Posted on 19 October 2016 by Morne Du Toit
Getting a business off the ground that is dependent on a core technological product is no mean feat, especially if you have limited capital, resources and time. I have reflected a lot on my past experiences in recent times during various product development projects and have had to draw on them to contribute to their success. The interesting thing is that I drew more on the experience of the failures than the successes I have witnessed or was part of. I have experienced the “Good, the Bad and the Ugly” side of product development in the Tech industry.
The Bad I’ve seen product owners with a great idea that ‘could’ work, investing money and starting the build. The problem here is that they do market research at the same time that they are building the product. This almost always leads to failure as the product owner changes the spec and continues to add new functionality that affects the foundation of the concept every time they are inspired with new ideas by speaking to someone new. Their target market is not defined and each market has its own needs and challenges. These products usually fizzle out and investors lose their money and the product dies a painful death. Now, I hear you, changing the spec of the build as you go along in itself is not necessarily wrong and is possible. However, it is only acceptable if you have a solid business case as well as development technology that can support this process. Without this foundation you are moving into cowboy territory where there is no mercy for failure.
The Ugly The most spectacular failure I witnessed first hand in the product development space, was a Cape Town based development company where I worked as senior Project Manager. In 2009, they decided to build an in-house CRM / Campaign Management product that would give them the strategic edge in a very competitive market. After they spent more than R20+ million in product development costs (mostly investor money), the very successful and well respected development house closed down in 2010 and lost ownership of the product.
What went wrong? Too many things to actually share in one article, however there are a couple key learnings from this for me:
One They had a product owner who was driving the development with his ego and was not grounded in reality. When all you can see is the money you are going to make, it is easy to forget the world around you and get disconnected from it. Its in times like these where reality gives you a very rude wake-up call. Leading with your ego can have an incredibly destructive effect on a team and business. However, if you can learn to tame your ego and control it strategically, you can have a very powerful and positive influence on your business and others.
Two They had someone in charge of the build team (of which the costs and size grew exponentially in a very short period of time) who was not accountable for any of the costs. It is very easy to spend someone else’s money (or time)! Every time they wanted more money from investors they had to give up more equity in the product. Accountability (even for the smallest of things) sits at the core of basic leadership for me. Without it you cannot be an effective and great leader; teams and businesses will suffer the consequences.
Three The third factor is a subtle one and it relates to technology. Because a cowboy with a big ego led the development drive, they decided to make use of the latest technology on the market - MS Silverlight. At this time it was a brand new ‘fancy’ development technology pushed by Microsoft. The problem was that is was barely out of beta version and not mature or widely used in any way. It exponentially added complexity and costs to the project. (Note: Microsoft announced the end of life of Silverlight 5 in 2012. In 2013, Microsoft announced that they had ceased development of Silverlight except for patches and bug fixes.) Making use of the appropriately applicable technology is one of the most important strategic decisions you have to make as product owner or company. If you don’t have the experience to make the right call, get someone onboard that can give you truly subjective advice. The cost will be worth it a thousand times over!
Four The fourth factor that contributed to their downfall was that they ‘forgot’ about the rest of the business. All focus was on this new goose that would one day lay the golden eggs as they de-prioritized anything and anyone that was not part of this new product build. Two thirds of the business was left to run leaderless or with the wrong leadership. Development houses are absolutely dependent on continuous income of new projects, when these dry up there is no more cash flow. The business came to a severe and nasty end. This affected a lot of good people.
The Good Taking into account the four big learnings from past failures, I firmly believe I have applied my learning at Ennea International and as a result, we have an amazing product with which we can grow the business. Do I have an ego? Yes I do, however I am exceptionally good at what I do, but I constantly remind myself to not lead with my ego and to use it strategically to build the business and grow people. Sometimes we need to be able to put our ego aside to allow for other people to have space to blossom and grow in the business. Accountability is one of our core values and it is important that everyone in the team keep each other accountable.
Over the years I have worked with many different technology companies on projects. However the amazing team at I3 (www.i3flow.com) stands out for me, in the technical skill, dedication and values they bring.
'My success was due to good luck, hard work, and support and advice from friends and mentors. But most importantly, it depended on me to keep trying after I had failed.' - Mark Warner
When you want to build a global business with a technology product at the core, you need a certain level of determination and luck to succeed! Work hard, learn from your mistakes and try again, then, luck will be on your side!
Morné du Toit