Dang it! This was supposed to be a story about a product success, not a product failure. Pure Digital created the low-end highly portable video camera market a few years back and then got bought out for a half a billion U.S. dollars by the networking giant Cisco. Cisco is stuffed with smart, bright product managers and they should have been able to boost this successful product into outer space. But they didn't and now the Flip video camera is going away, what happened?
Why I Loved The Flip Video Camera
So I'm willing to 'fess up - I own a Flip video camera. In fact, I so fell in love with this product that I bought one early on when it was still owned by Pure Digital. However, after a while of traveling around in my pocket all the time, the screen failed. I ended up getting a Kodak Zi8 to replace it in part because the Zi8 had a feature that the Flip never did - it had a jack that allowed it to be used with an external microphone.
I kept my eye on the Flip over time because I was still seduced by its small size. I never again bought one simply because it never really seemed to change - the Flip that is being offered today sure looks the same as the Flip that I bought several years ago. Sure, they've come out with an HD version and some pretty "skins" that allow you to personalize it, but that seems to be about it.
What Went Wrong Between Cisco And The Flip
Cisco is a smart company. They employ smart product managers. Something went wrong here. Brian Chen and Chunka Mui have both taken a close look at what happened here, and it's not pretty.
It appears as though the reason that the Flip product line didn't do well under management by Cisco is due to two preventable sets of conditions: the Flip was a bad purchase decision for Cisco and then Cisco did a poor job of managing the product once they had it. The product line might have been able to survive one of these mistakes, but it couldn't overcome both of them.
The Wrong Decision
Cisco should not have purchased the Flip product line. Sure, at the time it seemed like a good idea. Cisco's John Chambers announced that Cisco was buying Pure Digital so that they could promote products that would create content that would drive the need for bigger networks - Cisco's core business.
However, what was missed in all of the glowing press releases was that Cisco bought Pure Digital not because they were in a fantastic "adjacent market", but rather because Cisco's core business was slowing. Because of this mistake, Cisco found itself in a market that it really didn't know anything about - consumer electronics. The forces that drive this market are unlike those that drive Cisco's main enterprise networking market.
Additionally, Cisco thought that their brand name that conveys quality and innovation in the enterprise market would help to sell more Flip video cameras. It didn't. I, for one, don't associate Cisco with home products and would rather buy something from Sony or Apple before I'd buy something from Cisco. Finally, any thoughts that Cisco had about using the Flip product line to cross sell its other products was a pipe dream. People who are buying a US$100 video camera are not going to be the same people who buy a US$25,000 high-end router.
Bad Product Decisions
Did I mention that the Flip product line seemed to be stuck in a time-warp? In the fast moving field of consumer electronics, this is the worst thing that can happen. The Flip pretty much got mowed over by the arrival of smartphones: both Apple and Android products keep getting better and better every couple of months at doing what the Flip does.
The Cisco product managers could have saved the Flip. Just like the folks over at MySpace, they could have specialized to save the ship from going down. One way to do this would have been to work very hard to incorporate social networking features into the Flip. Just imagine if you could shoot a video of your dog barking a Christmas song and then hit a button and have it automatically uploaded to both YouTube and your Facebook account. But that never happened.
Finally, the product never moved on. There was never a compelling high-end Flip product that I saw in magazines that caused me to pause, and look longingly at (e.g. the iPad 2) thinking about what I could do with it. The Cisco product managers would have had to be careful here, but things like a good zoom lens, Wi-Fi connectivity, and maybe even an apps store just for the Flip would have done the trick. We'll never know...
What All Of This Means For You
When a company wants to grow its bottom line, purchasing another company to get a successful product sure seems like a simple way to make this happen. However, the ultra-successful Cisco has just proved that this can actually be a risky way to do things.
Their purchase of the Flip video camera product line was flawed in several ways. Although the product was hot when they bought it, the future was already getting cloudy as smartphones kept getting smarter and cheaper. The lack of any compelling high-end features or social networking tie ins reduced consumer interest in carrying this extra electronic gadget. Finally, Cisco just didn't know that much about the consumer market that they were getting into.
In the end it all comes down to doing the basic product manager homework that we've all been taught to do. You need to take a look at the market and understand what need they are looking to fill. Then you need to take a look at your product and make some hard decisions as to how you are going to be able to fill that need better than anyone else. It cost Cisco over US$500M to learn this lesson, let's hope that the rest of us can learn from their mistake...
Dr. Jim Anderson
Dr. Jim Anderson has been a product manger at small start-ups as well as at some of the world's largest IT shops. Dr. Anderson realizes that for a product to be successful, it takes an entire company working together. He'll share his insights and guidance on how to make your products a fantastic success.
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