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2022-10-20

Why We "Productize"


Assume you are a business owner already providing some solutions to the users.

  • Should I consider making significant growth from now on?
  • If I should, what is the best path forward for growth?

In that situation, productization can be an essential idea to dive deep into. Importantly, "product" is not a one-size-fits-all concept, and there are multiple, gradual paths to productize an existing solution in practice; it is not a binary state of a business offering. Furthermore, I believe not-to-productize (i.e., eliminating a sense of business and focusing on humanity) can also be an option depending on your answer to the first question.

Gradient of offering

A single tech-driven solution in the industry, which is commonly referred to as a service or product, undergoes different stages depending on the organizational scale, business model, and maturity of the solution. Thus, to determine the next steps, it's crucial for businesses to finely define a solution by its stage, understand which stage they are currently at, what the desired state looks like, and how to effectively move from one stage to another.

Here, a book Productize: The Ultimate Guide to Turning Professional Services into Scalable Products nicely highlights such a gradient with a concept called Innovation Ladder; starting from non-productized, labor-intensive professional services, the scale of these solutions can be elevated to productized services, products, and product as a service, depending on the use of human power vs. technology.

If you ever worked at an early phase of the ladder such as non-packaged, human-dependent services and proof-of-concept types of productized services, you will see the difficulty in climbing up the ladder. Consider machine-learning applications, in particular. The flexibility of incorporating human-in-the-loop is vital for a good, ethical ML application, meaning we cannot fully eliminate human factors from an offering.

I had been struggling with the gap between the ideal world vs. reality of product development for years, and hence I was excited to see some insights in the Productize book. It turned out that the content is just a collection of generic product management techniques, and none of them seems to be specific to the enhancement of an existing offering that is still in the middle of the Innovation Ladder. But the book allowed me to rethink the purpose of productization.

Knowing "I have enough"

I'd like to cast one question: Should every labor-intensive service be productized? Not necessarily, in my opinion.

There seems to be an implicit assumption behind Productize that financial growth is our ultimate objective to define one's "success". To maximize the measurement, productization (& scaling it up as a subscription service) is the path forward, which I personally cannot empathize with. To be more precise, the book defines "product" as follows.

Let's start by clearly defining a product. Product refers to a scalable, often tech-enabled, tool or program that can be packaged and sold. [In its footnote:] A product is scalable when we can grow revenue at a faster rate than we need to add costs, such as people. (Introduction - p.3 of the eBook version)

Nothing is wrong with the author, and it is simply a wide-spreading symptom in the modern capitalistic world. Yet, if we naively follow the definition without thinking about its ethical aspect, an ultimate consequence would be the loss of autonomy and lack of humanity at large.

Maximizing shareholder interests is indeed the ultimate goal for many people who are putting themselves into a competitive environment, but, at the same time, tiny "gaps" in society are fulfilled by groups of cooperative people (e.g., volunteers and small businesses) behind the scene. These people know that a handful of opportunities is enough for them, and scaling up with productization does not necessarily lead to the desired consequence. As an independent, I would like to be a person who is in a cooperative environment rather than a competitive one.

Notice that it won't work as an anti-capitalism movement, and a keyword here would be co-existence: in the capitalistic world, not everyone needs to be a big player, and smaller efforts can do a meaningful job that big players usually overlook, and vice versa. That is, the world is functioning as a system, and individuals are mutually dependent at different scales & roles to complement each other. Not to mention what's right for me may not be positive for others.

Hence, I hope to see an intermediate solution between in-person services and full-fledged products, so that we can diversify the market, especially at a local level. It is somewhere around customized services or productized services in the Innovation Ladder. As I mentioned earlier, my experience in the industry tells me that different organizations & business models have distinct sweet spots on the ladder, though the Productize book gives no concrete guidance on how to climb up the ladder step-by-step and where to stop climbing.

Product development is hard

To be fair, Productize is a great handbook about how a good product development lifecycle should be, and the book will potentially be my new go-to book when I teach someone about the essence of product management. There are too many "best practices" on the topic, and the existing resources can be too informative to digest thanks to the set of authors' greatest experiences and quotes from successful people.

For example, Silicon Valley Product Group's Inspired and Empowered have been my favorites for the last few years, but they are about 400-page long each with dense information and case studies. Or, you can name whichever classics business leaders might like, such as The Lean Startup, Crossing the Chasm, or The Innovator's Dilemma. By contrast, Productize is a handy swiss army knife that has not-too-many functions.

Last but not least, what I like about the book is the strong emphasis on creating a product *with* customers. Here, setting a proper tone (alignment) at a cross-functional organization level is a prerequisite. For me, some techniques like creating persona pose over-abstraction of a picture of an end-user and hence aren't necessarily part of the book though. The other rarely-discussed topics covered by the book include (i) prioritizing urgent & expensive problems rather than frequently cited problems and (ii) considering cannibalization as a tool to identify a seed of disruptive innovation.

Nevertheless, the complexity in "productization" is extremely high, and we won't be able to find own sweet spot without starting from an intrinsic motivation and translating it to a clear vision. So, why do *you* productize?

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  See also

2022-01-01
Ethical Product Developer
2021-05-26
Hi Product Managers, Are You Creating Products That *You* Love?
2020-08-29
What I Think About When I Talk About ML Product

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Last updated: 2022-10-20

  Author: Takuya Kitazawa

Takuya Kitazawa is a freelance software developer, minimalistic traveler, ultralight hiker & runner, and craft beer enthusiast. While my area of specialty is in data & AI ethics and machine learning productization, I have worked full-stack throughout the career e.g., as a frontend/backend engineer, OSS developer, technical evangelist, solution architect, data scientist, and product manager. You can find what I am doing lately at my "now" page, and your inquiry is always welcome at [email protected], including comments on my blog posts.

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