The Secrets to Product Success

Steve Johnson
Product Growth Leaders
10 min readMar 29, 2023


What is the secret to product success?

Over the last few decades, the industry learned what works and what doesn’t. In general, we’ve gotten better at building products right, but many have not had success in building the right products.

The 2010’s were about agile development; in the 2020s, companies of all types are perfecting product management.

And here’s why:

Over 30,000 new products are introduced every year, and 95 percent fail. — Clayton Christensen, author of The Innovator’s Dilemma, and professor at Harvard Business School

They fail because they haven’t met a market need or addressed a pervasive problem.

How can things go so wrong? It’s in these two phrases:

“If you build it, they will come.”


“I talked to a guy.”

That is, failing products tend to focus either on what’s possible with technology or are completely defined by the needs of a single customer.

Successful products solve problems for a market full of buyers.

Here’s an example.

MuteMe is a simple USB device that glows red whenever you’re muted. It’s a little smaller than a hockey puck. Just tap it to mute or unmute. Brilliant. The MuteMe team found a problem and solved it.

On the other hand, here’s the Smalt.

They say: it is “the world’s first interactive centerpiece and smart salt dispenser, designed to enhance your dining experience.”

Come on! It’s a saltshaker that’s also an ambient light and a Bluetooth speaker.

It’s possible, but it is hard to imagine who they thought would buy it or why.

This is a product in search of a problem.

MuteMe is a problem-focused product, it solves a real problem for a market full of customers. It’s about $50 and they’re having trouble keeping up with demand.

Smalt is a feature-focused product. Smash together a saltshaker, a light, a Bluetooth speaker. Not surprisingly, it hasn’t done well.

Eric Ries wrote,

What if we found ourselves building something that nobody wanted? In that case, what did it matter if we did it on time and on budget? — Eric Ries, author of Lean Startup

Here’s the elephant in the room. Executives worry about three things:

How do we sell more of what we’ve built?

Can we build what we’ve planned?

Have we planned the right products?

There are three secrets to ensuring you’re building products people want to buy.

Want to see this on video? Check out the Three Secrets video series.

Secret # 1: Focus on market problems

The most important secret to product success is a focus on market problems.

Unfortunately, many organizations still make product decisions based on talking with one customer — or talking with zero customers. “I talked to a guy” is not a completed research study. Neither is “I had an idea in the shower.”

Successful products begin with a deep understanding of problems to be solved for a market full of customers. Of course, it’s obvious that we need to know and understand the customer. But which customers? Who are you listening to?

You get lots of feedback from recent buyers via the sales team. And you probably get some feedback from your customers. But unless you’re doing win/loss analysis, you probably aren’t hearing from your competitors’ customers. And then there’s the do-it-yourself people who are assembling their own solutions, usually because no one has built a complete, ready-to-use product. And what about non-customers? They are not even shopping for a solution, even though they probably need a product like yours.

To be successful, you need to understand the needs of the entire market. Not just recent buyers; not just existing customers.

The aim of marketing is to know and understand the customers so well that the product or service fits them and sells itself. — Peter Drucker, celebrated by BusinessWeek magazine as “the man who invented management.”

And by “marketing,” he didn’t mean promotion; he meant strategic marketing. What we now call product management.

What is a product?

One answer is, a product is anything you sell.

A better answer is, A product is a solution to a market problem.

A problem could be a difficulty, a job to be done, a need or want, or simply a desire. A product includes all the components and services that are necessary to fully solve the problem from the buyer’s point of view. If it doesn’t completely solve the problem, it’s a part or a component. If it is delivered only once, it’s not a product, it’s consulting.

To succeed, products must solve problems that are vital to the buyer (or else they won’t buy it), valuable to the user (or else they won’t use it), and viable for your business (or you can’t continue to offer it profitably). — Steve Johnson, product management pioneer and co-founder of Product Growth Leaders.

Your “product” is not your software or hardware or services. The value of your business is not about the things you build; it’s about the problems you solve for your customers.

No problem; no product.

Secret #2: Standardize your processes

Just as you have a process for development and for selling, you need a product process: from idea to market, from problem discovery to launch into the market.

Simply having a process is itself a best practice. Yet, for many, product planning is chaos.

47% report that process is the biggest challenge for managing products in their company.

Today’s products seem to get released through individual heroics, often despite the process. No matter what others may think, creating a product is not factory work. Ideas don’t just come by on a conveyor belt, one after another. Creating any product requires creativity. It’s more like writing a book. It’s not like manufacturing a car.

This feature factory mindset permeates the industry, and it leads to building a lot of features. But building a lot of features doesn’t always end up with a product that people will buy and use.

With today’s feature-oriented methods, we can build the wrong product faster than ever.

We need some process. Something more than a cocktail napkin. We need a way to go from idea to product to success in the market.

Here’s what typically happens when an organization realizes they have a broken process. They put together a process team and they come up with a phased process or a stage process where you do this and you do this and you do this and in each of those stages, we have a bunch of forms to fill out, and all these meetings and ceremonies. and they assume lots of people will participate and everybody has all the information they need, and nobody has a political agenda.

But in most processes, research — that is, learning — happens only at the beginning and the end of this long process.

