Product Ownership

When and why you should shut down your product

Product managers have a tendency to talk about their products as if they were the best thing ever, the perfectly crafted solution to everyone’s problems. That’s totally normal, as designing, building, testing, delivering and maintaining a product is a lot of work! However, behind all the enthusiasm you might hear or be spreading yourself, lies a hard truth: most products will die. It can happen slowly, in a controlled manner – and sometimes it can happen suddenly.

Some products may fade away quietly, because, for example, the technology they’re based on is no longer used (remember feature-phone apps and WAP?). However, others require the active intervention of a product manager or product strategy team in order to be shut down properly with as little negative side-effects as possible.

Something that can frequently be seen in the startup world is a small company that has a large quantity of very feature-rich products. This can sometimes work, but often it gets to the point where the plurality of products and services hinder the growth of a company. Whether it’s reacting to an evolving market or building something for a big potential client in a B2B setting, there are lots of reasons to branch out a product into another, add a slurry of new features to an existing product or start a new product line. Doing this for too long without ever consolidating or shutting down any of your products can be harmful to your user acquisition, satisfaction, and retention.

Usually, the product team will realise that this quick and dirty product strategy isn’t working for them, and the decision will be made to consolidate or kill certain products. A great example of this in action is 37 Signals, a SaaS company. In early 2014 the 37 Signals team announced they were shutting down almost all of their products, apart from Basecamp. At the time, Basecamp was responsible for 87% of revenue and 90% of the company’s growth. They went so far as to rebrand their company, leaving their original name, 37 Signals, behind to take on the name of their star product: Basecamp.

This kind of transition isn’t ever easy for a business and the product managers involved will be asking a lot of tough questions of themselves and management: why was my product axed? What about that great new release we were working on that was projected to increase revenue? How will we tell our clients and users the product is going to be shut down?

Of course, no one starts a product with the objective of shutting it down, but it is still a necessary part of the product manager’s job to make sure, if necessary, a product shut down happens smoothly and for the right reasons.

Is your product experiencing difficulties?

As a product manager, you need to be asking yourself the following questions when you start to feel that the going is getting too tough:

Is your product financially viable?

    • Simply put, are the revenues generated sufficient? Are you meeting your objectives?
    • What of the profit margin? Are you having trouble generating profit due to high maintenance costs and overbearing technical debt?
  • Do you still have the team and resources to make sure your product is developed, tested, delivered and supported to a high standard of quality? Would your team’s time be better spent working on another more successful product in your organisation?
  • Is your product cannibalising or being cannibalised by other products in your company? If so, are they doing better than your product?

In the case of 37 Signals, the decision was made to axe the majority of their products because they did not want to grow the company’s size. They decided they would rather stay small, and, in order to produce high-quality products, would cut down on the amount of products the teams would work on, concentrating all the company’s effort on the most profitable and promising product. Oftentimes, it’s necessary to kill a product because it’s drifted too far from the company’s initial mission statement, or because its technical debt has become impossible to overcome.

How can you successfully kill a product?

Should you neglect your failing product but continue to sell it? Should you stop selling it, but ensure bug fix and general maintenance so your current customers can continue using it? Should you completely kill it, whilst giving your users the necessary time to migrate their data and find another product?

The decision will be yours to make, and highly dependant on your company’s context. However, we recommend that, if you decide to fully kill a product, you’re sure to leave enough time to your customers and users to understand what’s coming and find another solution that meets their needs before you pull the plug.

Here are some examples:

  • 37 Signals decided to keep the majority of their products running and continues to maintain them, but no longer releases updates or new features. In part, they’re keeping them running to potentially sell them off, or create spin-offs themselves, like what they did with their CRM product, Highrise.
  • Google is notorious for launching a lot of different products, and, inevitably, for shutting a lot of them down. Famously, they recently stopped supporting Google Reader, a much loved RSS and news feed aggregator. They gave enough time to their very vocal community to find other solutions to meet their needs before shutting down for good. They also recently shut down Orkut, a social media product, and again made sure they gave their users plenty of time to download their photos and data before shutting the service down.
  • Adobe gave their Flex framework to the Apache foundation instead of officially shutting it down. This is sometimes seen as the easy way out because the open-source community continues to provide support for the product, and the initial owner doesn’t have to deal with angry users. The open-source world can sometimes be a bit of a recycling bin for a lot of older, proprietary bits of technology.

If I shut down my product, aren’t I shooting myself in the foot?

If you manage several products, killing one off isn’t so bad. You’ll have more time and resources to allocate to your other products, hopefully meaning you’ll find more success with them.

If you only manage one product, it can be very tough to be the one to suggest your product’s time has come, for two reasons:

  • Killing your own product might make you feel like all your hard work led to a failure, and that as a result, your career prospects will take a hit. You might feel like you weren’t “good enough” to build a lasting product. However today it can be seen as a sign of savvy business sense for a product manager to shut down his or her own product, potentially putting an end to the squandering of resources, time and effort within a company. You and your team will hopefully be able to set your sights on a more fruitful endeavor.
  • Product managers are human too! If you’ve been working hard on something for a few years, it can be understandably hard to put an end to your own product.

Deciding to kill a product is a tough choice to be confronted with. Use everything at your disposal to measure the potential impacts and consequences your decision will have. It won’t be pleasant, but knowing when it’s time to stop fighting for your product could save you a lot of headaches and late nights, and save your money valuable time and resources.

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