The biggest challenge when introducing a new product is establishing a connection with your audience. Often, this is because you can’t do anything else until this is in place. This detail really hit home for me, when I went to an accelerator event in Mexico.
One of the speakers was an immunobiologist client of mine, who’d developed a unique salmonella vaccine that could be combined with other vaccines. And it looks as though his vaccine is the only salmonella one which can do that.
I’d worked with him briefly as an innovation expert, and had a discussion about commercialization options as well as some pitch training. At the time he was struggling to see entrepreneurship as a viable route to greater impact. He felt comfortable as an inventor, and wanted to do more of that, not become a businessman.
It turned out I had unleashed a force of nature. Also drilling him in giving pithy explanations helped him hone down his message to something much more concrete for anyone who wasn’t already a fellow immunobiologist, or even a scientist. This one insight allowed him to communicate the relevance of his work to the wider public.
But more importantly, he started to believe that entrepreneurship was a viable route to greater impact. As it would force him to confront institutions that held him and other scientists back domestically.
As a result of both, he’s pretty much gone from a booksy academic researcher to a serious contender in getting funding to help spread the use of his product vaccine. This is the power of relevance and empathy in an age of dwindling attention.
One of the best ways to get (and stay) relevant is to focus all of your marketing and product efforts around a client profile. In theory there are millions of ways to reach an audience; in practice, you only need to reach a specific group of people. So figure out who they are, and then just focus on them. The best way to do this is the Hero Canvas tool. Grab a copy and get a quick intro for free with my Hero Canvas course.
A few years ago, we had a significant challenge with our 2 year old daughter. Morning and evening routines were an uphill battle every day. Getting out the door to her childminder quickly enough to make my first meeting in the morning was often a drawn out battle of wills.
It was clear she wanted to collaborate and appease us as parents. But she didn’t understand what we expected of her. Moreover, her brain development still seemed to behind. The neocortex doesn’t kick into overdrive growth until later. She was also awash hormones, which is completely normal for this age. This caused the temper tantrums typical for a two year year old. They’re called “terrible twos” for a reason. We were also frustrated as parents, and we didn’t know how to help her. Fundamentally, this was an issue of her feeling overwhelmed. And unable to sort out what’s important from what isn’t.
In a professional context, visualization works really well to help stop overwhelm. Whether to map out a business process, plan a large scale software system, or figure out a business model, it helps to have everyone involved “brain dump” onto post-its. And then to organize them. This approach unleashes a lot of latent creativity. Plus it helps front-load difficult discussions. You find out really quickly what the major challenges are with a new initiative.
How it all started
One Saturday afternoon, I was watching her learn to draw on a coffee table. I had the idea to draw out her morning and evening routines. First and foremost, I wanted to do it with her, not to her. As she was already drawing and playing around, I felt a little more comfortable drawing my chicken-scratch cartoons. Drawing was never a personal strength of mine.
So I pitched it to her as a fun project we can do together. I pulled out some bigger post-its and a Sharpie, and sat down at the coffee table with her.
First, I suggested that we brainstorm what she does in the morning. As she was coming up with specific actions, like eating breakfast, I would sketch out a symbol of that particular activity. A cartoon visualization.
As she wasn’t able to read, images brought home the message. They eliminated the cognitive load for her. She was excited to see me draw things she named on the fly. It isn’t that common of a sight to be honest. As an output of each suggestion, we drew a cartoon on a green wide post it. And pasted it on our coffee table.
Once we had a handful of these, I suggested a few others which she might have missed-for approval. I also suggested a few which were deliberately incorrect, just to make sure she was paying attention.
After this, we moved to a “converging phase” of the workshop. I suggested that she take the post its and put them in order on the wall. We had to do it together in practice, but the key was that I gave her the final say in the actual order. I was holding the relevant two post-its, and asking questions like do you “eat breakfast” before you “descend the stairs”? Doing this multiple times, we came up with a reverse chronologically ordered list of post-its that reflected her morning routine.
At that moment, she seemed to step back and view the whole process. And she was absolutely beaming, proud of both us for doing it together. But also happy that she finally understood what her parents were on about every morning. She felt less overwhelmed.
So she felt confident that she will now be able to achieve what is expected of her. Because she understood what is expected of her for the first time in her life!
Wrap up and implementation
We then did the same thing thing with her evening routine on dark blue post its. And ordered it the other way, finishing with her in bed and falling asleep.
When thinking about it, I realized the grouping was off. Some of the activities are performed on the ground floor of our house. And some on the first floor, where her bedroom and the bathroom was.
