One of the most gut-wrenching moments for a company is the rollout of a new product. A significant swing and miss can break a company's momentum -- and maybe its bank account. Unfortunately, after months or even years of development, many companies discover that customers aren't willing to buy their new wares. That's why some entrepreneurs are trying another approach to product launches: marketing a product online before spending much on research and development or inventory.
Consider the method used by TPGTEX Label Solutions, a Houston-based software company that specializes in bar codes and labels for manufacturers and chemical companies. Like many companies, TPGTEX rolls out new products several times a year. But instead of spending the time and money to develop products on spec, TPGTEX creates mocked-up webpages that list the features of a potential new product -- such as a system for making radio-frequency identification, or RFID, labels -- along with its price. Then, the company spends no more than a few hundred dollars marketing the product through search engines and to the contacts in its sales database and LinkedIn. It isn't until a customer actually clicks or calls to place an order that TPGTEX's developers will build the software. "We do not develop a product until we get a paying customer," says Orit Pennington, who co-founded the six-employee company with her husband in 2002. Development time is typically no more than two to three weeks, and it generally takes just a few orders to cover development costs.
TPGTEX's approach is an example of a trend in business that has been dubbed minimum viable product or microtesting. The idea is to develop something with the minimum amount of features or information needed to gauge the marketability of a product online. That might mean mocking up a website with potential features and seeing how many visitors click on the item. It might also involve buying pay-per-click ads to see how easy it is to gain potential customers. Or it might mean selling a few products on a site like eBay to see how well they perform before ordering in bulk from a wholesaler.
What sets this approach apart from practices like using focus groups is that companies base product development decisions not just on what customers say they want but on how they vote with their wallets.
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This article is part of a trend that has taken me a bit by surprise: the adoption of lean startup techniques outside the traditional domain of high-tech startups. The theory predicts this, of course, because the definition of a startup as “a human institution creating a new product or service under conditions of extreme uncertainty” says nothing about sector, size of company, or industry. Still, it’s always a relief to see practice and theory converge.
Of course, as more people attempt to use the Minimum Viable Product as a tactic, there are a lot of misconceptions possible. The biggest is the confusion over why this tactic is useful. The Inc story, and many others, does a good job emphasizing its lean-ness. By allowing customers to “pull” value from the company in small batches, you reduce the risk of building a product that nobody wants. Like all lean transformations, this is powerful – it increases the value of every dollar invested in new product creation.
But MVP is most powerful when it is used as part of an overall strategy of learning and discovery. And this is the most confusing, because MVP does not pay off under this strategy if we are attempting to build a minimal product. For that, release early, release often will suffice. But if our aspiration is to change the world, we need something more.
The key ideas are customer development, the pivot, MVP, and root cause analysis. Each is described in separate essays on this blog, but let me say a few words about how they work together – especially for companies with big ambitions. Big visions take a long time to develop, and require an exceptionally high degree of product/market fit. That’s just a fancy way of saying: customers have to really, really like your product. Being specific, it means that their behavior powers one of the three fundamental drivers of growth with a large coefficient. But if big products and big visions take a long time to develop, it’s exceptionally risky to build it based on vision alone. That’s because for a big product to take off, it needs to be right in many key respects. Miss just one, and you can find yourself just a few degrees off – and moving with too much momentum to change course. Think Friendster, the “achieving a failure” startup I’ve written about, Apple’s Newton, Webvan, etc. In each of these, the failure of the initial idea led to the failure of the company (or division).
Building an MVP can help mitigate that risk. But it’s not enough. What if customers hate the MVP? Does that mean your product vision is fundamentally flawed, or just that your initial product sucks? There is no way to know for sure. That’s why entrepreneurship in a lean startup is really a series of MVP’s, each designed to answer a specific question (hypothesis). Being systematic about these hypotheses is what customer development is all about. By testing each failed hypothesis leads to a new pivot, where we change just one element of the business plan (customer segment, feature set, positioning) – but don’t abandon everything we’ve learned. In order to work, these pivots have to be heading in a coherent direction, which is why vision is still such a critical part of entrepreneurship, even in a data-based decision making environment. (See “It’s a startup, not a spreadsheet” for more.)
And yet, even that is not enough. The more visionary the entrepreneur, the more difficult it is to really pivot, really seek out what’s in customers’ heads, and really create a minimum viable product. And so startups – great and terrible alike - are prone to give these ideas lip service, but fail to really take maximum advantage. That’s why a process of rigorous root cause analysis is so critical. After every major milestone, the company has to ask: what did we learn? Why didn’t we learn more? And, most importantly, make incremental investments to do better next time. This is the ultimate startup discipline, the hardest to master, and the one that pays biggest dividends. If you can embrace continuous improvement from day one, you can actually speed up as you scale. It’s an awesome thing to watch.