What Should Product Managers Do When Their Main Product Fails?

Theranos is in bad shape, but they have introduced a new product
Theranos is in bad shape, but they have introduced a new product
Image Credit: Wikipedia

Unless you’ve been living under a rock for the past few years, you’ve probably heard about a company called Theranos. They are a Silicon Valley startup that attracted a lot of attention. They claimed that they had invented a product that with just a minute amount of blood from an individual could run a large number of health tests. This blood testing device was called Edison. It didn’t hurt that the company’s CEO, Elizabeth Holmes, was an attractive and well-spoken lady.

The Problem With Edison

To be a product manager at Theranos in the early days must have been a great job indeed. The whole idea behind the company was to try to find a way to create a product development definition that would standardize the wide range of blood tests that are commonly performed by creating a novel new hand-held device. Part of the allure of coming to work for Theranos was the backstory of their CEO. Elizabeth Holmes was studying at Stanford University when she decided to leave school at age 19 and founded Theranos.

The company was founded in 2003 and had raised US$6.9M by the end of 2004. Over time the company raised an additional $70M in funding. The result of all of this is that the company was valued at over $1B.The drug store Walgreens was so impressed that they offered to set up Wellness Center testing services that would use the Edison device to offer testing services to Walgreens customers. All of this would be great stuff to add to a product manager resume.

However, in October of 2015 things started to fall apart for the company. A report in the Wall Street Journal newspaper brought up some concerns about the accuracy of the Edison testing device. Later on, the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services conducted its own independent review and reported inaccurate testing results and multiple deficiencies in sample handling during an inspection. It became clear the Edison device was not living up to its expectations. Walgreens cancelled their plans to roll out the device in their stores.

How The Theranos Product Managers Tried To Bounce Back

It goes without saying that having your main product be identified as not working has to be bad news for any product manager. However, at Theranos this did not stop their product managers. They knew that they needed to find a way for the company to bounce back from all of the negative publicity. There were two ways to do this: address the issues with the existing product or introduce a new product.

The Theranos product managers decided to take the “introduce a new product” approach. At the annual meeting of the American Association for Clinical Chemistry Theranos CEO Elizabeth Holmes talked about the company’s new product called “miniLab”. The device looks like a small printer. The company says that this product can run accurate tests on as little as 160 microliters of blood.

The company has not addressed any of the issues that existed with their Edison product. Instead, they have plunged on forward and rolled out a new product that they say addresses all of the issues that previous products have had. The company has not published any papers in peer-reviewed journals because the product managers have said that they want to protect their secrets. However, it appears as though this lack of transparency has lead the company to getting in trouble with both investors and the U.S. government.

What All Of This Means For You

Pretty much any product manager that you talked with would tell you that they’d love to be working for a Silicon Valley startup. That’s why working for Theranos must have seemed like a dream job for its product managers.

However, the hand-held blood testing device that the company created and got a lot of good press about appears to not be able to work the way that the company said that it could. This creates a problem for the Theranos product managers that is not covered in their product manager job description, how should they handle this situation? What they appear to be doing is releasing a new product that they claim solves all of the problems that their initial product had.

The biggest issue that the Theranos product managers are going to be dealing with is that nobody is going to trust what they have to say. Having been burned by the company’s initial product, customers are going to be gun-shy. Instead of introducing a new product, what the product managers really need to do is to invite the rest of the world to help them make their existing product better. Get that right and then everyone will be looking forward to version 2.0.

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

Question For You: What do you think would be the best way for Theranos to get people’s trust back again?

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What We’ll Be Talking About Next Time

No matter how you personally feel about smoking, you have got to admit that the market for cigarettes is huge. You can hardly go into a gas station without being confronted with an entire wall of different brands of cigarettes all of which have just slightly different product development definitions. With so many different types being available and with all of the lawsuits that have happened over the past few years, you would think that this would be a closed market. Well, at least one Japanese company would beg to differ with you.