What Product Managers Can Learn From A Handgun

by drjim on June 18, 2012

In order to create successful products, sometimes you have to point, aim, and fire

In order to create successful products, sometimes you have to point, aim, and fire

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been working with clients who are trying to enter new markets by copying products that are already being sold. If you want to be a “me-too” product manager, you can do this. However, if you really understand the way that product development definition should be done and want to be a breakthrough product manager who rules your market, then maybe you should take a lesson from the handgun manufacturer Glock…

A Product Innovation Story

Handguns aren’t new. In fact they’ve been around for a long time. Everyone knows pretty much what they look like, what they do, and who makes them. The market is dominated by such big name firms as Smith & Wesson, Heckler & Koch, Sig Sauer, Beretta, and Steyr. You wouldn’t think that that even the best product manager out there would stand a chance of being able to introduce a new product into this crowded market.

Apparently nobody told Gaston Glock this. As described in a new book, Glock: The Rise of America’s Gun , Gaston just happened to be in the right place at the right time back in 1980 and overhead two Austrian colonels talking about the Austrian military’s need for new pistols. Gaston then did what any good product manager would do, he went and talked with the customer.

The customer in this case was the Austrian defense minister. The minister agreed to allow Gaston to bid on the handgun contract. Gaston then had to come up with a product to sell. He knew nothing about handguns so he went out and bought his competitor’s products and proceeded to take them apart in order to learn how to build a better product.

The gun that he ended up creating was nothing like the guns that were currently on the market. The Glock 17 (so called because it was the 17th gun that Gaston made) was made out of industrial plastic which both made it lighter and more resistant to corrosion. The handgun was also built out of several subgroups that made it easy to remove and replace. Gaston won the handgun contract with the Austrian military.

How To Market A Gun In A Crowded Market

As we product managers are all too aware of, just having a better product does not assure your product of success and isn’t good enough to put on your product manager resume. If you really want to capture a significant part of your market, then you are going to have to do some serious marketing.

In the case of the Glock guns, it was Karl Walter who took the Glock to the United States. He faced an uphill battle getting this new and fairly ugly looking gun to be a success. At the time, the Smith & Wesson company ruled the market.

Walter did what any good product manager should do, he focused on getting the Glock to be considered by people who were going to be buying a gun. He did this by getting the Glock to be featured in the October 1984 edition of the Soldier of Fortune magazine. He followed this up by getting Glocks used in product placements in both Hollywood films and television shows.

Once the Glock was adopted by the likes of the Secret Service and the FBI the game was over. Glock had won. What Glock had shown is that a carefully managed promotional campaign can help even a new product to enter a market and to capture a significant market share.

What All Of This Means For You

You may not be the product manager for a firearm, but the story of how the Glock handgun was created and what made it successful probably has a story for you. Just because you are trying to enter a crowed, well established market doesn’t mean that you have to copy the products that are already being sold there.

Innovation is a word that is tossed around a lot these days, but it holds a special meaning for product managers. If we take the time to focus on what our customers’ real needs are before we start to define our product, then we have the real possibility of doing what Glock did and transforming our market. Almost sounds like this is something that you’d find in a product manager job description, doesn’t it?

Just because you make a superior product doesn’t mean that the world is going to beat a path to your product management door. Instead, you are going to be the person who is responsible for making sure that the word gets out about how wonderful your product is. Follow the example that has been given to us by Glock and your product should have a shot at being successful.

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

Question For You: Do you think that the Glock example of innovation can be applied to service products?

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What We’ll Be Talking About Next Time

By now everyone knows who Starbucks is – they are the company that sells coffee, a lot of it, and makes a ton of cash doing it. What you may not know is that they have some very sharp product managers working for them and as they follow the product development definition they are always looking for new ways to boost the company’s bottom line. It looks like they’ve succeeded once again – this time they’re going after how their customers pay for Starbucks products.

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{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

Brad Baker June 21, 2012 at 1:36 pm

Well written. As a product management professional and a handgun enthusiast who owns two generation 4 glocks, I can relate to what you wrote. I don’t think Glock won because the Secret Service and the FBI adopoted them. I beleive that Glock won because they created a functionally superior, simple to train, easy to use, safe, reliable, durable and accurate pistol. That is why the Secret Service and FBI adoptem them… but without having a supreior product with the attibutes I listed they would not be where they are no matter who adopted them. My opinion. Still, a great article.

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Dr. Jim Anderson June 22, 2012 at 6:56 am

Brad: good points. Now here’s where the interesting part comes in: where should Glock go from here? Should they focus on making even better handguns, or should they go after new markets such as rifles or shotguns? Lot’s of different options (and they’ve got the cash to do it). What would you do if you were a Glock product manager?

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