Category Archives: New Product Development

5 Steps To Validate Your Product Idea Without A Product

Here’s a scenario:

Top Exec at your company comes to you and says, “Yesterday, I was talking to Big Industry Player and they mentioned how they have Shiny Object. I think we should have Shiny Object too. How fast can we get it done?”

Sound familiar?

At last weekend’s ProductCamp DC event, my co-founder and I hosted a session called “Tales From The Product Frontlines”. Our first topic was about this very scenario, and it so energized the participants that it took up 30 of the 45 minutes we had been allotted!

During the session, we asked product people questions like:

  • What do you do now to vet new ideas, whether your own or from some other source?
  • How is that working?

Most folks talked about having some sort of governance structure, such as an Executive Steering Committee to vet new ideas based on some established criteria. Many talked about the need to create a business case, and some advocated that Product Management is best suited to do that, regardless of where the idea came from. Yet, after the session, every person I spoke with told me they felt writing a business case was a total waste of time.

Why is this? Because the old ways just don’t work.

Pragmatic Marketing’s 2013 survey revealed that product managers spend over a month’s worth of time writing business cases. These business cases are filled with highly assumptive 3- or 5-year projections that are used to support significant investment asks. It’s no wonder we hate this — we’re staking our professional credibility on these unvalidated assumptions!

The problem is we were never taught a systematic method by which to obtain the crucial information needed to inform a business case.

So what’s the solution?

Let me pause here to say if you’re hoping I have a magic secret for quickly validating a product idea, or if you’re totally married to writing business cases or MRDs, then stop. This post isn’t for you, because:

  • It’s different and requires you to THINK.
  • It’s hard work.
  • It can take some time to get results.

But it works. I’m writing for the 10% who (1) realize I’m telling the truth (that the old ways just don’t work), and (2) are willing to try something different.

(Thanks, Kevin Dewalt, for putting this so well, and forgiving me a little plagiarism!)

The solution is validated learning

Bottom line is spending time writing a big document is a colossal waste of time. Instead, focus on validated learning.

Because any new product idea is based on assumptions, those assumptions need to be validated. This can be achieved by formulating testable falsifiable hypotheses around the riskiest assumptions, and rigorously testing these hypotheses.

The process of validation can be outlined in 5 steps. Each step generally follows this meta-pattern:

  • Formulate a testable falsifiable hypothesis.
  • Test the hypothesis.
  • Analyze results and learnings.
  • Decide to pivot or persevere.
  • Repeat.

I’ve used these this process to validate ideas for software products, but I imagine it could be adapted for any product concept. (So give it a try and let me know your results!)

1. Write down your customer hypothesis.

Most folks typically start with the solution first, which is the wrong place to start.

You need to take a step back and think very deliberately about your customer. This is true whether you’re pursuing adding a new component to an existing product, or are pursuing a truly new product.

Note, by customer I mean the individual who will buy your product. Even in B2B, you need to think about the specific individual or set of individuals to whom you will need to sell your solution. That’s your customer.

2. Write down your problem hypothesis.

What problems does your idea solve for the customer? One way to do this is to think about the goal or job the customer is trying to accomplish. For example: “I believe [customer] has a problem achieving [goal].” Or: “I believe [customer] is trying to accomplish [job], because [desired benefit].”

I typically use the Product CanvasTM to do this, as it allows me in a focused manner to break down the problem domain into discrete problems, and then formulate hypotheses around what I believe to be the top problems that my solution absolutely has to solve for first.

3. Validate your customer/problem hypothesis.

Now it’s time to test your hypothesis. You do this by talking to folks you believe meet your target customer demographic.

Be sure to define a minimum success criteria, which is the minimum amount of data you will need from the test to justify investing more time, effort or resources into proceeding with the idea.

When you’ve met your minimum success criteria, analyze your data, and decide whether to pivot or persevere.

A pivot is a fundamental change in direction of your business model or product strategy. You face a pivot when your hypothesis has been invalidated (i.e., proven false).

At this early stage, you could expect a pivot in terms of a change to your target problems, your target customer, or both. This may mean going back to step 1 or 2.

However, if the results of your test prove (i.e., validate) your customer/problem hypothesis, you may decide to persevere, and move on to step 4.

4. Validate problem/solution fit.

Now that you’ve validated your customer/problem fit, you need to test whether your idea is a potentially viable solution to the customer’s problem.

There are many ways to go about this, but nothing really beats creating a visual representation of your envisioned solution in the form of a wireframe or mockup. To keep things simple and minimize work, I look to design a representational screen or flow for each discrete problem identified on my Product Canvas and validated via the previous steps.

The primary goal of this stage is to garner early customers who endorse your solution vision, and would be willing to use (and ideally pay for) an early version of the product. You’re also looking for directional feedback to identify the “right” handful of features to build for these early customers to prioritize your product development.

Formulate hypotheses around your screens, define your minimum success criteria, then reach back out to the customers you had interviewed earlier and demo the screens to them. Also try to mix in some new folks who fit your target customer demographic.

When done, just like you did at the end of step 3, analyze your data and decide whether to Pivot or Persevere. At this stage, you may pivot on the solution, the problem or even the customer. Or, if you’ve validated your hypothesis, you may have problem/solution fit, and can move on to step 5.

5. Validate your solution via an MVP.

There are many misconceptions about what constitutes an MVP, and I’ve written about these before. In short, an MVP is an actual product that attempts to deliver real value to customers.

It’s “minimum” in the sense that it’s an attempt to deliver the absolute necessary set of features or capabilities needed to solve the customer’s problem for which the customer will pay.

A primary outcome of the previous step is being able to understand your customers’ problems at a granular level, which helps prioritize the initial set of features to build. This drives the definition of your MVP.

Once again, formulate a set of testable hypotheses to ensure you’re continuing to drive your product development based on validated learning. Depending on the complexities of the problem and solution, and the nature of my target customer, I may opt to first demo the MVP before actually delivering it. The results of your MVP test will again determine whether to persevere or pivot.

