First Look at Free Market Product Management


In the old west, when law enforcement wasn’t meting out justice to people’s satisfaction, the people would rally together and form a posse. Or they would contribute money to a bounty, and someone else would go “claim the money.” This just happened recently in the software world.

A Software Bounty

Alex King is maintaining a bounty to have someone write software to tether his Blackberry to his Macintosh (for use as a modem). After reaching $675 in contributions (requested from his blog, paid to his paypal account), the posse found what they wanted – a developer willing to do the job.

Hat tips to Doc Searls and Doug Kaye for popping this up on our radar.

Why Did This Happen?

Why did Alex need to raise a bounty? The Blackberry product manager didn’t create this for Mac users, and Alex and others wanted it.

Is it a product management failure? Probably not. There may be dramatically more demand for this, but a $685 bounty implies that there isn’t a lot of demand for this capability. Demand exists, but for a product that has almost 20% of the PDA market, this is a flea on a fly on the back of the beast. ROI-based prioritization would put “almost everything” ahead of this particular feature.

Small towns build up around military bases. Small manufacturers jump all over each other to create iPod accessories. Solar-powered window-fans to cool cars on sunny days. Much of the web2.0 mashup products. People have always been “filling the gaps” around successful products. As gaps get bigger, product managers decisions become more questionable. Maybe they overlooked the opportunity (or mis-valued it). Maybe it was strategically unaligned with the company’s objectives.

Is This Good?

There is something heart-warming to the individualist / capitalist / free marketeer in this phenomenon. Perfect mating of supply and demand. The customers say “I demand this, and will pay anyone for it!” until someone says “I’ll do it.” If there’s enough demand, it will happen. Many of the dynamics of open source software come into play. The developer of the feature can gain experience and visibility (and a little cash) working on this. The customer gets what he wants, without navigating the beurocracy of a zillion-dollar-industry.

Net-net, this is good, albeit small.

Joe Andrieu makes some great points about how marketing and branding play into this dynamic. That really isn’t the point here, since we’re not supplanting “real products”, just augmenting them.

Can This Scale?

Probably not much, without changing a lot. This happened with a handfull of people, requesting a single capability for an existing product. When it becomes a bunch of capabilities, or a completely new product, $685 just won’t pay for the development.

If thousands or hundreds of thousands of dollars could be raised to develop something, that would be awesome. But once a project is that large, it would need some real product management to make it a success. Prioritization, clarification, organization, and testing would all be needed to assure that the posse got their money’s worth. And who’s going to pay for the product manager when the voice of the customer is actually the customer?

This works in the open-source world, where the financial side of things is non-existent or indirect. Sticking with the profit motive for the moment, we lose much of the altruistic approach of open-source. We would need a profit-motivated product manager to allow this to scale beyond the micro-application level that we see here.
But wouldn’t it be fun if it could scale?

What Would it Take?

How could we compensate a product manager for organizing the posse? Give them a piece of the action? There are sites like Rent A Coder that allow customers to put jobs up for bid. But those sites have a single-customer dynamic. Maybe organizing multiple bounty-driven software requests into a single site would reach a critical mass that could support the overhead of product management.

More thinking required….

Group Think?

What do people in the group think? :)

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