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Product Management and Growth in the Satellite Industry
Product Managing for Satellite
Coming to work for GSE two years ago is one of the best decisions I have ever made. Truly a unicorn in its industry, GSE has unlocked the secret to operating successfully in an industry that rewards stability and legacy systems while simultaneously investing in the tools, products, and initiatives that get ahead of the market.
What, exactly, does it really take to succeed as a product manager in the satellite industry?
Satellite is a curious industry in that it is defined by highly advanced technology that has remained relatively unchanged since its first true iterations, and while it seems to be content in those product offerings, many companies will be left behind if they fail to recognise the movement and the significance of recent endeavors by major players like Inmarsat, Iridium, and Globalstar. If you haven’t already seen the wave, I’d recommend bracing yourself for a torrent of changes that will be bringing the entire industry into the 21st century.
While the appetite for innovation is evident and abundant, the market for it is scarce and apprehensive. The majority of demand for innovation rarely comes from major contract providers like government organizations, military, or law enforcement agencies, which really constricts the flow of attention. This leads to an industry conditioned to chase RFP demands, renew contracts searching for the least expensive means of achieving the same functionality, and not invest in augmented product offerings.
The dominance of low budget, low feature functionality demands cannot be understated as a contributing factor to the satellite industry’s crippling innovation paralysis. As a result of firms catering to RFP demands, and squeezing hardware and software capabilities in order to achieve minimal budget requirements, investment in evolving technologies has been more reactive than proactive. To put it mildly, industry-wide reactive vs. proactive investment is a typical indicator of a slow or fixed growth sector.
It is my opinion, however, as a product manager in the satellite communications industry, that the appetite for innovation might finally turn to action in the next few years with the recent expansion of services by major network infrastructure providers. Take, for example, Iridium, which recently completed the deployment of its next generation constellation; Inmarsat, which recently structured a deal with Microsoft Azure to support IoT; or Globalstar, which has been working to improve its own vertically integrated product suite with stronger software offerings. Each of these major players have invested heavily in moving the needle for Satcom capabilities forward, and those investments are likely to result in commercial data movement via satellite more aggressively taking center stage within 3 years.
Finding vs. Creating Opportunity
If we’re considering the growth of the industry as a whole, it is important to understand the opportunities to capture revenue, and the forms they take. As it exists today, the satellite communications industry is equivalent to the state of the terrestrial telecom industry in the late 90s. Revenue capture comes primarily from software licensing, hardware, and airtime, with data and content revenue streams mostly lying in wait or consolidated among a few select firms.
Natural changes occurring outside the industry will create opportunities within satcom for “found money,” adapting existing products to meet the need of nascent and/or expanding sectors. Recently, there has been a massive push forward in the Space sector, and Satellite is a natural data conduit and communications enabler for this frontier. Likewise, as discussed in a previous hacking satellite article spotlighting Vence, there is an increasing demand for intelligent technologies in Agtech, where existing hardware and software can provide solutions to major pain points that non-satellite technology can’t offer.
These “found” opportunities, however, still limit investment to reactive instead of proactive applications. To cultivate growth, firms must not only investigate opportunities to repurpose their existing products for new markets, but must also take a proactive approach in identifying markets that have not yet emerged, but which soon will.
Some of you might have read the previous sentence and thought, “well, yeah… but prognostication is literally the thing business intelligence fails to achieve 95% of the time.” While it’s obvious that any good product so easily predictable would simply exist already, it’s not clear why firms constantly miss the boat on parallel runners. That is, I’ve found it to be quite surprising that industries with parallel maturation cycles don’t recognise it in one another and leverage it for product initiatives.
Earlier in this section, I mentioned the parallels between the existing satcom industry and the late 90s telecom industry. The major innovative change that caused an explosion of opportunity and proactive investment in telecom was the increase in performance capacity of network infrastructure. As networks became more capable of moving larger packets of data more quickly, devices became more powerful, and an entire ecosystem grew around both the content market and the data market.
As also mentioned previously, major network providers like Inmarsat and Iridium have been investing in new and higher bandwidth infrastructure networks, which will be able to support more advanced devices, larger data packets, and more extensive data streams. Naturally, then, Satcom can expect *its version of* the smartphone boom to follow this trend, and for firms to invest heavily in commercial applications of the sector’s content and data market technology gaps.
To be clear, when I use data market in this sense, I am not specifically talking about non-voice revenue streams, but rather the collection of data from nodes, and the packaging and sale of that data as a multitude of services or support products. These are among the plethora of opportunities available in the Satcom industry both today and 5 years from now, and these are the opportunities that will lead to proactive investment in the industry.
Developing Products for Undefined Markets
The most intimidating part of enacting a product strategy that encompasses undefined markets like those I just described is stepping out of the confines of traditional product management practices. We can’t simply research potential market size for an undefined amoeboid product whose customers don’t even know they need it, so we have to find other ways to conjure a product vision that satisfies at least one of the following conditions:
- Problem-oriented Design: The product must solve a problem that we can predict the existence of with relative certainty
- Parallel design: The product is one that exists successfully in a parallel industry
To expand on these conditions, problem-oriented design is a concept for which I’ve become a tremendous advocate, and it nearly defines my entire product philosophy. At its core, each viable product that exists today solves a problem for a customer segment, and the factors that determine viability are the importance of solving that problem, the number of people afflicted with that problem, and the amount each is willing to pay to solve it. In adhering to a problem-oriented design approach, one needs not predict the products and services that will exist in the future, but rather the nature of the problems that customers will have.
For example, nobody needed to know what smartphones would be like to know that data security for them would be a very lucrative business. They needed only to know that business secrets, personal information, and other things stored on smartphones would be valuable, and that people have always paid institutions to secure their valuables. Product managers could then have conceptualized data security products, or invented two factor authentication, biometrics, tokenization, encryption, and secure access terminals before ever having a semblance of how an iPhone would work.
This example applies to the concept of parallel design as well, which is basically the product design method of identifying trends in industries or sectors similar to, but more advanced than yours. Applying the data security example above, Product managers could easily have understood the history of business as it applies to data security. For as long as information has been valuable, there have been resources spent to gather it, move it from place to place, and, as predicted, secure it. These trends are similar to those that exist between satcom and telecom, and companies who can recognise and move on them are the ones that capture the investment, and later, the revenue.
How GSE is Leveraging These Opportunities
I am very proud to be a product manager at GSE, because the company is truly an intrepid innovation hub in an industry that is otherwise a victim of varying degrees of investment paralysis. GSE has even developed a humble reputation for it over the years, and has silently been applying its resources to the development of technologies that raise the bar across the industry.
Just last week, in fact, we launched the new version of GSatTrack, and will be augmenting the service throughout the year to include new, intelligent feature functionality and performance improvements. Our platform changes are in anticipation of a shift in market demands for systems that can process more data, afford more control over assets, and extract more ROI from data ecosystems. Knowing where things are is no longer cool enough, especially when it’s possible to know what those things are doing, what the conditions are in which they’re doing those things, and so much more.
GSatTrack is already positioned for the future of Satellite telematics, and we’re working on a number of product initiatives over the next 3 years that will define their markets in years to come as well. If you would like to know more about our initiatives, including the ways in which we might be able to partner our core competencies to tackle an undefined market, we would love to hear from you.