Thomas Edison was a Terrible Product Manager

PMs are often the last role to be filled in start-up companies. Which begs the question - why do we need product managers? Engineers are the ones building the product, right? What role do product managers have to play? 

Guess what Edison, no one cares about recording their voice. Terrible use case. 

Guess what Edison, no one cares about recording their voice. Terrible use case. 

There is a lot has been written about the value of the product manager:

  • The product manager is the voice of the customer
  • The product manager makes business decisions about the software
  • The product manager breaks down requirements for designers and developers

However, the real value of good product management can best be described with a story.

Thomas Edison: Brilliant technical mind - Terrible product manager

Everyone knows about Thomas Edison, right? Before Ol' Tommy was messing around with light bulbs, he invented the phonograph in 1877 and it made him a total celebrity. "Invented the phonograph!?" You may think, "Wow, it must have made him so very rich!"

Nope. Not really. 

Edison formed a company to market the phonograph - The Edison Speaking Phonograph Company, and it was a failure. (And thank God, right? Because he went on to invent the light bulb.) Why did it fail?

Among Edison's Top 10 use cases for the phonograph:

  1. Letter writing - without the aid of someone to take dictation. Lame.
  2. Clocks - to announce the time. Why? Because looking at the clock is hard, apparently.
  3. Education - think Podcasts of the 1800s, giving users the ability to record lessons. Meh.
  4. Teaching elocution - that's teaching someone to speak clearly - My Fair Lady style. Sounds like a totally wild time, doesn't it?!
  5. Preserving the last words of the dying -  What customer is going to buy a really expensive machine for one-time use? Someone got their marketing strategy wrong, wrong, very wrong.

Although Edison did talk a little about music, it wasn't a use case he focused on. So after a year of the Edison *Speaking* Phonograph Company, the buzz surrounding the phonograph faded. Why?

Edison wasn't focusing on a use case his (potential) customers cared about.

A few years later, Alexander Graham Bell tried his luck at productizing the phonograph, but didn't fare very well either, as he also focused on use cases dealing with dictation or voice.

So who was able to make money off the phonograph, if not Edison or Bell?

Edward D. Easton: Master Product Manager of Columbia Records

Here's a poster for the Columbia "Grafofoni" - looks sexier than 'elocution,' doesn't it?

Here's a poster for the Columbia "Grafofoni" - looks sexier than 'elocution,' doesn't it?

OK, so 'Master Product Manager' wasn't really his title, but that's still the role Ol' Eddie played.

The only company that was able to successfully sell the graphophone (a later version of the phonograph) was Edward D. Easton's Columbia Phonograph Company, 12 years later in 1889. 

Easton was a product guy. Eddy Easton didn't ask "What did the engineering team build this to do?" Instead, he asked "What is a problem I can solve with his technology?"

Keyword: "Never-ending" - Easton had the foresight to account for a habit-forming product.

Keyword: "Never-ending" - Easton had the foresight to account for a habit-forming product.

Eddie's success was based on the use case of recorded entertainment; specifically, recorded musicAs it turns out, rich people in the 1890's wanted to listen to cool music at home without having to hire a band. What they didn't want was an expensive machine to record their dying words.

Columbia is credited with founding the commercial recording industry. During these formative years, Columbia was the first to publicize recorded records of celebrities; Phillip de Souza's Stars and Stripes Forever was the company's first single, according the Columbia Record's online archives

Let me ask you: What's the better product pitch?

  1. "Buy this expensive machine - it can help you with your letter writing!"
  2. "Buy this expensive machine - you can listen to all the latest music at home, and you can invite all your friends over and dance and party, and new records by new celebrities come out all the time! You'll be the coolest kid in school!"

Pretty obvious.


Let's recap everything that Easton did right from a product manager's perspective: 

  • He solved a real problem. He filled a desire. Rather than trying to force some esoteric, unwanted use case (cough, elocution) down people's throats, he identified something people really wanted, and he built a product around it. Not just the graphophone itself, but the recorded music.
  • He gathered feedback. He is on record as frequently traveling to retail outlets to talk to customers and sales people about his product.
  • He had a marketing plan. If the posters from the time period are any indication, people were losing their minds over the ability to play music at home. Personally, I would have been the first to buy one of these miracle music machines. 
  • He encouraged habit-forming product. By producing new records at regular intervals, there was always something new to play on your fancy Columbia music machine. 

So. Let's return to our initial question: 

Why are product managers important?

Because often (not always), a product manager has a different point of view than an engineer who built the product. And this distinct point of view is valuable. That's not to say that engineers' opinions of the product and its uses aren't valuable. Product managers are constantly focused on how to bring value to the user, how to solve a problem for them.