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.

google adwords launch tomorrow
AdWords interface is showing incorrect campaign conversation numbers. Difference of numbers are computed here.


Total ad spend: approximately $3,000 in the image above

In their words, here were the problems they faced:

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

Test Type: Value hypothesis

Success Criteria: Conversion rate > initial conversion rate

Traffic Source: Paid search engine marketing

dropbox design launch tomorrow
Simpler the better!

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 Takeaways

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.

<< Help Yo' Friends

The Best Lean Startup Tool In My Experience


none of these will work: you need a “thinking” tool

There’s a specific agile tool which I think every early-stage product team should use, regardless of whether they’re following the Lean Startup methodology. Lean Startup drew its roots from agile software development. Eric Reis added Steve Blank’s idea of customer development to agile. Assuming we aren’t talking about re-reading Eric Reis’ book for the 17th time, the best Lean Startup tool is the dogeared post-it.

That’s it.

What? Why not some kind of fancy-shmancy online tool that defines, builds, and releases your product? In your sleep. There’s lots of those around. < grin >

Your riskiest assumptions are probably related to your prospects and customers. Establish empathy quickly with your target prospect, figure out what's valuable, and get your innovation into the market.

Post-Its are placeholders for team discussions. Invented by accident at 3M, having slips of paper with adhesive turned out to be a fantastic tool for organizing ideas.

This harks back to the old Class-Responsibility-Collaboration (CRC) approach introduced in the early days of object oriented software design. Post-its and index cards helped create the internal design of a larger software program. If you don’t understand the problem domain well enough, then it’s hard to design good, clean software. Post-its allowed developers to note that they need to discuss something in detail at a later date. Once developers were ready, they huddled around a problem. They dissected the problem into sub-components. They formulated a solid hypothesis about the best way to solve a technical problem.

Over the years, software teams have attempted to create software versions of the same experience. There are lots of tools which approximate this effect. Of the ones which I think are probably as close as you can get with software: Jira and PivotalTracker.

Unfortunately, as soon as you get a team in front of computer screens you lose a lot of information. This holds true regardless of whether they are in the same room or in different time zones.

Here’s a handful of ways you can use Post-Its for your product development:

  1. General Brainstorming: A great way to pull out the gems from introverts in a group setting, you can write up Post Its individually, vote on them, and discuss them. In fact, this is a format we use at the Lean Startup Circle London #LeanCoffee sessions I help run.
  2. Marketing Copy: When speaking to customers, you hear the words which customers use to describe their problem. By tapping into the conversation already going on in their heads, you increase your own ability to convince them. Just because you know your solution will address their problem, doesn’t mean they do. Since you describe the problem exactly how they see it, you draw in their attention and fascinate them. When you have prospect language on postits, it’s easy to group post-its into similar themes. You can reorganize them based on whatever criteria you want.
  3. