Perhaps It’s Time For Product Managers To Go To Prison

Don't keep your new product ideas locked up…
Don’t keep your new product ideas locked up…
Image Credit

Ok product manager, let’s talk about something different for just a moment. As product managers we are all trying to do the same thing: identify a segment of customers who are underserved, use our product development definition to create a product for them, and then provide them with a solution that meets their needs while making money for our company. How hard could all of that be? It turns out that it’s actually pretty hard to do well. Chris Barrett has found a novel way to do this for a segment of customers who are currently in prison and he’s got a few things to teach the rest of us…

The Need

As all product managers know, we can’t have a successful product without identifying customers who have a need. Alan Feuer over at the New York Times has discovered that families and friends of inmates want to make their lives behind bars just a little bit better. The prison system allows these people on the outside to send products to prisoners as long as they meet strict regulations. No alcohol, nothing that can be made into a weapon, etc.

The problem is that it can be very difficult to (1) pick a product that meets the 20 pages of New York State Department of Corrections regulations and (2) it is a big effort to pack and ship what has been bought. Feuer reports that Chris Barrett has set up a company that does both of these things well in order to meet the needs of the people on the outside. Sounds like something that he can add to his product manager resume!

The Product

What Chris Barrett has done is to create a mini-Amazon to serve the prison population. New York state has 50,000 inmates who form Barrett’s market segment. Chris has created a catalog and online web site that contains soft drinks, cigarettes, canned ravioli, etc. Family members and friends can place an order and Barrett’s company,, will take care of placing the ordered items in a package and shipping it to the person in prison.

On a given day, the company processes roughly 40 orders. 13 of these orders come from families and friends, 27 of them are orders that come from prisoners themselves. The average order is for US$110 worth of goods. Currently, after paying for inventory, the company is making US$800,000.

The Extras

Barrett realizes that he needs to do things to meet the unique needs of his market segment. One need that they have is for popular music. However, CDs are not allowed inside the prison because they can be easily broken and turned into weapons. Barrett has entered into a unique agreement with Universal Records to create cassette tapes of their most popular rap and R&B music. This unique product is now offered to prisoners only by Barrett’s company.

Additionally, Barrett realizes that the people placing the orders are dealing with a difficult situation. Someone that they care about is behind bars. In order to make their life just a little bit easier, Barrett has hosted parties in which his customers have been invited to attend. By doing this he is creating a community of customers who will be willing to use his product over and over again.

What All Of This Means For You

I certainly hope that none of you will ever be in a situation where you are eligible to become one of Chris Barrett’s customers. In fact, depending on what company you work for, you probably won’t be going after the same market segment as Chris. However, we can all learn a few things from how Chris has done it.

The need of family and friends to be able to provide inmates with gifts and products is a real need. Due to the restrictions that the prison system puts on what can be provided to prisoners, it can be difficult to accomplish the task of providing goods to the end customer. provides this service using a catalog of carefully selected products that all meet the restrictions that the prison system has put in place. Chris Barrett realizes that he has to do more than just ship products so he has created unique cassette tapes and hosts parties for families that purchase his products.

Ultimately, being a product manager is all about finding out what the needs of our customers are. This is the most important part of any product manager job description. Once we know that, we can create products and solutions that uniquely meet their needs. Chris Barrett has done exactly that. We need to take a close look at how he has done it and do the same for our customers!

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

Question For You: How easy do you think that it would be for another company to copy what has done?

Click here to get automatic updates when
The Accidental Product Manager Blog is updated.

P.S.: Free subscriptions to The Accidental Product Manager Newsletter are now available. It’s your product – it’s your career. Subscribe now: Click Here!

What We’ll Be Talking About Next Time

You may have read about the death of the Blockbuster chain of video rental stores. It doesn’t seem as though it was all that long ago when there was a Blockbuster store on every corner and we were all racing to return our videos before we got charged a late fee. However, times change and Blockbuster hit some hard times. They were eventually purchased by Dish Network and Dish has decided to pull the plug on the remaining Blockbuster stores. Except for 50 stores that are independently-owned franchise stores – they’re going to stay open. Is there a lesson here for product managers?