If you’ve got this far, you’ve validated critical components of your product idea. It doesn’t mean your idea is guaranteed to succeed, but you will have gained a far better understanding of the market opportunity, allowing for a far less assumptive and much more robust business case for your new product idea.

How A Rusting Giant Can Act More Like A Startup

This is a Q&A with Trevor Owens, Founder of Javelin, by Adam L. Penenberg originally published on PandoDaily, and re-printed here with Trevor’s permission.

Why should big companies emulate startups?

Back in the day, everyone wanted to work at a place like IBM. Today corporations are viewed as stodgy. Many of us don’t know what they do anymore and even if we did, we probably wouldn’t care. These bloated companies with their thousands of workers trapped within walls of bureaucracies aren’t growing anymore. In fact, their markets are shrinking.

The time between the birth, growth, and death of a large enterprise has shrunk dramatically over the years. Of the companies listed on the Fortune 500 in 1955, nearly 87 percent of them have either gone bankrupt, merged, reverted to private ownership, or lost enough gross revenue to be delisted. A study of the S&P 500, which ranks companies by market cap, found the average age of a business on the list was 61 years in 1958 but only 18 years in 2012. In the past, being big was in itself a defensible position. Now it’s not.

Contrast that with the frenetic growth and buzz surrounding successful startups. Instagram employed just 12 people when it sold for $1 billion. Snapchat had about 30 people when Facebook offered to snatch it up $3 billion. Whatsapp employed 50 or 60 people when it sold for $19 billion.

Big companies see this, and feel the cultural pull away from them. They’re starved for growth. If they want to compete, they have to become more like startups. Otherwise they’re in jeopardy of disappearing all together.

Why do big companies have trouble innovating?

When a company gets big, bureaucracy is layered throughout. In some ways it’s a necessary part of growth. The reason it exists is so the company doesn’t fall apart. The more people you have working for you, the more you need to manage them to ensure they get the support they need to do their jobs. Then you have whole divisions that exist simply to produce and sell, and their heads aren’t interested in new ideas, products, or ways to do things that could interfere with their bottom line, because that’s how they’re judged and compensated.

Couple all that with the main goal of a company, which is to serve existing customers. That’s where the resources go. Corporations offer an environment of execution and maintenance but not innovation, and rely on good management to target their best customers and deliver better products. That’s fine when they’ve identified and mastered their markets, but they get disrupted when a new entrant comes along that can deliver a good enough product at much lower cost of higher convenience. New entrants target low-value customers then quickly climb the value chain with a better cost structure. Think Netflix versus Blockbuster or Napster invading the recording industry.

Part of issue is there’s no management philosophy built around how to innovate within a large enterprise. With new companies we have the Lean Startup Method, which offers a framework for constantly improving a product to find the best product-market fit before you actually go into production or invest gobs of money in creating any infrastructure. This is the first time we’ve had a repeatable process. But there is no analog for large companies. They have to develop some basic structures just to deploy lean startup methods.

How are some big companies innovating like startups?

There are two parts to innovating like a startup. One is generating a flow of high-quality (i.e. validated) ideas. We call this “innovation flow” — similar to the idea of deal flow for venture capitalists. If a VC doesn’t have good deal flow he won’t get returns.  The other is the need to create a structure to incubate these ideas called an “innovation colony.”

Intuit does the first part well. It kind of copied our lean startup workshop and scaled it throughout the company. After employees have been trained in lean startup methods and know how to validate ideas, they can take advantage of unstructured time (also known as 10 percent time) to work on any project they want to validate that can potentially become a successful new product. If they find they have something they can go to their boss for funding, and this has led to some viable products, including Sparkrent.

Facebook is famous for hackathons. That’s where the Timeline was first imagined. Employees can work on anything that relates to the company’s products and deliver a down-and-dirty prototype during a 24-hour hackathon. Companies like Nordstrom are becoming sophisticated at lean startup methods. It runs weeklong experiments. One from 2011 involved an iPad app that helps users choose eyeglass frames and another addressed the physical design of its retail stores.

Companies also acquire startups to “buy growth,” although few buy at the right time. One that did was Twitter, which acquired Vine before it launched, left it alone to carry on its mission without interference, and it ended up a great acquisition. Vine clearly had product/market fit right out of the gate.

What about skunkworks, innovation labs, and intrapreneur programs?

For large companies there are three traditional innovation structures:

First, there’s skunkworks, when you hire a bunch of smart people to work on pie-in-the-sky technologies. Motorola, for example, hired away a former head of DARPA to run its skunkworks. It only works on highly technical products with low market risk — like a faster jet plane or Amazon Web Services. It’s not good for developing, say, an app like The Daily and it won’t help you find a market or determine product-market fit.

Then there are innovation labs. Perhaps the best known was Xerox Parc, which was the original Innovation Lab. It came up with brilliant ideas but failed to commercialize them — until Steve Jobs came along and borrowed (some say stole) them. Innovation labs that focus on innovative technologies are known to struggle with commercialization.

Finally, you have intrapreneur programs, which are the latest fad: a four- or eight-week program where employees take time off, explore some ideas and a product, and have to sell it to a business unit within the company.  The issue comes back to the incentives inherent in successful business units. They resist ideas they didn’t come up with, no matter how big their potential. They favor incremental innovation that won’t cannibalize their own sales over something that could change their industry for the better.

As a corollary you can have something we recommend: innovation colonies. This is a way for companies to create a fund to invest in ideas their employees have. To participate, though, the employee has to give up the security of their jobs in exchange for equity in the venture. Microsoft, Kaplan, Nike, Barclays, and Disney are just some of the companies utilizing innovation colonies.

