Sometimes Success Takes a Little Luck

Sometimes Success Takes a Little Luck

Have you ever stopped to think about what makes some products successful while others languish in obscurity?  What made Orkut fail while Facebook took the world by storm?  What made StackExchange such a tremendously popular forum when there are literally thousands of others who have attempted the same thing?  As much as we Product Managers want to believe that there’s some magical formula of product/market fit, compelling MVP features, and user-centered design that is guaranteed to make our product a success, the simple fact of the matter is that there’s a lot of luck involved in whether or not our solutions “stick” in the market and whether or not our ideas lead to successful products.

Sometimes it’s about the timing…

There are few things that can define whether or not a product is successful in establishing dominance in a market than timing.  Take the Apple Newton for example — in many ways so far ahead of its time that the product itself is prescient to today’s widespread use of tablets, smartphones, and other connected devices.  But the problem is, it was too far ahead of its time.  The infrastructure to have a fully connected, always-on device simply wasn’t there; the internal guts of the product were too bulky and costly to make it really worth its while; the key selling feature — handwriting recognition — simply didn’t have the technological basis that we practically take for granted now.  Even just five years later, the Newton could have been amazing — ten years later, it could have been groundbreaking.  But at the time and place that it was introduced, it was simply underwhelming.

Sometimes it’s about the market…

Oh, how I miss the Zune.  Seriously, I’m not actually kidding.  The music player introduced by Microsoft as the competitor to early iPods was easily the more technologically superior device at the time it was introduced.  But it horribly misjudged the market.  First, it failed to understand that the music player market was nascent and still developing, which is always a bit of a yellow light to a second-entrant.  Then, it placed a huge bet on the concept of sharing music — given the state of the music business at the time, a risky position to take.  But ultimately, it failed to understand that, at the time the Zune was introduced, the market just wasn’t ready for its feature set — many of which we’ve seen folded into successful companies like Spotify.  Had Microsoft been more wary about the market, done a little more solid research, and understood where the market was at when they wanted to release the product, maybe the Zune wouldn’t be synonymous with the dodo bird as far as technology goes.

Sometimes it’s about pure luck…

There’s a classic story about the founder of FedEx taking the struggling company’s remaining $5,000 to Las Vegas and betting it all on blackjack, only to come back with $32,000 to pay for fuel, salary, and other operating costs that floated the company just long enough for it to become the international backbone of commerce that it is now.  There’s no other way to explain this than one of two things:  destiny or luck.  And personally I don’t believe much in predetermination, so that leaves luck.  Now, not everyone is going to go to Vegas with their company’s last remaining funds, bet it all on black, and come back to an exuberant workplace (in fact, doing so is probably far more likely to get you arrested and charged with embezzlement than to push you to the national stage).  But there is absolutely an aspect of luck to consider when we’re trying to push the envelope with our products.  Big bets lead to big payoffs (and big losses, but let’s pretend that never happens).  If we’re never trying out luck, we’re never presenting ourselves with the opportunity to allow luck to take us to that next level.

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