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]
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.
In a previous life, Elon Musk was one of the main creators of PayPal. He’s pretty open about how the initial idea didn’t actually catch on very well. When he was doing customer interviews, he’d get that glazed-over look. Yeah, that one.
At the time, the team was approaching consumers. They were saying they aimed to “replace the US dollar with a new internet currency”. Remember this was 1999, almost a decade before Bitcoin existed.
Their product allowed people to beam money from one PalmPilot to another via infrared. Journalists voted this as one of the worst business ideas of 1999.
If you’ve never heard of them, PalmPilots were like early smartphones. Except they weren’t phones.
But then the customer development led to an epiphany. Customers loved a small sub-feature the the team built just to get the PalmPilots to sync:
“Sending money to an email address!”
In 1999, “sending money to an email address” resonated with people. Not just with PalmPilot owners. At a deep level. Once the Paypal guys slapped on a viral engine of growth, that feature became what PayPal is known for.
All of this shows how critical it is to have the right value proposition, when first pitching a product. Regardless of whether you present your product in initial conversations with customers. Or on a landing page MVP.
[image cred: Rama & Musée Bolo]
In case you didn’t know, SNAFU is a military slang acronym meaning “Situation Normal: All Fouled Up.”
More and more, I hear founders saying that they’re working on a product, who’re concerned whether or not there will be any demand when they launch. I’ve seen it come up in surveys, in youtube videos, even during personal conversations with founders.
After all, there’s more and more noise out there. We’re all getting overstimulated by hundreds of marketing messages and notifications per day. The more we do, the less relevant this messaging is.
How do you find unmet needs, to position your product effectively? A critical piece of building the right product is to address latent demand. Often, demand exists. It just isn’t immediately obvious where.
There is a hint in the book Lean Startup. First you need to prove what Eric Reis calls the “value hypothesis”, before you try to go after the “growth hypothesis”.
The value hypothesis claims that “the product delivers value to customers once they are using it.” This requires a deep understanding of:
in addition to number of other factors, if you want to build a business and not just launch a product. If you aren’t sure that your customer needs what you plan to provide, then optimizing or scaling up sales is a waste of time and money.
So for example, split testing is a form of optimization of a message that already works. Running a split test before before you know that your product is attractive and valuable to your prospect is pointless. Yet many newbie founders have this belief from I don’t know where that split testing is what they should be doing.
Nowadays, to that I say…BS.
Here’s what you can and should do before you even reach for split testing or conversion optimization.
List out your assumptions, so that you can prioritize them in the order of riskiness. See if you can or want to de-risk the launch even at this stage:
Apologies if this is a bit pessimistic, but it’s a powerful method to both plan a product and learn about a new market. As a side benefit, once you’ve tested the assumptions, you confront and abolish any big worries you have. It’s also completely specific to your product idea. It doesn’t matter if it worked for anyone else in any market. You generate quantitative proof of your assumptions are valid or not before proceeding.
Oh, and by the way, be prepared that a few of your big assumptions won’t be right. That’s the usual experience of most entrepreneurs with this approach. In fairness, these false assumptions are the assumptions you want to learn about as soon as possible. You don’t want make decisions still thinking they’re true.
Once you’re done that, there’s another exercise worth going into. Testing the your value proposition in your ads and your landing page MVP, so that you know what speaks to your market. People get hung up on what value prop is, but it’s quite simple. It’s the reason someone buys from you. Their (nor your) reason why. Of course, only test value props that you’d be comfortable selling and building.
See, this is where the MVP naysayers have it wrong. A landing page MVP isn’t a smoke test. If you’re using it to validate yourself and tell you how smart you are, your mirror will be more effective. And cheaper. And you’ll learn just as much.
Test your value props.
The fastest path to identifying your value prop with advertising? I thought you’d never ask.
Why, Launch Tomorrow of course. My book Launch Tomorrow delves into exactly how to do that with paid adverising and a landing page MVP.
Download a free chapter over on the sidebar.