Here’s how they work: Employees pitch their ideas, which have been validated, get funding, and own a majority of the equity in these products in the seed stage. They work with other entrepreneurs and the company offers advisement, mentoring and other resources. They seek to develop products, take them to market, and if they gain any traction they can raise a series A with outside investors. They run the company without interference from the Mother ship. In the end, the big company can offer to buy their startups back. The magic is that the entrepreneurs are incentivized to build a real business.

Is it a good idea to offer equity stakes within corporate environments?

Oh, yes. In fact, we advocate for employees to get equity on their projects. Let me emphasize that I mean equity in the product, not the company. Equity attracts the best people because entrepreneurs are motivated by achievement and autonomy and are willing to take less in salary in exchange for more upside in their ideas. Of course, they want to see millions from their products, if they’re successful, but it’s not just about money; it’s what it represents. It’s about being recognized for your achievements. Face it: you have to be a little crazy to be an entrepreneur. This is the whole point of the innovation colony structure.

If you don’t give employees who are entrepreneurially minded equity in their projects they’ll leave to start their own companies. This happens even at innovation-friendly environments like Google: Ev Wiliams (Twitter), Kevin Systrom (Instagram), Dennis Crowley (Foursquare) all left to launch their own ventures. It’s unfortunate that Google doesn’t share in any of the billions they’ve created.

Not only do you want to hire the best and brightest, you want them to stick around and create the kinds of innovative products and services that will also ensure your company sticks around for the long term. Some large companies make the mistake of addressing a problem by simply throwing 15 developers at a problem thinking it will lead to something. Instead, great ideas come from all over an organization and may even seem like bad ideas at first until you validate them.

Once a company realizes this, anything is possible.

Trevor Owens is a thought leader on Lean Startup. He is the Founder of Javelin, a provider of tools and services to learn, launch and track new business ideas, and Lean Startup Machine, a three-day workshop that teaches entrepreneurs and innovators how to build startup products. He has a new book called The Lean Enterprise that talks about how to bring the startup mindset to larger organizations.

For Corporate Innovation, Lean Startup Is Not Enough To Define Your MVP

One of the biggest challenges product innovators in established companies face in defining an MVP is getting buy-in from internal stakeholders. Be they senior executives, peers, other departments, partners, or even your boss, corporate product innovators have multiple constituents to manage. Somehow, you have to make everyone feel a part of the process without letting them run over you and having your MVP be destroyed by feature bloat right at the definition stage.

This is an area I’ve not seen the Lean Startup movement address. So let’s do that here. The way I’ve done it is by fusing Lean Startup methods with Product Management practices — specifically, by leveraging a process every Product Manager knows: roadmap prioritization.

My friend, Bruce McCarthy, has talked about the 5 pillars of roadmaps, the first 3 of which are:

  1. Setting strategic goals
  2. Objective prioritization
  3. Shuttle diplomacy

These same pillars can be used for defining an MVP and getting stakeholder buy-in.

Setting Strategic Goals

The first step is to capture your product strategy. I wrote about how you can do this quickly using the Product CanvasTM.

What’s great about the Product Canvas is it allows you to document your vision in a simple, portable and sharable way. The trick is to be concise. The intent isn’t to capture every nuance of the customer’s problems, nor detailed requirements. Just stick to the top 3-5 problems and the top 3-5 key elements of your solution.

This forces sharpness not only in your thinking, but also in your communication with stakeholders. This, in turn, encourages more constructive feedback, which is what you really need at this stage.

Objective Prioritization

You’ve probably received a lot of internal input (solicited and unsolicited) on features for your product. Most have probably been articulated as “must-have’s” for one reason or another. Of course, you know that most of them are probably not really needed at this early stage, certainly not for an MVP.

To quote from the book Getting Real by 37signals: “Make features work hard to be implemented. Each feature must prove itself.” For an MVP, each feature must be tied to tangibly solving a top customer problem.

Bruce discusses using a scorecard type system to objectively prioritize features for product roadmapping — in particular, assigning a value metric for a feature’s contribution toward the product’s business goals, and balancing it against a level-of-effort (LOE) metric. The exercise can easily be done in a spreadsheet or Reqqs, an excellent roadmapping tool he’s developing.

A similar approach can be used to prioritize the features for your MVP:

1. Rank each Problem documented in your Product Canvas in terms of your understanding of what is the customer’s top-most problem to be solved, followed by the second, etc.

2. Map Solution elements to Problems. These may not necessarily be one-to-one, as sometimes multiple elements of your Solution may work together to solve a particular customer problem.

3. For each Solution element, identify if it’s a “must-have” for your MVP. Solution elements meant to solve customer Problem #1 are automatically must-have’s. The trick is in making the determination for the remaining Problem/Solution mixes.

4. Identify all features for each Solution element. If you already have a list of feature ideas, this becomes more of a mapping exercise. The net result is every feature idea will be mapped directly back to a specific Problem, which is awesome.

5. Mark each feature as “In MVP” or not. Be ruthless in asking if a feature really, really needs to be part of the MVP. (Tip: not every feature under a “must-have” Solution element necessarily needs to be “In MVP”.)

6. “T-shirt size” the LOE for each feature, if practicable. Just L/M/S at this point. A quick conversation with your engineering lead can give you this.

Like with roadmap prioritization, this entire exercise can also be done via a simple spreadsheet. Here’s a template I use that you can freely download.

The beauty of the spreadsheet is it brings into sharp focus a particular feature’s contribution toward solving customers’ primary problems. And an MVP must attempt to do exactly that.

Shuttle Diplomacy

To paraphrase Bruce from p26 of his presentation, this is probably the most important part of the process — you need to get buy-in from your key stakeholders for your product strategy and MVP definition to be approved and “stick over time”. Bruce shares some excellent tips on how to do this on pp26-30. You need to do the same with your Product Canvas, and then with your MVP definition spreadsheet.

When you practice shuttle diplomacy:

“A magical thing happens. ‘Your’ plan becomes their plan too. This makes [review and approval] more of a formality, because everyone has had a hand in putting together the plan.”

