What is a Product?

(also available on medium.com)

So what, then, is a product? A product is something created to solve a customer’s problem. Peter Drucker famously said “Because the purpose of business is to create a customer, the business enterprise has two–and only two–basic functions: marketing and innovation.” Product Management is precisely those two functions – innovation and marketing. Another way to describe it is that a product is something that provides value to a customer.

And don’t ever forget that they (the customer) get to decide if the product is valuable or not. That’s not your job. Your job is to try and figure out what problems they have (problem space) and create solutions to those problems (solution space.) When you present you magical solution to their problem, they very well may just say “I don’t care.” They get to decide if you have problem-solution fit and product-market fit.

But what is a product vs a feature vs a service? On the one hand – who cares what you call it as long as people buy it or buy because of it? My friend and product guru Scott Sehlhorst says “if you don’t sell it (if there isn’t an exchange of value), it isn’t a product.” But words do seem to matter to people, and “product manager” is a much cooler title than “Feature manager” even if that’s all some of us get to do J. So in the B2C space, it’s usually pretty clear that when you pay for a thing, that thing is the product. A car is a product, as is a toy for your kid, or even an app that you use to summon a car to take you somewhere (or is the ride itself the product?)

But in very large organizations, for reasons of role and work breakdown, it can get even fuzzier. Is the web analytical data that IT sends to marketing a product? What about a set of APIs inside ofa CRM that enable data integrations with external software? Or the data that gets crunched into a user profile to personalize a customer’s experience on a site?

I believe that ideally a development team should be able to deliver end-to-end value for a thing (which you should be able to call a product). But at increasingly complicated organizations, that’s not always the case (though it can be possible to architect things such that a product team can be more independent and self-directing.) And a product manager absolutely needs to understand who the customer is, be they internal or external, and what problem that customer has.  If you don’t have a deep understanding of the customer and their problems, you can’t succeed consistently.

So what do you think? How would you define products in a world of incredibly complicated organizations?



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