Picture Perfect Product Management

Fujifilm has been able to continue to grow by changing their focus
Fujifilm has been able to continue to grow by changing their focus

Just imagine if you were a product manager who was in charge of film for cameras. Your world used to be great: everyone needed film and so you could improve your product, roll it out, and customers would snap it up (sorry for the pun). However, then along came digital cameras and almost overnight the market for your product vanished. Kodak has filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy because of this. However, Fujifilm is still going strong. What did their product managers do that nobody else did?

Fujifilm’s Big Problem

The year 2000 was a great year to be in the business of supplying analog film to the world’s photographers. This was the year that worldwide demand for photographic film hit its peak. I mean we all needed the stuff: we’d been taught that when we went on vacation or had special family events we needed to take a lot of photographs. We’d go to the store and buy our film from one of two main companies: Kodak or Fujifilm.

Well fast forward to today and as you can well imagine, the world has pretty much flipped upside down when it comes to photography film. The cameras that we used to use now sit up on a shelf somewhere in the house. We’ve all either switched to using the digital camera that is built into our cell phone or we’ve gone out and bought a new stand-alone digital camera.

What this means is that we no longer have a need for analog film. Poof – the market for this product that had been in demand for over 100 years went away almost overnight. At Kodak, they didn’t know what to do and that’s why they’ve fielded for Chapter 11 bankruptcy. This never looks good on your product manager resume.

This all leads to one critical question. What’s a film company product manager to do?

How Fujifilm’s Product Managers Reacted

Over at Fujifilm, they handled things a bit differently than Kodak did. Clearly the Fujifilm product managers knew about the product development definition –start with understanding what’s coming your way. One of the most important things that Fujifilm’s product managers did right was to take the long view. Yes, they saw that the digital revolution was going to cause the need for analog film to go away, but they decided that switching to digital photography was not enough.

Instead, what they did was to take a step back and ask themselves the question “what does Fujifilm do well?” The answer to this question turned out to be that Fujifilm was a very good chemical company.

The product managers then took that information and went looking for other industries that Fuifilm could create products for. What they discovered might surprise you.

The Fujifilm product managers discovered that the company’s chemical expertise was needed in the development of films used in the creation of LCD panels for computers, TVs, and cell phones. It also turns out that the world of cosmetics had a need for Fujifilm’s ability to prevent photos from fading over time. Finally, the world of healthcare could use Fujifilm’s expertise to develop ways for the human body to do a better job of absorbing chemicals.

The result of switching the products that they make and what markets they serve has allowed Fujifilm to not only survive, but to also thrive. Fujifilm used to make 20% of their money from analog film. These days it’s down to just 1%. Now that’s a nice development.

What All Of This Means For You

It is entirely possible that at some point in time during our product management career we will encounter a situation where the market for our product dries up and goes away. Although this may have not have been on our product manager job description, we do need to know how to deal with it. As product managers we need to make some tough decisions when this happens.

Over at Fujifilm the arrival of digital cameras meant that their primary market, the photographic film market, was going to go away. Instead of just focusing on trying to come up with a digital version of what they were already making, the Fuji product managers took a close look at what the company did well. What they discovered is that Fuji could use its product knowledge to branch into other industries including LCD displays, medicine, and cosmetics.

When the market for your product starts to go away, remember what Fujifilm did. Take the time to study what your company does well and see if there are any skills or technologies that can be applied to different markets. Finding other ways to create popular products will allow you to capture many happy memories.

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

Question For You: Do you think different types of product managers will be required if your company enters different industries?

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What We’ll Be Talking About Next Time

How much does your product cost? Is it the right price? Both of these questions are a part of the product development definition. As product managers when we set a price for our products we might also set up some discounting rules, and then we prefer to pretty much leave things alone. However, what if you couldn’t do that? The product managers over at trash hauler Waste Management ran into this problem and if they didn’t find a solution, then the company was going to lose millions.