To be clear, you’re not looking for “decision by committee”. As the product owner, you’ll still be looked upon as the final decision maker (remember to stand your ground), but you’re actively trying to bring others along by encouraging input and providing visibility.

Lean Startup purists may vomit at this, but that ignores the realities of getting things done in the corporate world. As Henry Chesbrough writes, “You have to fight — and win — on two fronts (both outside and inside), in order to succeed in corporate venturing.” This means corporate innovators “must work to retain support over time as conflicts arise (which they will).”

This means Stakeholder Development. And that requires shuttle diplomacy.

Here again is the link to download my MVP definition template. Let me know what you think!

How To Define An MVP: A Case Study

In my last post, I talked about how a minimum viable product (MVP) is not the smallest collection of features to be delivered. An MVP is basically an in-market experiment of a product idea that involves delivering real product to actual customers to get their feedback.

An MVP can be tested whether your idea is a brand new product or a new feature for an existing product.

And even if your product is software, your MVP doesn’t necessarily have to be software too.

Folks may be familiar with how Groupon started as a WordPress blog, called “The Daily Groupon”, on which the team posted daily discounts, restaurant gift certificates, concert vouchers, movie tickets, and other deals in Chicago area.

Food On The Table, a family meal planning and grocery shopping site eventually acquired by the Food Network, started by working with their customers individually, creating meal plans and shopping lists for them on spreadsheets and email, and then bought and delivered food items themselves.

So how do you go about defining an MVP for your product idea?

It starts with having a hypothesis for what features or capabilities you believe need to be delivered to your target customer in order to provide them value.

This is predicated on having done the hard upfront work of validating your customer’s problem (that it exists, it’s urgent, and pervasive), and then maybe even having tested a prototype of your solution vision.

If you feel you have a good enough understanding of your customer’s problem (pain point, job to be done, etc.), use that as a basis to identify what you believe are the must-have features for your MVP that are aligned with your solution vision.

Then test that MVP with real customers. Evaluate your results. Rinse and repeat.

To make this more tangible, here’s an example from my own experience.

For a product idea we had, we wanted to test our understanding of our customers’ top problems and get directional feedback on our solution approach. Directional feedback meant identifying the “right” handful of features to build first for early customers.

Based on some early customer conversations and market research, we developed a view of the problem domain. We sketched out our product vision on the Product CanvasTM, which allowed us to break down the problem domain into discrete problems and formulate testable falsifiable hypotheses around what we believed to be the top problems that our solution absolutely had to solve for first.

We built a clickable mockup defined by the key elements of our solution captured in our Product Canvas exercise. To keep things simple, we built a screen for each discrete problem to represent our solution vision — real html and css, in color, no lorem ipsum, with clickable interactions to represent the primary workflow through the screens.

We didn’t build out every interaction — just the main ones. We formulated a testable falsifiable hypothesis around the ability of each screen to solve a specific problem.

We then set up a number of customer interviews to test our problem hypotheses. During these customer conversations, we listened carefully to fully understand our customers’ world views and their current work flows, even noting the emotions in their voice and their body language (during in-person meetings, when we could do them) as they discussed their challenges and reacted to our screens.

We were deliberate and meticulous about documenting the results.

It turned out that while we had identified a viable problem domain, our view of what early customers considered as their chief problems was invalidated. We also learned that while our solution approach was generally in the right direction, there were features that we had not envisioned that early customers considered as must-have’s in the initial delivery.

As a massive bonus, we were actually able to garner a handful of very early customers who were willing to co-test the solution with us, further validating the fact that we had pricked a real pain point and were directionally correct in our solution approach.

As a primary outcome of this work we were able to understand our customers’ problem at a granular level, which helped prioritize the initial set of features to build. That drove the definition of the minimum viable product version of our solution.

And that’s what we did. We built just those features, and nothing else, and delivered it to those handful of early customers.

In fact, our first MVP wasn’t software. Our first MVP was more a concierge type service, sort of like what Food On The Table did — we “manually” delivered the service to each customer individually.

We learned a ton of really useful stuff. Things like what was really important to the customer, what features of the service they used more often than others, real insights into their workflow and how our solution could help improve it, and — crucially — what they were willing to pay for.

We used these learnings to then define a software MVP, and deliver it to early committed customers. The learnings from our “concierge” MVP experiment helped boost our confidence in defining the requirements for our software MVP. In other words, it was much less of a guess than it otherwise would have been.

We didn’t really bother with calling the software MVP a “release 1.0” or “version 1.0”, because that was irrelevant. We just focused on testing the solution until we received customer validation that it was truly providing value.

That gave us the confidence to know our product idea was “good to go” to scale up, put some real sales and marketing muscle behind it, and sell to more customers.

There’s no one way necessarily to approach an MVP. This is just one example of an approach. As Eric Ries states, defining an MVP is not formulaic: “It requires judgment to figure out, for any given context, what MVP makes sense.” Hopefully, this example gives you a template to define and test your own minimum viable product for your next great product idea.

I’ve created a handy primer on what is a minimum viable product. Download it below. I hope it helps you to become a pro at defining an MVP for your next great product idea!

 

An MVP Is Not The Smallest Collection Of Features You Can Deliver

Source: Spotify

Source: Spotify

There’s a lot of discussion and confusion about what is and isn’t a minimum viable product (MVP).

Worse, many execs have latched on to the term without really understanding what truly constitutes an MVP — many use it as a buzzword, and as a synonym to mean a completed version 1.0 ready to be sold to all customers.

Buzzwords are meaningless. They represent lazy thinking. And using “MVP” to mean “first market launch” or “first customer ship” means you’re back to the old waterfall, traditional project-driven software development, sales-focused approach. If that’s your approach, fine. Just don’t call what you’re delivering an MVP.

