Product Managers Adapt To Emerging Markets

post it note mosaic

Do you think the product managers at 3M ever expected people to make a mosaic of Elvis Presley out of Post-It Notes?

Post-It Note History

First, a hat-tip to Chris Shafer for pointing us to the International Herald Tribune’s culture section and an article about Post-It Notes.

Post-It Notes started as a bit of a product management anti-pattern. A technology looking for an application. 3M had a “failed” adhesive that was not strong enough for use as a tape. It languished unused for six years until another 3M inventor addressed the problem of bookmarks constantly falling out of his books.

Post-It Notes became ubiquitous for this bookmarking application. They succeeded in spite of their beginning as an anti-pattern.

Post-It Note Evolution

Over time, people began using them in many different ways, not just to mark a place in a document (or annotate it without marking up the original). Reminders, to-do lists, prioritization exercises. People started trying to stick them on anything and everything.

Here’s where the product managers started adapting. They recognized that a “stick it to anything” Post-It Note would be a better product for these emerging uses. And since the product came out in 1980, there was no longer a way to protect the product (it isn’t otherwise differentiated – a piece of paper with a low-force adhesive strip on it). This new stronger (but not too strong) glue allowed them to differentiate themselves in an otherwise commodity market.

Emergence

The unintended use of these sticky-notes emerged and ultimately created a new market – or at the very least, a new use case. And the product managers adapted.

This shouldn’t be confused with changing or growing a product to try and capture existing markets. That isn’t necessarily a recipe for success. Lotus grew its flagship 123 spreadsheet product into Lotus Symphony, to try and grab the “productivity suite” market. They failed. And they killed 123 along the way. Win-amp tried to grow their mp3 playback software into a multi-media playback, cd-ripping, internet-lookup behemoth, and lost what could have been a market dominating position. Thankfully, the latest version is not so bloated.

Are people using your existing products in ways you didn’t intend or expect? Can you capitalize on this? How would you do it?

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