How great products die


Today I was trying to do some special formatting in Jira as I continued to learn and understand the product better. I used the handy documentation to find out how to format the code and found I could do something like this:

{code:php}

Some code here

{code}

 

The reason to put the language is that you can get some cool syntax highlighting for the type of language you are dealing with. Something which I can do with a free plugin on wordpress like this:


**
* @param integer $org_id
* @param string  $auth_key
*
* @authorization The authorization is created by the person having the authorization key
*
* @return Result
*/

public function saveInvite($org_id, $auth_key){
    //...
}

First I got an error message explain that the language I was trying to do highlighting for was not supported:

So naturally, I thought, “Ok, well that’s a little disappointing, let’s see when it will be supported. I eventually came across this article and found that there is alas a third-party plugin to support more languages but they have decided to stop supporting it. Again, I’m disappointed.

Upon further research it appears that Atlassian has chosen not to assist this third party plugin developer. Again disappointed.

So how is it that the exact same FREE software (syntax highlighting) that costs nothing is supported on a massively larger platform (WordPress) but on the smaller platform (Jira) with a very similar marketplace (Atlassian Marketplace & WordPress Plugin Marketplace are nearly identical) it is NOT supported?? And then it hit me. My stomach sunk deeply. What I was realizing is that Atlassian, a company that has done great things since its founding in 2002 was becoming a publicly traded company. Being publicly traded is not bad in it and of itself, but I find that the market can crush even the strongest leadership teams and push them towards a course that starkly contradicts the culture of the companies creating the gains.

Over the last 6 years I have really come to love Jira for its simplicity ease of use and seeming ability to meet almost any need I had with either built in features or plugins via the marketplace. It seems over the past year or so I have come across more and more situations, not just in Jira, but in Confluence, Bitbucket, etc where features are becoming unsupported and/or outright eliminated.

If a product manager was reading this right now, my guess is they would interpret the lament as something to a “disappointed fan” but that “this very disappointment was expected overall as we evolve the products in Atlassian to maximize shareholder value.” And I believe, that each product manager believes they are doing the right thing.

While the battle still rages between companies like Uber and Lyft and local governments it’s easy to see how older organizations under constant watch of the public and subject to lobbyist can do the exactly wrong thing with every indication they are doing the right thing. Some governments actually believe that taxis are better than services like Uber and Lyft!

So how does this happen!?

In short, over a long period of time people learn to be successful by categorically doing a set of things that either increase or maintain that level of success. These things become subconsciously and even consciously known as truths.

When I was in college I had to write a paper on perception and reality and whether or not people’s perception was reality. I came to the conclusion that perception was reality and that people could have a totally different viewpoint on something and both be right. Now obviously there are limitations when it comes to the laws of physics. However, when it comes to things that are based on an extraordinary set of complex variables I think it would be hard to call a person’s interpretation of that complexity as wrong, if it is different than someone else’s.

The problem with truthiness and falsiness is that they tend to align within categories and but not between categories. For example, both religion and science try to offer an explanation of our origins but since they are categorically based on different interpretations, we come out with very different solutions to this question. Within the categories of science and religion though there is much less variability in people’s perceptions.

Some people refer to the adoption of a newer category of beliefs as a “paradigm shift.” I call it an awakening. Like “finally the public has realized, the old crusty companies aren’t keeping up with evolving needs or uninspiring products” awakening.

On one hand, it makes sense how aligning products to profitability is the most important thing you can do. On the other hand it makes perfect sense that making customers happy is the most important thing to do. However, these things are rarely in alignment when it comes to addressing a set of features that customers want but which will cost the company more to build than they will make. It’s in these situations that companies and customers are actually at odds with one another. A perplexing dichotomy since the very reason a customer and company are working together to begin with is because there is mutual benefit.

One might propose that companies try to find a “balance” in these conflicting situations which is a good tradeoff between maximizing profitability and maximizing benefit to the customer. However, the majority of situations that cause a customer to leave a company are for reasons that are just not beneficial to the company, and in such cases the very logical conclusion is that it is better for the company if the customer leaves.

The very ironic thing is that the company is likely building a set of new features to capture new customers, but yet they are not building features that will retain existing ones. Customers which the company has spent time, money, and energy capturing with new features, marketing, sales, positioning and customer service. Customers which “used” to be profitable customers but are now longer profitable because they want something which is not in the company’s best interest at all.

What employees who are making these decisions forget is that a customer represents a very complex and diverse set of value. Value that far exceeds the revenue they are bringing in the door. Each customer represents an opportunity to get feedback, refer other customers, create new products, make your employees laugh, etc. These things are lumped into “Good will” on the balance sheet but are vastly misunderstood and thus not appropriated the necessary amount of resources to maintain.

Where do we draw the line between profitability and happy customers?

As an Agile coach currently working with Atlassian with one of my clients, I am becoming painstakingly aware of the “unprofitable” features. Depending on the very specific strategy and biases each product manager has, they may choose to support things like Atlassian marketplace developers or syntax highlighting for the 65th language.