On the flip side, lots of folks in the enterprise world, including in product management, over-think the term. It gets lost in the clever nuances of market maturity, and a long entrenchment in the world of release dates and feature-based requirements thinking.

Many folks think of MVP as simply the smallest collection of features to deliver to customers. Wrong. It’s not.

The problem with that approach is it assumes we know ahead of time exactly what will satisfy customers. Even if we’ve served them for years, odds are when it comes to a new product or feature, we don’t.

Now, the challenge with the concept of a minimum viable product is it constitutes an entirely different way of thinking about our approach to product development.

It’s not about product delivery actually — in other words, it’s not about delivering product for the sake of delivering it or to hit a deadline.

An MVP is about validated learning.

As such, it puts customers’ problems squarely at the center, not our solution.

Reality check: Customers don’t care about your solution. They care about their problems. Your solution, while interesting, is irrelevant.

So if we’re going to use the term “MVP”, it’s important to understand what it really means.

Fortunately, all it takes to do that is to go back to the definition.


Download The Handy Primer “What Is An MVP?” >>


Minimum Viable Product (MVP) is a term coined by Eric Ries as part of his Lean Startup methodology, which lays out a framework for pursuing a startup in particular, and product innovation more generally. This means we need to understand the methodology of Lean Startup to have the right context for using terms like “MVP”. (Just like we shouldn’t use “product backlog” from Agile as a synonym for “dumping ground for all possible feature ideas”.)

Eric lays out a definition for what is an MVP:

“The minimum viable product is that version of a new product which allows a team to collect the maximum amount of validated learning about customers with the least effort.”

Eric goes on to explain exactly what he means (emphasis mine):

MVP, despite the name, is not about creating minimal products… In fact, MVP is quite annoying, because it imposes extra overhead. We have to manage to learn something from our first product iteration. In a lot of cases, this requires a lot of energy invested in talking to customers or metrics and analytics.

Second, the definition’s use of the words maximum and minimum means an MVP is decidedly not formulaic. It requires judgment to figure out, for any given context, what MVP makes sense.

Let’s break this down.

1. An MVP is a product. This means it must be something delivered to customers that they can use.

There’s a lot that’s been written about creating landing pages, mockups, prototypes, doing smoke tests, etc., and considering them as forms of MVPs. While these are undoubtedly worthwhile, and certainly “lean”, efforts to gain valuable learnings, they are not products. Read Ramli John‘s excellent post on “A Landing Page Is NOT A Minimum Viable Product“.

A product must attempt to deliver real value to customers. So a minimum viable product is an attempt — an experiment — to deliver real value to customer.

Which leads us to…

2. An MVP is viable. This means it must try to tangibly solve real world and urgent problems faced by your target customers. An MVP must attempt to deliver value.

So it’s not about figuring out the smallest collection of features. It’s about making sure we’ve understood our customers’ top problems, and figuring out how to deliver a solution to those problems in a way that early customers are willing to “pay” for. (“Pay” in quotes as it depends on your business model.)

If we can’t viably solve early customers’ primary problems, everything else is moot. That is why an MVP is about validated learning.

3. An MVP is the minimum version of your product vision. A few years ago, I had to build an online form builder app that would allow customers to create online payment forms without the need to write any HTML or worry about connecting to a payment gateway. Before having our developers write a single line of code to build the product, we first offered customers the capability as a service: we would get their specs, and then manually build and deliver each online payment form one-by-one, customer-by-customer. Customers would pay us for this service.

This “concierge” type service was our MVP version of our product vision. Of course, it wasn’t scalable. But we learned a heck of a lot: most common types of payment forms they wanted, what was most important to them in a form, frequency of wanting to make changes, reporting needs, and how they perceived the value of the service.

We parlayed these learnings into developing the software app itself — which, by the way, we delivered as an MVP to early customers to whom we had pre-sold the software product. (Yes, we delivered two different types of MVPs!)

Whether you take a “concierge” approach or your MVP is actual code, it most definitely does NOT mean it’s a half-baked or buggy product. (Remember viable from above?)

It DOES mean critically thinking through the absolute necessary features your product will need day 1 to solve your early customers’ top problems, focusing on delivering those first, and putting everything else on the backlog for the time being. It also means being very deliberate about finding those “earlyvangelists” that Steve Blank always talks about.

Ultimately, the key here is “maximum amount of validated learning”. This means being systematic about identifying your riskiest assumptions, formulating testable falsifiable hypotheses around these, and using an MVP — a minimum viable product version of your product vision — to prove or disprove your hypotheses.

Now, validated learning can certainly be accomplished via a landing page, mockup, wireframes, etc. And it may make sense to do these things. Super. But don’t call them MVPs, because while they may deliver value to you and your product idea, they’re not delivering actual value to the customer.

At the same time, the traditional product management exercise of identifying all the features of a product, force ranking them, and then drawing a line through the list to identify the smallest collection to be delivered by a given timeframe is not an MVP. Why? Because this approach is not predicated on maximizing validated learning. If you’re going to pursue this approach, go ahead and call it Release 1.0, Version 1.0, “Beta”, whatever. But don’t call it an MVP.

An MVP is about not just the solution we’re delivering, but also the approach. The key is maximizing validated learning.

I’ve created a handy primer on what is a minimum viable product. Download it below. I hope it helps you to become a pro at defining an MVP for your next great product idea!


Download The Handy Primer “What Is An MVP?” >>


How I Document My Product Vision

Over the last many years, I’ve been experimenting with applying Lean Startup andThe Lean Startup Customer Development concepts to product management. I first wrote about this here. Some time ago, I wrote about the challenges I and other product professionals have faced with the traditional approach of writing a business case.

One area where I had always struggled with was finding a simple and quick way to sketch out my product ideas. I used PowerPoint, Word, Google Docs, but they never really worked effectively. Often times my original notes would grow into a bloated morass of detailed thoughts about features, customers, marketing, partnerships, technologies, etc. There was no structure. Worst of all, if I wanted to share them with someone, I’d have to spend time figuring out how to translate them into something readable, since no one would be able to decipher my chicken scratch.

