How to avoid your product becoming a customer project? [003.0]

Initially, it was sorta frustrating experience being a product manager in the startup but I love building products so I persisted. I thought I had failed in many ways as a product manager but when I quit I was surprised to see how the company tried hard to keep me. It was such a surprise because I did not hear any words of appreciation for the work I had put in and suddenly I was a prized commodity. I guess it was all about the money. Again something to learn for me as I rose higher in the product management hierarchy, never hesitate to delegate, appreciate, and pay up for good product managers because they are hard to come by.

Also, product management is a thankless job with mostly jabs coming your way from everyone so it is vital to recognize and appreciate the efforts put in by product managers. Product managers are mostly thick skinned and take a lot of blows but all have their own limits before they leave for better pastures. A typical product manager will never leave before launching a product AND once they have launched it they wanna grow it too.

Customer ProjectI moved on from the startup to a bigger brand named company totally enamored by their offer, office, products, and customers. A great opportunity for a product manager to spread his/her wings. But in any startup or new product situation, there is a serious risk of your product becoming a customer project. This risk is with the customization built into the product to satisfy the customer such that taking this product to another customer may cost you the same as what it took to execute the customer project. The product assigned to me was a Tier 1 Carrier project. The customer called the shots on everything about this product. Literally every feature in every release was approved by the customer. In fact, the customer used to provide the product roadmap with UI/UX design and we would execute it like a project literally. Most of the features and design elements added very little value to their consumers. When I joined it was too late to change directions since the codebase was so customized for the customer that it could not be leveraged for any other customers. A very sad situation.

But within a year I was able to turn things around for us by focusing on the product than the project by implementing the following:
  1. Asked for validation data from the customer product management for every requested feature from their consumer perspective by comparing this product with the features offered in other products that are preloaded for their customers.
  2. Proposed a product roadmap of our own to the customer such that it complemented the features offered in other products that are preloaded for their customers.
  3. Built an ROI model based on customer adoption to enable prioritization of each feature.
  4. Defined the product release, which now became a combination of features proposed by us and the customer.
  5. Suggested alternate UI/UX design to the customer. UI/UX of any product is sacred, never be afraid to speak up if it sucks BUT need to back up your argument with good data to convince the team.
  6. Last but not the least in any product or project “status quo” does not survive. Product is a living thing with its own life cycle. It has to be nurtured carefully for it to grow in adoption and revenues.

In my next many blog posts, I will share the various challenges I had to overcome to grow the product revenues to $50M+ per year for our customer.


  1. Antonio R says:

    You’re good, sounds like. I’ve seen startups drown doing this, and I’ve seen products at bigger companies go offtrack doing this. Nice turnaround.

  2. When we work with clients who want to collaboratively manage their products with their customers, an important aspect is finding ways to educate the customer about the cost of the new features or line extensions. Serious games can help by highlighting the tradeoffs that must be made in order to achieve the optimal product.

  3. Good save! This is something I experienced in my last company where we made the mistake of letting a “whale” customer dictate our roadmap too much. Wrote about that a while ago:

    Now I’ve grown older (and maybe wiser!?) I’ve learned that saying no to customers is easy when it’s done within a solid culture of building value for users. In fact, saying no and taking control of our roadmap has earned a lot of respect from our customers & prospects.

    Here’s my post about why building a product isn’t a democracy:

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