10 questions to perform quick industry research as a product innovator

Let’s say you want to innovate in an industry that you don’t have professional or real life experience in.

How would you approach the early industry research ?

Elon Musk founded SpaceX, but he had no prior experience in building rockets. Neither did he come from the auto industry when he started Tesla. But he ended up creating two of the most exciting product companies of the modern world. Your reasons for choosing a new industry could be any of the following.

  • Perhaps you are more passionate about a new field.
  • Maybe you’ve been offered a new role.
  • You may be the kind of personality who is excited about the challenge of taking your core functional skills and applying it to solve brand new problems.
  • Or it may be the case that your company just acquired a new business and you have the responsibility for product ownership and strategy for a new product portfolio.

Focus on the most important aspects

Consider this sporting analogy. Most people try to master and swing hard with all possible clubs, especially the driver when they start playing golf. What they do not do is focus on the one club that is ABSOLUTELY required for every hole. The Putter. In fact with only a couple of clubs + wedges and good putting, you can be much more successful in you starting journey as a golfer.

Similarly , as a product manager you will be best served by following a methodical approach of performing fast industry research. As product strategist and manager you will need to do this upfront to successfully innovate.

There is no alternative to time and experience when it comes to truly developing an in-depth understanding of an industry, but it is not an absolute necessity to be the SME yourself before diving in to solve real problems. In fact, majority, if not all product managers work with teams made up of researchers and SMEs and of course customers to supplement their knowledge. It may even be more helpful for product managers to come in and bring an outside perspective which can help with the discovery of some latent (and some times obvious) customer needs.

However, in order to have an impact quickly on an initiative, you still need to develop a rich understanding of the most important aspects of the industry in which you are innovating.

So how do you develop that knowledge efficiently and quickly as a product manager?

I call it Speed Reading an Industry, but the ideas can be applied to an even smaller scope like a specific sub industry/business/group/existing product.

Here are the 10 questions you need to answer to give yourself the best shot in a new industry or product.

  1. What are the key underlying sub industries (I’ll use the term segments synonymously) and goal for each?
  2. What is the size of each segment?  
  3. Who are the stakeholders and players (both direct and indirect) ?
  4. Which of these stakeholders are the most important , active, primary actors?
  5. What are the biggest goals and motivations of those primary actors?
  6. What are the most important aspects/tasks that the primary actors perform? This is step is crucial and can also be identified through “A day in the life of..” , or “As-Is/ Current state” analysis
  7. How do the primary actors engage/transact/communicate with one another and other stakeholders?
  8. What are some of the biggest trends and signals in that segment?
  9. Who are the biggest and the upcoming competitors and what are their core competencies?
  10. What are the revenue streams and pricing strategies used in the various business models in that segment?

Depending on the nature of the industry, a lot of this can be done proactively through independent research, before you start working with customers and teams on product innovation. Note that some industry segments can be quite fragmented. Also consider different geographies and markets while conducting this exercise.

Try to apply this to an industry of your choice. Are there other aspects and questions you’d like highlight? Feel free to leave your comments below

9 thoughts on “10 questions to perform quick industry research as a product innovator

  • Kim

    Is #9 the same as who are direct and indirect competitors?

    Lots of good questions asked.

    In addition to market research, go to the source. You can leverage your network, relationships, friends, family to speak to professionals in residential real estate. Gain first hand knowledge. Think about the people involved in residential real estate transactions. The specialists in RRE i.e. real estate agents, mortgage brokers, bankers, accountants, lawyers, notaries, county clerks who know home owners, investors, renters, home builders. It’s who you know and who they know to get a real inside look. Can conduct quick interviews, coffee sessions to ask a few questions. Leaving room for open ended questions, which lead to more questions, which can also lead to continue to narrow down your focus of a problem, pain point, or new opportunity.

    Follow industry experts on social media and what they have shared, posted, etc. Seasoned experts exist on mentoring platforms too. Attend industry events to network and learn. It’s not hard to find people who are knowledgeable in an industry you want to know something about. Make it a two way street, a productive chat respecting each other’s time.

  • Vipin Makhija

    Great points and additions there @k4dwin. One thing I want to point out, is the actual research and interviews to determine industry and customer pain points is actually a dedicated process in itself. Conducting this early, broader as-is assessment and understanding of the segment and industry builds the knowledge which is critical in a robust discovery of true needs later.

    btw.. did edit #9 slightly, based on your question

  • Jadatharan Santhanam

    great list Vipin and Kim. just to add , @ 5 – we may need hear about there pains in achieving in those goals when we think of their goals.

  • Blessing

    Great piece Vipin,
    Just thought to buttress more on these points:
    for #2 and #3, while identifying the stakeholders involved, you may want to know who are the key players /leaders in that industry and if there are any government regulations related to the industry that will or can affect the business.
    For #9, while evaluating the competitors, you would want to know how easy it is for new businesses to enter your market and become your competitors. Also how the target audience perceives the competitors to give further insights into what the business can do better to match up with their current competitors if it’s not already there.

  • Vipin Makhija

    @jadatharansanthanam : Paint points are absolutely crucial. 100%. However in a new industry, it is best to focus on understanding the landscape first. Discovery of pain points is/should be a dedicated exercise! More to come on that very soon actually.

    @blessingub: Great addition. In some industries govt regulations can be a separate point in it self. And very good suggestions on a deeper evaluation of the competitors.

  • Raoul

    Great piece Vipin!

    Another question you could ask yourself while researching a new industry could be:
    What are the most common technologies used in this industry?

    This is kind of related to the questions about trends but more specific. This question could give you more insight into opportunities to innovate or disrupt an industry with new technology. Like what Uber did with creating an app to quickly and easily book a taxi.

    • Vipin Makhija

      @raoul Agreed that technology and platforms could almost deserve be it’s own section atleast in some industries. And thinking more about it, even the evolving business models could use more research.

  • Rahul

    This is a great starting point, Vipin. It’s like the guardrails in an ice-rink which gives you support and guidance when you need it. The important aspect of doing industry research is not to treat these questions at only face value – it is imperative to understand the intent behind the question. So when you look for something like “A day in the life of an agent” – you can ask “why do I need this information?” and “how is this going to help me understand the industry better?”. Once you start doing that, you think of other questions that you want the answers to as well. In this example, I wanted to understand how much time does agents spend just generating and servicing leads > that’s what I started looking for. I then asked the question, what are the different ways in which agents generate leads. You can see how one thing leads to another and how it all comes together in your understanding of the landscape.

    • Vipin Makhija

      @rsridhar Great analysis and feedback. Some of those points will require more in-depth exploration. Keen to get also get your thoughts on the other blog post about qualitative research. That does cover what you’re referring to in your comment above.

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