Before writing a requirements doc or business case, what I really wanted was a way to not only quickly capture a product idea in a structured manner, but also use the same format to share it with others to elicit feedback.

So you can imagine my delight when I came across Alex Osterwalder’s Business Model Canvas several years ago.

Business Model Canvas

What’s great about it is since it’s a single page, one can quickly jot down the basics of any business model, and it’s easy to share and more likely to get read than a PowerPoint deck or a Word doc. The single page also forces brevity: there isn’t a lot of space for a laundry list of features – you need to distil down your idea to its most essential building blocks.

Love at first sight, I started trying to use it for my products. But I ran into a few challenges. I found that while it does a good job capturing the key elements of a business, it’s not as customer focused as I would have liked because there was no place to capture the customer problems I was trying to solve or identify potential early adopters. There was also no place to capture my envisioned solution, and I often got confused between Channels and Customer Relationships.

That’s when I came across Ash Maurya’s Lean Canvas, an adaptation of the Business Model Canvas he created for his web startups.

Lean Canvas

Ash has correctly put the focus on customers and their problems. I also like that he calls out Unfair Advantage, which to me means competitive differentiation. This is especially true for a startup that may be fighting bigger, more established players.

So I started using his Lean Canvas, but ran into a new set of problems as a product manager:

Resources: Ash has left this out from Alex’s original version. I can understand this with respect to startups, but as a product manager working in an organization, it was important to me to identify which resources – platforms, systems, departments, vendors, etc. – I would need to make my product idea a reality.

Readability: When walking someone through a product or business idea, my inclination is always to start with the market opportunity, which means customers, their problems, and how we can solve them. I found neither of the above two canvases easily lend themselves to that flow. I’d have to start at the right-most column and then jump back left. This is non-intuitive to most English-speaking readers, and I found I’d quickly lose my audience as I criss-crossed columns.

Two other challenges I ran into as a product manager:

Stakeholders: Product Managers have to deal with internal stakeholders. The larger the org, the more. Often times a new product idea needs an executive sponsor. In my experience, I’ve found that the more I’m mindful of who are my key stakeholders, the greater the chance of internal support for my product.

Non-Revenue “Products”: Some products managers are responsible for initiatives that aren’t directly revenue generating, but do provide tangible business value, like improving CSAT, driving referrals, etc. I’ve lead several like that.

So I decided to create my own iteration that I felt was more suitable to me as a product manager, that I call the Product Canvas:

This version puts the customer and market on the left-hand side, which not only addresses the readability issue but also supports more intuitively how I think through a product opportunity. I can start with the customer and their problems on the left, and work my way toward the right to ultimately figure out how I’m going to deliver on the solution.

Here’s a brief description of each block and the order in which I typically approach them:

1. Customer Segment: Who is the target customer of our proposed product? This could be the company’s entire customer base, a segment, or a new market or vertical. Ash recommends using a separate Lean Canvas for each segment where one has multiple segments in mind, and I think that’s good advice as a starting point.

1a. Early Adopters: For any new product opportunity, it’s important to identify early adopters. There is already a ton written about this. While identifying early adopters is implied in the Lean Canvas, I wanted it called out explicitly, as I’ve found even in existing organizations there is a tendency to think any new product idea is applicable to all customers.

2. Problem: A brief description of the top problems we’re addressing. I try to limit this to at most 3.

2a. Existing Alternatives: How is the customer solving this problem today? This may not be just direct competitors. For example, in the early days, Quicken’s competition was not only other accounting software, but also checkbooks, and pen and paper.

3. Unique Value Proposition: How are we uniquely going to solve our customers’ problem(s)? This is the elevator pitch: the one sentence that clearly states the value we’re providing to our target customers.

4. Solution: What are the most essential features of our solution that will deliver on our UVP? This is not an exhaustive feature list. I try to limit it to the top 3 elements of my proposed solution.

5. Channels: How will we get (acquire), keep (retain), and grow (sell more to existing) customers? What is the marketing and sales strategy?

6. Revenue Streams/Business Value: How will we make money? What’s our pricing strategy? If this is not a revenue generating product, what other business value is it providing? Improving customer satisfaction? Customer lifetime value? Market positioning? Competitive differentiation? Operational efficiencies?

7. Key Metrics or Success Factors: What are the most important metrics that will tell us that we’re successful? Signups? Conversions? Referrals? CSAT? NPS? These are the metrics that are driving #6 above.

8. Key Resources: What are the most critical internal resources we need? These could be platforms, systems, business processes, departments. Are there external partners we need to rely on?

9. Cost Structure: What are the key cost drivers? Software/IT development? Customer acquisition? Account management? Hiring and talent development? This is also a good place to capture a back-of-the-envelope break-even calculation.

10. Unfair Advantage: This is the distinctive competence or advantage that your product has over other solutions in the marketplace. It’s something your product does better than any other, something that can’t be easily copied. It could be intimate knowledge of an industry, personal authority or brand, a business process or competence, a patent, or some other intellectual property.

After experimenting with using this Product Canvas as a product manager, I started sharing it with folks, asking them to use it, and the feedback has been very encouraging.

Feel free to download it here.

The Case Against The Business Case – Part II

Note: This is part of 1 of a two-part series. Read part 1 here.

In part 1, I talked about the problems of pursuing a new product idea in an organization, which traditionally starts with preparing and selling a business case. I shared research that I conducted in which I spoke with a number of product management professionals across the country in companies large and small who resoundingly shared their distaste for the process.

The response was amazing. It seems my post touched a chord!

Some interesting stats:

  • Within one week, the post became the 3rd most viewed on my blog.
  • Tweets, likes and positive comments on my blog and LinkedIn groups where I shared my post totaled 31. In other words, 31 additional people were in agreement with the original 24 with whom I had spoken.
  • On the flip side, there were a 6 disagreeing comments posted on the same LinkedIn groups.

