Here are a few homepages of today’s tech giants from their early days. The homepages serve as a poignant reminder of the fact that it’s better to launch as quickly as possible when you are in a good market, rather than honing the perfect look and design.
If you cut across the technology industry, the whole idea of a “minimum love-able product” just doesn’t hold up to the backstories of the major players in the sector.
Every major tech company below had quite humble beginnings, where they focused on learning, iterating, and building a viable business around a product idea. Once they knew they were viable, they went back and optimized product design.
These homepages serve as a good reminder of what Field Marshall Helmuth Graf von Moltke said, “No campaign plan survives first contact with the enemy”. You could easily argue that that the real test of a business is whether it survives its first major pivot. Yet in order to pivot using a Lean Startup approach, you gather data to confirm your intuitions.
Also, if the founders had not explicitly formulated an experiment around their landing page, the below are not really landing page MVPs. They’re just homepages. To find out more about building your own landing page MVP experiment, check out Launch Tomorrow.
Before Alphabet there was Google, and before Google there was…Backrub.
This was a prototype of the search service that took over the online world.
In the early days of Google, the designers would occasionally get an email from a strange fan containing just one number. That was it. Every few months or so, they got another one of these emails and they were confused why this oddball was emailing them numbers.
Eventually, they realized that the email always came the day after the changed their main homepage design. The number referred to the number of characters visible on the main screen. Their email stalker was helping them stay true to their minimalist style.
[image: Mark Chen]
This picture is from Jack Dorsey’s notebook, before the twitter guys actually put up their first version of their homepage. Paper prototypes are good sources of discussion, and they are useful for communicating the value proposition–which in Twitr’s case at the time was their biggest challenge. After all, who would even want to write 140 character long blog posts?
This early homepage stresses twitter’s function of serving as a way to keep tabs on friends. The value proposition was that you will know what others are doing.
Founder Jeff Bezos claimed, “one million titles, consistently low prices”–a claim physical bookstores couldn’t really make, as detailed in Launch Tomorrow. As a result, Amazon became the go-to place for consumers who were browsing slightly less popular books in the “long tail”, knowing that there would be a much greater chance that the book would be available.
[image: Mark Chen]
This is how Facebook looked, when Mark Zuckerburg decided to create an electronic form of the Freshman Facebook, arguably as a way to gain notoriety on campus at the time. Seems quite far from the billion dollar advertising juggernaut it is today.
While clearly not a landing page, as the Internet didn’t exist at the time, Steve Jobs and Woz arranged to sell 50 assembled computers to the Byte Shop (a computer store in Mountain View, California) at $500 each, despite not having the parts. To fulfill the $25,000 order, they obtained $20,000 in parts at 30 days net and delivered the finished product in 10 days.
This was in a day when home computers were assembled from scratch by wide-eyed hobbyists. A classic pre-sell MVP lies at the beginning of the Apple empire.
Youtube had its roots as a dating site before focusing specifically on video. YouTube fizzled in an early version, namely a dating site called “Tune In Hook Up”. The founders later developed the current site, now broadcasting 100 million short videos daily on myriad subjects.
Before Peter Thiel became “The Peter Thiel”, he ran around doing customer development trying to convince people to beam money between PalmPilots. Over infrared. It was only when they realized that people really latched on to the idea that sending money to someone using their email address, did they have a value proposition that actually worked.
Yahoo was originally the first directory of links of the world wide web, before search engines even existed. The founders manually curated links and organized them into a tree structure to make them easy to find and use.
The idea for AirBnb came from the founders’ need to get cash for their other startup ideas. They offered to rent out an air mattress to ISDA conference (a design conference) attendees. When they found that surprisingly easy, they continued to do so, only to realize later…that this was their big idea.
[image: YC/Jessica Livingston]
And the takeaway is…
Design remains quite important, particularly for consumer technology companies. But over-designing a product before proving demand exists is just an elaborate form of waste. Premature optimization, even.
A minimum loveable product is a great idea. As a principle, I myself find it quite alluring to only show your absolute best to the world. From a business point of view in the tech sector, though, it may be a trap.
The following are a number of Lean Startup validation case studies. Some will already be well known; some will be completely unknown. A lot of landing page testing has happened since The Lean Startup was being pieced together by Eric Reis. These are retrospective reconstructions of what happened using landing pages as vehicles for minimum viable products.
For example, Buffer did empty pocket testing with a landing page before building their product. Just for your context, Buffer is a social media sharing tool, allowing you to publish tweets or social media posts on a pre-defined schedule.
While you may have heard of some of the lean landing page case studies before, there is a lot of nuance in exactly what each test actually tested. They are typically not “traditional” A/B split tests, where they were testing whether a new variation of an ad or landing page beat the old one.
In order to help make it more explicit, I’ve tried reformatting the experiments to be lightweight. Lean Startup experiments are generally not about testing the landing page or the product, but the business ideas they represent.
Hypothesis: The target audience wants this product
Test Type: Value hypothesis, confirm the problem exists and people want a “hands off” way to tweet
Success Criteria: Emails gathered > 0
Traffic Source: Social media, word of mouth
Result: Pass. A few people used it to give founder Joel Gascoigne their email. He used these to get some useful feedback and initiate a conversation with prospects.
Step back: Potential users had left their email address at a random web page promising them help with this particular problem. This meant the idea itself was valuable, and there was potentially unmet demand for this particular idea. I would be careful to use only # of emails gathered as the primary metric in all cases.
For a consumer facing product, this is probably good enough, assuming you have enough traffic. It would be better to also include some kind of a target number of sessions, to make sure that you have enough “attempts to convert” to make your metric meaningful.
Hypothesis: The target audience is willing to pay for the product
Test Type: Value hypothesis, confirm declared willingness to pay for “a way to automate their tweeting”
Success Criteria: People would click-through the additional pricing page, and still leave their email.
Traffic Source: Social media, word of mouth
Result: Pass. People were still clicking through this additional step. Joel was able to gather useful information about the suggested pricing plans, in order to figure out pricing.
Step back: Potential users weren’t put off by the blatant pitch, and still kept leaving an email address at the far end. What Joel hadn’t tested was whether people would actually buy; however, he was able to complete a functional prototype within seven weeks, and tested this hypothesis with a functional system. He actually got his first paying customer 4 days after the “rough-around-the-edges” product launch.
I just wanted to thank Joel for contributing this fantastic case study to the Lean Startup community. It’s quite a well known one. As a result, I really wanted to cover it as an example of a line of thinking that’s worth following.
Empty Pocket Testing
At the core, the Buffer landing page MVP test was meant to address a major question for founders: will “they” buy it, if I create it? Before getting caught up in theoretical debates about what is and isn’t an MVP, Buffer just did an experiment. It just happened to be using a landing page to address a major risk factor for a new product business.
In this particular case, checking for whether early adopters
- had the budget and
- were willing to spend it
de-risked spending more time and money on the solution significantly. Even though they were asking theoretically, this helped to validate their sense that their target early adopters would be willing to pay.
If you’d like to see a number of case studies like the above, grab Launch Tomorrow. I’m updating it in an upcoming version with a lot of in-depth experiments that have been run.