Imagine this: You’re sitting in a boardroom across from a major investor. You’ve just finished your pitch, and now you’re sweating a bit, waiting for the response.

Sound familiar? That was where I found myself in 2009―giving it my best shot in Birmingham, Alabama, as I asked for a significant influx of capital to back a new product my former employer was rolling out. With this new product, I told the investor, we were going to change the face of health care. After all, we’d worked on the project for years, our solution was evidence-based, and we already had a major customer on the books.

Finally, the investor looked at me and said, “I can’t figure out if you’re on to something, or if you just can’t find another job.”

That question resulted in some deep personal reflection during my trip home, and it actually triggered one of the biggest “aha moments” of my career. I realized that the problem wasn’t with what my company was selling; it was with our story. The investor wasn’t able to buy into our experience because we couldn’t successfully communicate our energy, passion, and value proposition to him.

Time marched on, and over the past decade, I’ve launched 12 products, raised millions of dollars, and returned hundreds of millions more back to investors. I’ve also had the privilege to meet and learn from product innovators—like Hugh Dubberly—who have shared their progressive knowledge to help shape my point of view. What follows are my insights on how to successfully integrate your product portfolio so it supports your story—and how to avoid the Frankenstein effect as you weave together your solution suite. 

Learning From Product Integration Pioneers

Walt Disney understood the value of networked platforms early. Take, for example, the Disney princesses. Think of each one of them as a new product, interlinked by stories communicated via an omnichannel mix of films, television, music, publications, merchandise licensing, and, of course, the theme parks themselves.

Innovation strategist Larry Keeley once said, “Disney is always inventing more ways for you to love the mouse.” Walt gave us a beautiful framework for how to think about systems of systems. His vision went way beyond standalone products; instead, he weaved together a whole that was greater than the sum of its individual parts.

B. Joseph Pine and James H. Gilmore, who coined the “experience economy” concept back in 1998, argued that businesses must build memorable events for consumers and that these memories―these experiences―themselves become the product. Consider a cup of coffee. This product has gone from being a commodity (whole beans) to a good (roasted, ground, prepackaged and available at your local supermarket), to a service (brewed and poured for you in your favorite franchised breakfast joint), to an experience (the feeling you get when you walk into a gourmet coffee house and treat yourself to a special brew in an ultra-branded environment). Who wants to be the product manager of a commodity when you can deliver the value and return of an entire experience?

A more recent example is, of course, Apple. Steve Jobs knew that a standalone product was not going to solve for Clayton Christensen’s theory of jobs to be done”—or provide the functional, emotional, and social components customers require in order to resolve challenges. As a result, Apple developed the iPod to embrace a product-service ecology. It was the hub of an integrated system that included the music listener, iTunes app, iTunes store, record companies, and music artists themselves.

Harmonizing Systems of Systems

Harvard Business School economist Michael Porter has argued that these smart, connected products are changing the competitive landscape. Harmonizing the concept of “a system of systems,” he helps us understand how products evolve and play a part in a much larger environment. Take his example of a tractor as a product. When the tractor is integrated with software, it becomes a “smart product.” When the software-infused tractor is tapped into remote devices, it becomes a “smart, connected product,” which allows the tractor to interact with other types of tools, like tillers, planters, and combine harvesters, creating a farm equipment system. Finally, that farm equipment system can be linked to other systems, like weather data, seed optimization, or irrigation platforms. The end result is a complete farm management system, composed of a network of other interlinked systems and products.

But you have to be careful. If you recall, the monster Frankenstein was also the result of a system of systems, stitched together from odds and ends with hideous results. So how do you avoid the so-called “Frankenstein effect” when building your bigger story?

You use the Golden Thread.

Weaving Together the Golden Thread

WebPT—where I now serve as the Vice President of Innovation and Product Management—was founded in the back of a Phoenix coffee shop in 2008 as an electronic documentation system for physical therapists. Since then, we’ve experienced explosive growth through both organic sales and product acquisitions. It’s been a wild ride fueled by a mission bigger than any single product.

Today, we offer nine different product lines, ranging from patient engagement systems to an e-commerce store. With such a broad portfolio, one of our biggest challenges has been keeping the individual scope of each product line tied to the broader organizational vision. To overcome that, we’ve developed a concept called the “Golden Thread,” a visual that acts as a connector to explain to our board members, customers, and internal teams how the components fit together. 

To develop our Golden Thread, we use a three-step process:

  1. We focus on the customer environment. We’re constantly evaluating and debating the needs and challenges of our client base. Last year, our team logged more than 150 visits to our customers to help ground this understanding.
  2. We break up the big picture into bite-size pieces. We’re always working to better understand how specific platforms bring value to our overall system of systems, and which pieces might be missing to complete the puzzle.
  3. We weave together components and the environment. Synthesizing our product lines with the customer environment via meaningful workflows helps us stretch beyond the simple and obvious matters at hand and challenges us to solve larger issues. For me, that is the Golden Thread’s secret sauce. Combining our organizational elements in creative ways brings passion to our team, ignites excitement in our customers, and adds fuel to the company’s fire.

I’ve successfully pitched in many boardrooms since the day I received that pointed feedback in 2009. The difference? I―along with my team―follow a proven framework for stretching the art of what’s possible, and, as a result, I’ve found that we’re exceedingly well-equipped to sow the seeds of inspiration to whoever is hearing our story. I hope it helps you, too.

About the Author

Russell Olsen joined Phoenix-based WebPT as Vice President of Innovation and Product Management in 2017. He leads category design, product management, user experience, and product discovery, and applies disruptive innovation approaches to accelerate growth while solving customer and market problems. Prior to WebPT, Russell led product teams at Phytel, Truven Health Analytics, and IBM Watson Health. Russell brings with him deep experience in healthcare and growth companies and has delivered innovations impacting millions of lives over the course of his 15-year career.