand would bathe in the virtue, like a strawberry in a chocolate fountain.

Cynicism aside, it was pretty cool. Seriously. So cool, in fact, that Cody’s customers kept returning, even though his technical platform was flakey, and the overall user experience somewhat anemic. There were plenty of other players in cause marketing — larger, better-resourced, with tech that worked well — but there was something unique about Cody’s product. That uniqueness wasn’t SoLoMo — all of them checked that box. The differentiator, by definition, can’t be the bumper sticker.

Why was he talking to me? Well, I had just left a VP of Engineering role at a mobile video messaging startup. Cody’s competitors already had video uploads working in their products, and — as Cody himself said — videos are more expressive than photos: “Photos are mute. Hello?!” So he was already lagging his peers in technology and falling further behind each week.

“Let me meet the team,” I said. “We’ll see if I can help you.”

I flew out to Toronto. It was still a small outfit comprising a dozen or so people. There were only a couple of developers, with the bulk of the engineering outsourced to a dev house in Vancouver (I spoke with them too). Most of the internal team was dedicated to the operational side of running the high-visibility campaigns, and the creatives all had backgrounds in artistic photography — indeed, Cody and one of his co-founders were keen photographers too.

It was not a happy team: the fissures and acrimony manifested immediately. I was there to ask questions, and everyone seemed eager to unburden themselves of every gripe and grievance. The problem, I was told, was that they’d spend too much money on a particular marketing consultant; or that they should be concentrating on building their “Facebook (Platform) App” (as it was known, another must-have product feature at the time). Some agreed with Cody that product development was too slow and that videos were the missing piece. The engineers complained about ever-changing specs, unclear priorities, and pressure to build to unrealistic deadlines. One of the team confided in me that the investors were losing patience after years of underperformance, and that he was going to approach them directly (behind Cody’s back) to instigate a coup. It’s unbelievable what some people will tell a stranger!

Everyone was frustrated and angry, but angry is better than apathetic and resentful. Angry means you care: that there’s likely something worth saving. While the team members didn’t agree on what the fix was, they did talk with immense pride about specific customer campaigns. In fact, they showed me their favorite captioned imagery from the campaign — two young kids in the back seat singing along to the radio with abandon. The photo caption read “Times I don’t think about chemotherapy.” There were many such others.

“Cody, your problem is not your engineering team: it’s your product strategy,” I said. We were back in downtown San Francisco sipping lattes at Blue Bottle Cafe. “The reason your customers are coming back to you is precisely because you don’t have video: instead, you have beautiful imagery that resonates much more powerfully, paired with these pithy, witty captions that tug at the heartstrings.”

Cody had discovered, without really realizing it, what we now recognize (more or less) as the “internet meme”. Memes weren’t a thing back then: when something doesn’t have a name it’s hard to see it, let alone understand its power. You need a leap in imagination to get there.

“Cody, forget the Facebook app. Forget the direct messaging feature. And forget video uploads: they’re slow, the quality is terrible,” I advised. Now, remember that in 2007 Nokia feature phones and 3G networks were state of the art. The first iPhone was about to be released, and wouldn’t be mainstream for years. Videos were grainy and had poor sound quality, and data plans were horribly expensive. Photo quality, on the other hand, was far better, easier to execute well, and the files were smaller.

While I’d been in Vancouver, I had run a product strategy session with the full team — minus Cody, who was away on business — and we’d explored how to lean into captioned photos in the context of cause marketing. We would let the competition chase each other in circles with “me too” features. We understood something they didn’t, and that was our edge. The turnaround in team morale was stunning. Even the would-be mutineers were on board and excited again: everyone was facing the same direction, and rowing in rhythm. 

The “muteness” of these photos was the very magic at the heart of the product. Imagine a beautiful, dynamically animated slideshow featuring these attributed, captioned images supersized onto a stadium jumbotron, or on a video billboard in Times Square. You could put it to a rousing anthem soundtrack with, say, Morgan Freeman narrating a script. Or imagine it animating in a giant video behind Al Gore, on stage rallying a crowd on climate issues.

We had compacted the problem into a narrow set of design and technical requirements with much less load on the product team. We were building something sui generis — unique, of its own kind — so the competitive pressures were lower, and marketing the product became easier. Sure, you could have the same photo display on a website or a Facebook App, but these had now become secondary platforms for the product — something we could sweat later. The big picture — the story for our product — was the literal “big picture”. It aligned the team, the customers, and the investors.

Over the years, again and again, I’ve seen this same phenomenon. A business is failing, and the surface problem is engineering, or UX, or sales, or marketing, or lack of funding. But these are just symptoms hiding the root cause: a failure of insight into the product. More often than not, the root problem is something important we missed in the very conception of the product.

Of course, I’m not saying that execution is unimportant. I have seen strong products fail due to bad technical architecture, or a legal misstep, or a dysfunctional culture, or sometimes just sheer bad luck — but it usually takes several of these failures in combination. Indeed Cody’s company ended up in the startup graveyard about six months after the events above. Investors who had enthusiastically committed to re-up suddenly fled scared when the Global Financial Crisis hit in the summer of 2008. The company ran out of money (and there were other issues too). So I can’t say for sure that our JumboTron™️ product strategy would have won, but even 14 years on I still find the idea compelling.

There’s another, more general, sense in which “the product is the problem.” As engineers, we think of ourselves as problem solvers. We live in a universe called Solution Space, and we have tools and technologies for navigating it: design patterns, programming languages, IDEs, source control, QA processes, etc. Yet a problem solver requires a problem to solve, so where does that come from?

Product managers live in a different universe: Problem Space. This universe requires different tools to navigate. It’s a strange world with its own dimensionality and laws of physics, so to speak. Problem Space is more abstract than Solution Space, which means we have to be careful and precise about our terms and methods inside it. In that sense, it’s like philosophy or mathematics.

There’s a lot to be said about Problem Space. Far too little attention is paid to it, and the disciplines of product conception and management. But it’s a fascinating domain, and well worth understanding even if you’re not a product manager. Future articles in this series will lay out the astrophysics of Problem Space: how to explore it, and how to distinguish a good problem — one worth solving — from a poor one.

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