Now, if there were any other detractors (because many more viewed the article), they either didn’t agree, didn’t comment, or didn’t care.

Still, with 83% promoters and 17% detractors, this would give an NPS-style score of 66%.

So it seems I’m on to something here.

Here’s something interesting. According to the Pragmatic Marketing’s 2013 Annual Product Management and Marketing Survey, 50% of respondents indicated they spend at least half a day per week preparing business cases.

part-of-job

Do the math on this, and that’s 17.6 hours per month or the equivalent of 1 month and 3 days per year spent preparing business cases.

So on average, a product manager is spending over one month of an entire year preparing business cases. Surely there should be some ROI to spending that much time? Yet, we all know the rate of failed products is sadly high.

To be clear, I’m not saying a business case is not necessary. Indeed, one needs to have a robust business case to ask for a commitment of resources and/or investment.

I’m saying that while well-intentioned, somewhere along the way, the process by which we’ve gone about preparing the business case has become wasteful.

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Several months ago, Steve Blank wrote a column in the Wall Street Journal that talked about the need for a startup to begin not with a business plan, but with building and testing a business model.

Three years prior to that, he blogged about how Customer Development is more effective than the traditional product development process in helping startups raise VC money.

“In a traditional product development model, entrepreneurs come up with an idea or concept, write a business plan and try to get funding to bring that idea to fruition. The goal of their startup in this stage becomes “getting funded.” Entrepreneurs put together their funding presentation by extracting the key ideas from their business plan, putting them on PowerPoint/Keynote and pitching the company – until they get funded or exhausted.”

It seems to me the same logic can be applied to pursuing new product ideas in established organizations.

Just like entrepreneurs typically jump right into writing the business case and seeking funding, product managers (or any visionary employee) often go direct from coming up with a concept to writing the business case and seeking its approval.

traditional-biz-case

Here’s another quote from that WSJ article:

“Entrepreneurs treat a business plan, once written, as the culmination of everything they know and believe. All they need to do is add money and magically that five-year forecast in Appendix A will simply happen if they execute to the plan.”

I’ve found the same with business cases. There are two key problems with the traditional approach to preparing a business case.

One is, like with startups, pursuing a new product idea in an organization is also fraught with uncertainty. The assumptions that go into the financial forecast need to be tested.

The other is that when seeking approval, your goal and your execs’ goal may not necessarily be aligned.

You still have a lot to learn and prove in your model. But the execs are ultimately interested in only one thing: ROI. Perfectly understandable, given the financial responsibility entrusted upon them.

problem-with-biz-case

This often leads to wasteful execution. The focus becomes hitting an arbitrary delivery date and trying to hit a promised ROI.

The product manager is caught between a rock and hard place: learning from customers and launching on time. It often leads to delivering bloatware or crapware.

What was that stat again about the rate of failed products?

So it seems to me that to build a robust business case, it’s important to validate that you’ve truly understood your customers’ problems, that they’ve bought into your proposed solution, that the problem is worth solving, and that it fits with the company’s overall corporate strategy.

For extra credit, you need to identify some early adopters, or “earlyvangelists,” as Steve Blank calls them.

These insights can help you identify key metrics that will drive your financials, making for a much more solid business case, and increase the chances for more efficient execution.

To add to this, product managers face a unique challenge that entrepreneurs don’t, which is gaining and maintaining internal stakeholder support.

This can be especially true in larger organizations where there are simply more people to manage and placate. Lots of opinions. Capturing and addressing concerns. Following up. Competing agendas. Finding an executive champion. Lots of approvals.

These are real challenges with which the bold product manager has to deal.

How to address that? Perhaps there’s a way to apply Customer Development concepts to internal stakeholders…?

In fact, there is.

The Case Against The Business Case

Note: This is part of 1 of a two-part series. Read part 2 here.

I have a confession to share.

I don’t like business cases.

At least, I don’t like the traditional way I’ve been taught to prepare a business case.

The conventional approach to pursuing a new product idea in an organization is to first prepare a business case. This is what we’ve always been told.

It’s what we’re taught in business school.

There are even competitions organized around it.

And it’s been reinforced every time we need IT and implementation resources for a new idea — the only way I could get those resources was by having a business case.

And this usually meant writing a big document, preparing a multi-slided presentation, or filling out some cumbersome form.

Now, I’ve written many business cases in my career. Some good, some excellent, many bad ones. Over the years, I’ve gotten pretty good at it.

But every time I did it, I hated it.

Here are just three reasons:

1. I always felt it was a time consuming exercise in guesswork.

For example, I’d be asked to estimate (guestimate?) market size and put multi-year financial projections. This is an exercise in future prediction. Something we’re not good at. No one is. I’m certainly not.

2. No one reads it.

People are busy. They don’t have time. Most want the elevator pitch.

I can’t count how many pitches I’ve been in where the execs flip to the end or simply ask you for the bottom line: what’s the opportunity, how much do you need, why do you need it, when do we see return. 60 seconds. Go.

This means a business case is nothing more than a 20, 50, or 100-page paperweight. Steven Blank famously called a business plan “a document investors make you write that they don’t read.” The same could be said for the traditional business case:

“A business case is a document executives make you write that they don’t read.”

3. Selling the business case is hard.

This is especially true in larger organizations. Lots of opinions. Lots of approvals. Competing agendas.

So ensuring internal stakeholder alignment and support is a big challenge. Lack of stakeholder support can be the biggest impediment to your product idea.

It’s important to capture and address stakeholder concerns as early as possible to ensure continued buy-in, and that everyone is on the same page. This is time consuming.

Part of that has to do with the realities of coordinating schedules. But also I’ve found this experience to be very ad hoc and messy. There has to be a better way.