So I unwrapped a brown paper roll, ripped off two pieces about a meter long, and sat down again with my daughter. We put the ground floor post-its on one brown paper square. And the first floor post-its on the other.
Finally, we hung up the ground floor post its in our dining room, and the first floor post its in her bedroom. So in the end, she had a detailed map of her daily routines, organized chronologically and physically near the place where she would actually do them.
What happened in practice
My wife and I were shocked at how effective this was. The daily tantrums nearly disappeared completely overnight. If there was push-back from her, it lasted 15 seconds not 15-45 minutes as it did in the past.
The fastest way to help her calm down, when she looked like she was about to blow up, was to walk her over to the post its. Then ask her where we were at that moment in the process. She would point to the relevant one. The emotions would calm down, as this required some cognitive load from her. And we could continue on with the rest of the routine that morning or evening.
About a year later, as I was putting her to bed, she said
“Daddy, that picture there is wrong” pointing at the one where she brushes her teeth.
“Oh really, what do you mean?” I asked.
“By the time I am brushing my teeth, I’m already wearing my PJs, not a dress”.
She was right. The next weekend, I drew out a version of the same post-it with her avatar dressed in a pajamas.
Her brain development had caught up. She understood what this map meant. She had full ownership of the process, because she’d been involved from the beginning. And most importantly, she could call out specific ideas for improvement.
This experience made me reflect how powerful the principle of visualization actually is:
It can help make sense of initially overwhelming complexity. Put everything “out there” on a wall, rather than micromanage your memory.
It helps participants feel empowered and in control of what is happening. Improve motivation to implement, once decisions are made.
It helps everyone involved to view a situation more objectively. Both big picture and smaller details exist together. “what should i draw on your plate when you eat breakfast?”
In the case of my daughter, the increased clarity helped with emotional regulation. While (hopefully) not necessary in a professional environment, team “feel good” is a welcome side effect.
Cartoons and symbols don’t require the ability to read or write, in order for them to work.
Visualizing waste and complexity is a very powerful way to help get a grip on it. Clearly, the visual component speaks to us at a primordial level. Cavemen drew images. Medieval religious propaganda was based on paintings and images. This stuff is powerful.
If you want to know where to start with visualization and other tools, check out my short video course on the Hero Canvas.
“Not launching can be painful, but not learning can be fatal.” That’s how Drew Houston, the founding CEO of Dropbox, describes his team’s approach. Dropbox, if you haven’t heard of them, does file-sharing in the cloud. And they’re famous for the Dropbox explainer video which got them lots of eyeballs on Hacker News, as the basis for explosive growth later.
They give users access to the same files on all devices, regardless of where they are used.
After interviewing their geeky friends in MIT dorm rooms, the Dropbox founders wanted “write once, read anywhere” file management to apply to all files. Not just a software developer’s source code. They started working on developing a working prototype to solve their own problem.
When Dropbox launched, a number of cloud storage competitors with deep pockets already existed: Google Drive, iCloud, AWS, Carbonite, to name a few. To get their product off the ground, Dropbox had to be different. And simple to understand.
Hypothesis: Latent demand for product concept X makes product development worthwhile
Test type: Value Hypothesis
Success Criteria: Able to get signups based on description
Traffic Source: social media and online communities
If we build it, how will we acquire traffic?
Who exactly will be interested?
Are they interested enough to establish a relationship with us?
What kind of conversion rates do we get?
Result: Pass. The team was able to acquire traffic that converted based on a description on a landing page. At the same time, they were building prototypes to assess the technical viability of the product idea. As this initial market test proved that some pent up demand existed, the team dug further.
Step Back: This test established baselines, which could then be used to explore the product presentation further. Also, it helped them reach out and establish contact with their market, independently of their immediate personal network, thus providing a slightly more unbiased signal. Also, using such a page potentially allowed them to test a path to market, to locate their most rabid fans.
Hypothesis: Variation X meaningfully positions the product against customer alternatives
As part of their application to YCombinator, Dropbox really wanted to get Paul Graham’s attention. So they created a video aimed at attracting early adopters. The goal was to explain the product concept as a story. The core differentiator (big idea as they call it) was “write once, read anywhere”. Make changes to any copy, and all copies are updated with the same changes.
Test Type: Value or Growth hypothesis
Success Criteria: signups > X or conversion rate > X% (established previously) — more accurately in Dropbox’s case it was to get accepted into the YCombinator accelerator program.