I also play the product manager role for a company I founded that is building software to help connect people in person. I have a really hard time answering this question, but it seems to be stories like this one that help me answer it. My conclusion is that you don’t ever draw a line. Like, you never say “This feature will never be worth it” because it is in the proverbially “rarely used” feature set.

As your product gets bigger the number of “rarely used” features becomes larger and larger and can seem impossible to maintain if you continue supporting them. And it even sounds like a bad idea. This is why the rarely used features can be built by third party developers and supporting a marketplace for those developers to sell those rarely used features can be a fantastic way to give your customers the infinite number of features that they want and in some cases genuinely need.

So if Atlassian has already employed this strategy, why then are they choosing to not support the developers of these features. I mean, they are getting basically free enhancements to their product. The only cost to them is some assistance and possibly changes to the core product in order to support them. This cost is likely to be fractional compared to the value it delivers. So has Atlassian gone mad? Probably not.

Why do a profitable business models become “low priority”

Having worked very closely with many software product managers over the last 6 years, I have seen how this story plays out. Essentially somewhere in a conference room, Dave, the developer tells Kim, the product manger, the story of how the company would have to make many changes to support this one plugin developer and how he couldn’t see that it is worth it. Dave also goes on to explain to Kim that features that are a “high priority” are being ignored in order to assist Jim, the third party plugin developer.

Lets dissect this. First it’s important to understand the context of how something becomes a “high priority.” If the organization is doing a good job listening to customers and collecting data they probably can determine how many customers they will retain and or gain if they build a certain feature. If they are not then that’s a different problem, but lets just say it’s the case in Atlassian. It also means that they looked at Jim’s case and determined that the specific feature only is creating about $600 / mo in revenue and that  helping Jim would cost about $100k so obviously it’s not worth it in this case. Makes very good sense right? I mean the product manager is doing a good job at aligning profitability with product decisions. I think every shareholder to cheer Kim on at this point because shareholders would make a smaller return if Kim chose to help Jim out.

What happens to products that are uninspiring?

Eventually the culture of the product sets in and the product managers, developers, executives and customers develop an expectation that only the “most valuable” features will exist in the product. I mean after all how important is another 2 pixels of a shadow to the usability of the product.

It will probably never by themselves be worth it build each one of the millions of things needed to create inspiring products and so as great products turn into large companies, and large companies struggle to maintain consistency in their product while maintaining growth, they kill each small thing one at a time in a conference room over the course of an hour or two in a discussion about “value” and “priority.”

Eventually these products are overtaken by the same type of company they used to be. A nimble feeble organization, with a limited but inspiring product, excites their customers and eventually replaces them. The uninspiring product struggles to adapt to the new competing products not because they don’t have the skills, but instead because in their culture it is impossible to see how something “low priority” is actually important to maintaining its competitive advantage.

While some by think, “are you really saying in order to build great products we have to do low value, low priority things? That sounds absurd!” Yes of course it does, to you, because you are most likely managing an uninspiring product. Would you describe your customers as “excited” about your product? Probably not.

Please talk to anyone of the product managers that are doing something new, innovation, that excites their customers. What you will learn from them is that they care about the little things. And they care, because your customer notices them, and they speak to their humanity. Building things that are “low value” because you can make a person smile on the inside communicates empathy and compassion. Small companies get this because they can see the intricate facial expression of the people they are meeting in person. Large companies can’t because they don’t take the time to meet people in person and see how a small “unvaluable” feature made a big deal to 1 person. This is why they lose their competitive edge and cannot regain it. They aren’t close enough to people to empathize with them. I mean really really care about how they feel.

Why is it totally justifiable to build features that don’t help the customer at all like usage reports or ad-networks but it is not justifiable to build features that don’t help the company at all? Well it’s not and start-ups will do this. Publicly traded companies, that are more influenced by greed than they would like to admit, discourage helping the customer when it does not benefit the shareholder to do so. Unfortunately it’s very hard for an analyst to put a valuation on user or customer good will and so it is almost always undervalued, and consequently marginalized to the point that your customers actually hate your product and want to run as fast as they can into the arms of your competitors.

For those of you wondering how this applies to “internal products” like the software used by customer support or your security administration team. Consider this, companies require both employees and customers, without either one the company would cease to exist. Your employees are arguably more important than your customers in many cases and if you think employees don’t leave their company due to crappy software, then you probably haven’t ever asked an employee how they like the software they use to do their job. If you did you would likely find that there is an unforgivable litany of bugs and shortcomings, because while the board of directors were maximizing profit, they were also maximizing employee pain.

Can it be turned around?

I think the solution is actually easy to write or say but hard to do, but yet. In fact it’s as easy as this. Each time you are going to say no to someone, get on a plane and meet them in person. Then watch, listen, and empathize with them while you genuinely disregard everything you know about your role, company, and product. If you do it right you will genuinely believe the most important thing that company can do is help this person. And if you do exactly that, you will be able to turn around the path you are on towards certain and eventual death by an innovative startup.

 

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