Back or Front?

Be nimble, start small, get traction, generate revenues, (then profits), IPO, face analyst stares, get sold to Banker’s non-organic growth pitch, acquire companies, bloat, lose nimbleness. There are only a handful – if not a fingerful – of companies that can force themselves out of this vicious circle of life for start-up companies. Acquisitions happen.

And once they do, the pressure to integrate acquired product assets with the core offering becomes of paramount importance (after all, synergy was why the acquisition was made, right?). There are two approaches to integration that I have seen corporation take. First option – integrate the front ends of the two system. That is, figure out the common platform and slap screens (all or select) of the other into it. The back-end infrastructure and databases that feed the two systems can stay different or perhaps just loosely coupled. Second option – create a cleaner integration of the back-end systems and infrastructure that ensures cleaner plumbing. The front-ends can stay separate and will come together when their feeding systems have gotten sorted out.

Both these options are acceptable but if someone stuck a gun to my head I’ll choose the first option. Here’s why

  1. Customers want to see benefit from the acquisition, and they should see it in the front end of the product. Customers want to experience the acquisition, touch it, feel it. They deserve it too.
  2. Back-end plumbing is a relatively easier problem to solve. One can throw people at the problem – perhaps at low-cost-centers or outsource to maintenance vendors. And once the front ends have been integrated, the pressure from business to clean up the rear (no puns, please) will ensure quicker compliance (especially if data center problems are breaking the front ends)
  3. The front ends coming together opens up possibilities for users to leverage the combined offering and in doing that they will figure out interesting ways of extracting synergies that the Bankers who came to make the acquisition pitch never figured out. That’s what every product manager lives for.

There is one large, hairy matter that can definitely break this choice. Usability. At no cost should user experience be compromised when screens are mashed together at the front end. It is undeniable that there will be changes in navigation, but that should never compromise on ease of use or continuity of functionality. Gopal Shenoy, who writes a popular blog on Product Management, has an interesting example to cite.

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