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Paradox of Product Persistence

By: Tim Berry

 

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Paradox: On one hand, to keep a business healthy you have to be able to cut mediocre products. On the other hand, some successful products require sticking to them for a long time, stubbornly, to get either the product or the marketing right. Take a minute and think about it, and you’ll find examples of both cases.

Ruthlessly killing products

I vaguely remember a quote from a computer company chairman (I think it was Lou Gerstner, of IBM) talking about how success depends on being absolutely ruthless about deciding to kill products that weren’t working.

I also remember a chilling moment in my personal past when I listened to a guy who’d been running a sailboat company for 15 years tell me how he’d hated it the last 10 years. It was always borderline failing, but he couldn’t get out because he’d started it with friends and family money and he couldn’t tell his parents, sibling, and cousins that they’d lost their investment.

Sometimes persistence produces success

In my specific business history, with Palo Alto Software, I had trouble giving up on products that didn’t make it. I’m stubborn, and I’m optimistic. Still, for the record, especially during the early growth years we killed a bunch of products. The list includes Business Plan Toolkit to Financial Forecasting Toolkit to Business Budgeting Toolkit, Cash Plan ProCash CompassDecisionMaker, Incorporation Toolkit, and Systems Continuity Plan Pro. I’ve probably forgotten a few others, and I’ve probably put others into repressed memory where I don’t have to think about them.

However, on the other hand, I first started productizing business plan financials in 1984, as templates; and did them again in 1988, as more advanced templates; and stuck to the idea of business plan software into the 1990s when we launched Business Plan Pro, which was successful. And Palo Alto Software is a market leader today, with LivePlan, which we introduced in 2011. So that story argues for sticking to it over the long term.

So it’s all case by case

That’s why it’s paradox. You can argue this one either way. General rules and best practices don’t always apply. And you can find experts advocating both sides of this question. And my business experience includes both killing some products and sticking to others.

I was at the pre-competition meeting of the judges of the University of Oregon intercollegiate venture contest a few years ago when we (the judges) were asked to introduce ourselves. One of them, Ty Pettit, said “I probably have the best qualifications for judging this contest because I recently oversaw a company going bankrupt.” That struck me as a very wise comment. Ty has had several successes since.

Published: November 16, 2016
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Tim Berry

Tim Berry is co-founder of Have Presence, founder and Chairman of Palo Alto Software, founder of bplans.com, and a co-founder of Borland International. He is author of books and software including LivePlan and Business Plan Pro, The Plan-As-You-Go Business Plan, and Lean Business Planning, published by Motivational Press in 2015. He has a Stanford MBA degree and degrees with honors from the University of Oregon and the University of Notre Dame. He taught starting a business at the University of Oregon for 11 years.

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