How Can A Product Manager Make Something Old New Again?

by drjim on August 3, 2015

Pencils aren't going to go away anytime soon

Pencils aren’t going to go away anytime soon
Image Credit: Yuval Haimovits

Pity the poor product manager who has been saddled with responsibility for a product whose time has clearly come and gone: the lowly pencil. I mean, here we are living in the age of smartphones and tablets, who needs a pencil and for that matter, could anyone find a pencil sharpener even if they could find a pencil? I can understand that thinking, but hold on a moment. You’d be wrong.

Adapt To Survive

Ok, let’s face it – we are all consumers of pencils. I’ve got them all over the place and I suspect that you do also. The arrival of online resources, PCs, and other electric documents means that we are not doing as much writing with pencil and paper as we used to. What this has meant for the product managers who are in charge of pencils is that they’ve had to adopt their products in order to survive.

One of the clever things that they’ve come up with is to make the pencils that they are creating useful in our increasingly all digital world. One of the simplest things that they are doing is to add functionality to their product to allow us to use it in different ways. The product managers at Germany’s Faber-Castell have gone ahead and added a rubber tip to one of the pencils that they sell. This allows the pencil to be used as a stylus with a tablet or smartphone. Now that’s something to add to your product manager resume!

The product manager product innovation does not stop here. Over at Germany’s Staedtier they have introduced a product that is designed to allow it’s users to straddle the divide between the analog and the digital world. This pencil allows the user to use it as a normal pencil; however, as you write, it converts everything that you write into an electronic file which can be displayed on a computer.

The Future Looks Bright

It would be natural for us to assume that the market for traditional (number 2 if you must) pencils must be decreasing. In fact, if you had asked me I would have told you that I thought there could only be a few years left before pencils as we know them would be going away. It turns out that that is not the case by a long shot.

Right now the global market for both pens and pencils is on the rise. In fact, it is expected that over the next 5 years the market is expected to continue to expand. The market for pencils is expected to grow by 4% this year and reach a total size of US$2.7B.

So where is this growth coming from? It turns out that in the world’s emerging economies such as Asia and Latin America there are a lot of people who are moving into the new middle class. These people are only now starting to attend school and become better educated. As you can well imagine, this means that they are going to need more and more pencils.

As the pencil companies expand into these emerging markets, their product managers are having to adjust their marketing strategies. Stressing how long a pencil company has been in business can help. It doesn’t hurt to mention the environmentally sensitive techniques that apply to the harvesting of the materials to go into creating a pencil as well as the manufacture of those pencils.

What All Of This Means For You

One of the most important things that any of use product managers need to realize is that our eventual success depends not so much on what product we are put in charge of or its product development definition, but rather what we make of the opportunity. The product managers who have a product manager job description that makes them responsible for pencils realize this.

The market for pencils continues to grow and expand. There are several different reasons for this. The product has been adjusted to fit with our new modern digital world. Pencils have been turned into stylus that works with phones and tablets. Additionally, pencils can now be used to electronically capture information as we write it. The market will continue to expand as consumers in emerging markets in Asia and Latin America drive demand.

No matter what product you are managing, both the success of your product and your product manager career depend on what you can do with the product that you have been given. In the case of pencils, the product managers have done an excellent job of modifying their product to adapt to a changing market. Learn from what’s being done in the world of pencils and you just might be able to write your own future success…!

– Dr. Jim Anderson
Blue Elephant Consulting –
Your Source For Real World Product Management Skills™

Question For You: Do you think that the pencil product managers will have to modify their product for emerging markets?

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What We’ll Be Talking About Next Time

Can there be any better feeling that that of a product manager who is in charge of a high-flying product? A product that everyone wants and you almost can’t make enough of to satisfy demand? Those sure are great times, but they won’t last no matter how good your product development definition is. Every party eventually comes to an end. When your product’s star starts to fade, what is a product manager to do?

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