Lean Startup encourages you to BUILD, MEASURE, and LEARN. But that isn’t really a process; it is more of a philosophy. Yes, we should build and measure and learn. But there’s so much more to product than BUILD.

We need to discover important problems to solve. Describe those problems to our internal teams. Then deliver the solutions to market successfully.

Let’s expand this to the six steps necessary for creating innovative products.

First, DISCOVER important problems to solve.

Gain COMMITMENT from leadership with business deliverables.

DESCRIBE those problems as well as the personas who have them.

Work with development and design teams to CREATE innovative solutions.

Work with sales and marketing teams to DELIVER to the market.

Then CONNECT with the market using programs that drive growth in adoption and revenue.

And learn continuously.

At the center is continuous learning. You learn what’s working and what isn’t. You learn whether you have achieved product-market fit. Learn that a feature implementation is (or is not) solving the problem to the customer’s satisfaction. Learn whether the market messaging is resonating with buyers. Learn what sales and customer tools are needed to reduce friction in the buying process.

That’s the Quartz Open Framework — showing the phases of a modern product life cycle.

DISCOVER problems and COMMIT to solve them.

DESCRIBE and CREATE winning solutions.

DELIVER and CONNECT with markets for customer success

And LEARN continually.

The Fundamentals of Managing Products program from Product Growth Leaders provides a playbook for each facet of the Quartz Open Framework, from DISCOVER to CONNECT.

For more ideas on modern product management, get Turn Ideas Into Products, available on Amazon or our site.

Secret #3: Clarify team roles

You cannot build anything without people. And without clarity on roles and responsibilities, you have chaos. Who is best suited to research the market and identify the problems to be solved? Who will take the lead in designing solutions? What are the necessary roles for a world-class product organization?

I created quite a commotion in a meeting with my marketing team when I told them they could no longer invite salespeople to recurring planning meetings. I said,

Salespeople already have a job: Selling what we have to people who want to buy it. Helping marketing is not in the sales job description. At the end of the year, the VP of Sales cares if the sales rep made their number; they don’t care how much the salespeople helped other departments.”

I expect product managers and product marketing managers to be the experts on the market. Not just the recent deals, not just the buyers. The market. Buyer, users, and competitors.

Unfortunately, product management is clearly defined and understood in only 21% of organizations. This is why product planning is chaos for many teams.

For those who don’t have product managers, your products are being managed… somehow. The work is being done… by someone. Or a bunch of someones.

For those who do have product managers, products are being managed, but outputs and outcomes are inconsistent. Each product manager uses different forms and different tools. They all learned from different sources: some seminars, some articles, some videos.

And they can’t even agree on the scope of their role. No one is quite sure where their job ends and others begin.

Either way, you have chaos.

And titles are a mess. There are product managers, technical product managers, product marketing managers, project managers, program managers, and more. What one organization calls a product manager, another calls a product marketing manager. And some product managers are called product owners.

There’s a set of things that product roles should be doing. And then there’s what other departments think they should be doing. And it’s always an enormous list.

Depending on the organization, product managers are responsible for some or all of these.

“The glue”

“Go-to resource”

Subject matter expert

Prototyping and design

Project management

Quality assurance

Sales support

Product demos and RFPs

Customer support

What no one else wants to do

This isn’t product management. It’s design; it’s development; it’s QA and sales support.

And don’t get me wrong. I love supporting sales teams. But that’s not product management; that’s sales engineering. And, I have to say, I have a knack for design, but that’s not product management either; that’s design.

Being everyone’s subject matter expert and doing what no one else wants to do is simply not product management.

Instead, product managers should be guiding the product through Quartz — a series of phases from discovery to success in the market. Finding and sharing problems that are vital to the buyer, valuable to the user, and viable for your business.

In a recent survey, 69% of product managers create prototypes and wireframes. That’s not product management — that’s design. Only 17% have P&L responsibility. Managing the business aspects of the product actually is product management.

Product management should be your primary source of expertise on the market — the expert on those who buy and use your products as well as the expert on your competitors.

Peter Drucker tells us, “In a well-run organization, each role has a single orientation; they either support customers or support the market.”

Think about some of the activities in your organization. Some are focused on the needs of markets, and some are focused on the needs of individual customers. And as Drucker said, each role should have a single orientation; either individual customers or the market full of customers.

Successful products are created by people. It really takes a committed and empowered team of product managers, designers, and developers to build a product for a market full of customers. You need a solutions-oriented marketing team to design programs, campaigns and enablement tools that reduce friction from the buyer’s journey.

You need sales, support, services, and success teams engaging with individual customers, and guiding them to success.

As they say, “It takes a village to raise a child.”

The systematic nature of product management is how organizations scale.

And you know what? It’s a lot more fun to come to work when you know what you’re doing, and you know what you’re doing is valued.

Ultimately, our goal is to turn good ideas into successful products systematically.

That’s product management.

Product Success. On Purpose.

At Product Growth Leaders, we remove organizational chaos so product teams can drive successful product outcomes. So product professionals know what they’re doing… and know that what they’re doing is valued.



Steve Johnson
Product Growth Leaders

author, speaker, consultant, guitar player. Removing chaos from product management since 1996. Learn how at