Create an explainer video for your complicated new product.
Make sure your audience understands it, without being overwhelmed by technical details.
Traffic Source: HackerNews, link to landing page with demo video targeted at early adopters
Result: Pass. Built list of around 5,000 interested prospects. The problem description resonated strongly with their targeted early adopter audience.
Step Back: Moving to a video format helped get across the product’s story more effectively. This made it more accessible to everyone. In and of itself, an explainer video is just a change in format–similar to how a bestselling book is treated as a candidate to become a blockbuster movie. Ultimately, a landing page that tests demand much get across the story well. The medium for telling that story is secondary to the relevance and quality of that story to the target audience.
As Dropbox’s initial target audience was quite technical, this explanation mapped to a number of tools and behaviors they already knew from software development. And they were more than happy to run with the write once, read anywhere concept. Arguably, this niche perceived other cloud storage as defective because it didn’t support this kind of functionality. As a result, they needed little convincing and persuasion to hop on board.
Hypothesis: Paid search can be a profitable engine of growth for Dropbox
Test Type: Growth hypothesis
Success Criteria: Customer Value > Customer Acquisition Cost
Traffic Source: Paid search engine marketing
Dropbox experimented with using paid acquisition on a landing page. This is not an early-stage landing page MVP test. It’s an attempt to figure out what will grow the company, not whether the product idea is attractive. They hired an experienced search engine marketer, who went out and made landing pages. On those pages, they hid the free option, replacing it with a free time-limited trial.
Total ad spend: approximately $3,000 in the image above
In their words, here were the problems they faced:
The most obvious keywords were expensive.
Long-tail had low volume.
Hiding the free option was shady, confusing and buggy.
The conversion numbers on Google’s dashboard were inaccurate.
Result: Fail. As their cost of acquisition at the time was at least $233 for a $99 product, the experiment to test paid acquisition as a profitable traffic source failed. Based on the economics of paid search, pay-per-click didn’t look like a viable growth strategy for Dropbox.
Step back: Even though PPC as a source of traffic didn’t work for them, it solidified their confidence in their ability to retain customers.
If people bought, their subscription retention rate was over 75%. In short, they had a great product their community loved, and they had product market fit. In Drew Houston’s words, this meant that “product-market fit cures the many sins of management.” After this idea failed, Dropbox created a famous explainer video which went viral, thus proving that a viral engine of growth was better for them.
Hypothesis: A simple value proposition resonates more with the target audience than a complex one
Result: Pass. Simple and concise converts better, as does having a clear call-to-action for the next step.
Step back: This test type is taken out of the traditional toolbox of conversion rate optimization (CRO).
The idea is clear to the founders. They want to communicate it as concisely and effectively as possible to their target audience. Even if they move to a different traffic source later (as Dropbox did), a clear and powerful value proposition ensures a high conversion rate for all further marketing efforts, including free traffic sources. Moving too early into this kind of testing can be a type of premature optimization.
The key tactic Dropbox used was to to test both market and technical viability simultaneously. In addition, they did a number of smaller tests. Each test checked a much smaller piece of the bigger puzzle. This required them to break down the overall vision into discrete tests which they built and ran.
Build -> Measure -> Learn
By running a series of experiments, Dropbox stayed with the ethos of MVP=experiment. Each cycle around the Build, Measure, Learn loop gave them greater insight. Each step they took tested something new about their target market and their product.
As a result the product evolved very quickly, because the team gathered actionable yet counter-intuitive data. This helped them build a strong USP (unique selling proposition) in a crowded marketplace using technology that was theoretically possible but unproven.
There is a lot more to a minimum viable product than just a beta software release. This post aims to make that clearer.
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.
Initial days of Google!
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]
Paper prototype, basis for the homepage of Twitter
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?
keeping tabs on friends, good early days of Twitter!
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.
Consistently low prices and greater chances of availability of books at Amazon.
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]
the first look!
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.
Here’s how the user profile looked after login
Who can believe this is Apple Computer? Yes the same Apple from 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.
“Tune in Hook Up” to 100 million videos daily on myriad subjects
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.
Uniqueness of Idea that sending money to someone using their email address, we call it PayPal.
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.
First directory of links of the world wide web
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.
An idea that counts, renting mattresses opened way to progress.
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.
So go figure out what you need to prove and write your first experiment! Grab my book Launch Tomorrow, and set up your first landing page!
Tweet or Posts on a social media at a pre-defined schedule
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
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.
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.
People are willing to pay out of their pockets for this tool.
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.