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Now, maybe the way I’ve gone about creating and selling my business cases has been wrong. Maybe my situation is unique. Maybe others don’t find this process so wasteful. Maybe they’re more brilliant than I am in creating awesome business cases that always get approved. Maybe they work in organizations that have streamlined the process to pursue a new product idea.

Maybe I could test that hypothesis.

So I did.

I set about to find out what other product management folks’ experiences have been with the traditional business case process.

Over a three week period, I spoke with over 24 product professionals in companies across a range of industries, from small 50-person companies to Fortune 100 organizations.

All had experienced preparing and selling a business case for a new product idea. They had an average of 7 years PM experience, and had titles ranging from Product Manager to VP of Product Management.

Business Case Interview Map

Here’s what I found out.

Getting buy-in was rated as the #1 problem by every person except one. And that person rated it as a very close #2.

75% of them validated that maintaining stakeholder support and alignment is important, but a real challenge. Only 3 out of 8 pursed doing this in any kind of systematic manner. Most agreed it was pretty ad hoc.

Furthermore, creating the business case was acknowledged as time consuming, and a “necessary evil”.

Necessary evil? Whoa.

When I probed deeper into their feelings about the actual act of preparing a business case, I uncovered an outpouring of vitriolic frustration.

Here’s what some of them had to say:

  • “It’s a necessary evil. But it’s a wasteful process.”
  • “It’s a joke.”
  • “It’s just a lifeless Powerpoint deck.”
  • “It’s a manager fighting with an Excel spreadsheet for a month.”
  • “I’m forced to project revenues out of thin air. Putting revenue projections is a nonsensical exercise.”
  • “Financial analysis – it’s really just pretend.”

“Lifeless”. “Nonsensical.” “Pretend.” “A joke.”.

“Evil.”

Ouch.

And my favorite comment:

“You are describing my life!”

Yikes.

I feel safe to say this feedback clearly validated my entire hypothesis.

So what’s the solution?

This is not so easy to answer.

It seems to me we need a different way to pursue new product opportunities within our organizations.

One that will provide a systematic process to create validated business cases.

And one that provides us with tools and resources needed to obtain that validation.

One that will enable us to more systematically build and maintain critical internal support.

And one that allows us to spend more time with customers testing and developing product ideas than writing paperweights, while also providing an effective means to communicate progress internally for continued engagement, feedback and buy-in.

What has your experience been with business cases? How have you pursued a new product idea in your organization? Please share your frustrations or joys in the comments below!

Read part 2 here.

Before Product/Market Fit comes Opportunity/Company Fit

In his book, Running Lean, Ash Maurya presents a workflow for taking a product from idea to launch to Product/Market fit.

Ash Maurya workflow
In the Problem/Solution Fit stage, you are trying to answer the question, “Do you have a problem worth solving?” Ash breaks this down further into three questions:

  • Is the problem something customers want solved? (must-have)
  • Can it be solved? (feasibility)
  • Will they pay for it? If not, who will? (viability)

Problem/Solution Fit is pursued by capturing your business model hypothesis and then doing Customer Discovery via problem interviews and solutions interviews with customers. Once you’ve validated from customers that you have a viable problem worth solving, you move into Product/Launch Fit.

In the Product/Launch Fit stage, you are trying to answer the question, “Are you ready to learn from customers?” Key activities pursued here are reducing down your MVP, getting to Release 1.0, defining your key metrics, and continuous deployment. The purpose here is to lay the critical groundwork to maximize speed and learning for future iterations, and to establish “just enough” traction among customers to support learning.

Finally, in pursuing Product/Market Fit you are trying to answer the ultimate question: “Have you built something customers want?” This is where the rubber hits the road, and you’re validating your complete product. Identifying the “right” metric or set of metrics, prioritizing your feature backlog, and ensuring retention and getting paid are critical to the success of achieving product/market fit.

This Lean Startup workflow is one that could be used by a product manager pursuing a new product idea or looking to introduce an existing product into a new market. After all, the product manager in such a situation must be able to answer the same set of questions about who is the customer, what customer problem is the product trying to solve, and will enough customers care enough to pay for the solution. The product manager typically starts with some sort of informed hypotheses to answer these questions, which form the basis of the product vision. And the product manager must stay in close touch with customers to validate whether the product is truly something they want.

I feel there is one critical step missing in this workflow, though. It has to do with the unique situation product managers find themselves in versus entrepreneurs. Whereas an entrepreneur is trying to discover a business model that works, a product manager is typically an employee in an existing company already executing a repeatable and scalable business model. As such, the new product idea being pursued by the product manager could represent a change to the company’s existing business model. As such, because of the potential impact on the company’s existing business model, a critical consideration for the product manager pursuing a new product is whether the new product is aligned with the company’s corporate strategy.

In his book, Product Leadership: Creating and Launching Superior New Products, author Robert G. Cooper talks about the need for new product development efforts to be closely linked to the overall business strategy. In Beyond the Core, Chris Zook makes the case that the further a new product or business idea is from the core business — what he calls an “adjacency move” — the riskier it is and more prone to failure. What this means is that the more closely aligned the new product idea is to the company’s existing business strategy, the more favorably it will be looked upon by the company’s executives. This does not mean something completely outside of a company’s existing core will never be approved. But it does mean the bar to get that buy-in is much higher.

So in order for the new product idea to garner the necessary stakeholder support, its business case must be able to articulate the business opportunity it presents to the company, how it fits (or departs) from the company’s current business model and strategy, and the risks associated with pursuing it.

As such, Ash’s workflow can be modified as follows:

opportunity-company-fit

I call this stage Opportunity/Company Fit.

Critical questions for the product manager to figure out are:

  • Does the idea align with the company’s strategic goals?
  • Who do I have to convince to get buy-in?
  • Can I get a sponsor? Who?

Just like with using customer validation to achieve Problem/Solution Fit, I’m sure it’s possible to use lean principles to achieve Opportunity/Company Fit.