Life science tools companies are constantly making important product development decisions, and almost all of these decisions involve making a tradeoff. Should your company focus its limited product development resources on entirely new lines, expansions to existing lines, or improvements to existing products? Much of this decision-making, especially for smaller companies, boils down to choosing between breadth and depth in the product portfolio. So what are the benefits of each, and when should each be given focus?
It’s certainly no easy question to answer generally. Without question much of the answer will depend on a company’s positioning and the opportunities that present themselves (a SWOT analysis is often good for helping to make such a determination), however there are many considerations that are less variable and can be discussed in a more general context. Let’s discuss a few of those.
Risk / Reward
To an extent, the 80/20 rule, or at the very least the rule of diminishing returns, comes into play in product development. A few key, highly differentiated products in any area are likely to make “80%” of your revenues in that area, assuming that you have such a product to begin with. Expanding on products in that area, or continuing to build on that key product through features, etc., will produce a far lesser return than did the development of the original product. Indeed, as more and more features are added to the key products, or more and more related products are added to the related product line, each improvement or addition will likely capture fewer and fewer customers. If the opportunity exists to build a disruptive product in another market, that will generally offer a much greater opportunity to build sales.
The risk of expanding into new markets, however, is much greater. Developing an entirely new product often involves the development or acquisition of new technology, and the cost is often much greater. It will involve markets that your company is less familiar with, and you may misjudge the market. Customers also gravitate towards holistic solutions, and if your offering doesn’t have the product support within your own line to stand alone, that may be viewed with significant negativity. Additionally, and this will lead us into the next point of discussion, if you don’t have a strong focus in any area then your company’s brand won’t be recognized as an authority in any area.
Having too narrow of a product line is a risk in and of itself as well. If you’re entirely invested in one market, and a competitor brings a highly disruptive technology into that market, you could be out of business. While building around a highly successful product line may be seen as risk-averse, small companies with limited product development resources still need to diversify to some extent.
If you have many great but unrelated ideas, continuously going after the “80%” may seem very tempting, but it does have its drawbacks. Not being known for any one area could have negative effects on your company’s brand. Especially if customers in a market have varied needs, you won’t be known as a go-to source for any of the types of products that you offer, even if you have that one standout product. If your product line is all over the place, having disparate, eclectic products with having a well-rounded offering for any particular need, customers won’t think to look to your company for anything, and that can certainly be problematic.
On the other hand, having a deep product line can help establish you in that area, again assuming your products are sufficiently differentiated. It also helps you focus brand-building marketing efforts, or at the very least makes them easier.
It’s worth repeating that there is no right answer or formula to follow that will tell you where you should focus your product development efforts. The decision must be dependent on your situation, risk tolerance, opportunities, and more. Align your company’s product development goals with your overall goals, carefully analyze your situation, and you’ll know what the right decision is.