What Can Product Managers Learn From How The iPhone Was Born?

That iPhone has been very, very popular
That iPhone has been very, very
Image Credit: Diego Sepulveda

If you are like most product managers, you look at the iPhone and wish that it was the product that you were managing. I mean, how cool would that be? Who wouldn’t want to be in charge of a product that has sold over 470M copies? One of the things that we often overlook is that once upon a time the iPhone didn’t exist. How it came into being is a story that holds some important lessons for product managers…

Keeping The Boss Happy

Steve Jobs is no longer with us, but everyone remembers him, right? Steve played a major role in the product development definition of the iPhone. He spent a great deal of his time telling his development teams that he wanted bigger ideas and bigger concepts.

One of the things that Steve insisted on during the development of the iPhone was close communication with the team that was developing the product. This meant that the team was required to make twice monthly presentations to Jobs in a conference room that had no windows. Clearly secrecy was an important part of this project!

What the product managers discovered is that every time they presented the product to someone else on the Apple senior management team, Steve would step in and do more and more of the presentation. Clearly he was in the process of taking ownership of this product.

Details, Details, Details

It can be hard to remember it today, but when the iPhone first came out it really defined a new market – the smartphone. What this meant is that a lot of the things that the iPhone did had never been done before. This meant that the product managers really had to spend a great deal of time focusing on the details of how the product worked. They knew that if they got this right, then it would be something that they could add to their product manager resume.

A great example of this is the iPhone’s “slide to unlock” feature. This is one of the results of Apple’s decision to do away with a physical keyboard and instead replace it with a touch screen keyboard. This had never been done before.

The attention to detail didn’t stop there. The iPhone team was required to revisit every detail about how mobile phones were being made and reimagine them in order to understand how they could fit with the iPhone. This required revisiting things such as how to display a calendar to how to check voice mail.

What All Of This Means For You

All product managers would like to be in charge of wildly successful products. One of the most successful products out there right now is the iPhone – who wouldn’t want to be product managing that? What we forget is that just like every other product; the iPhone had to be developed before it could be sold. This fundamental fact is a part of every product manager job description.

Steve Jobs, the famous CEO, was deeply involved in the design and creation of the iPhone. The Apple product managers were not able to make their own decisions – Steve wanted to dictate how things were going to be down to the very last detail. The ultimate success of the iPhone came about because of the attention to detail that the phone’s product managers had. There are lessons for all of us to learn from Apple’s success with this product.

No, you and I may never be responsible for a product that will be as wildly popular as the iPhone is. However, that doesn’t mean that we can’t learn from how the iPhone was developed. What Apple did created a very successful product and that is something that we can all do.

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

Question For You: Do you think that Steve Jobs involvement in the development of the iPhone helped or hurt the process?

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What We’ll Be Talking About Next Time

So I’ve been a product manager at a number of startups and I’ve enjoyed every one of these experiences. I find that startups have a sense of energy that I just don’t find at the larger companies that I’ve worked for. However, what startups are more often than not missing is money. Cash. What this means for product managers is that because being able to make payroll (which they can’t always do anyway) is more important than marketing, you’ve got to learn to get by on a shoestring marketing budget.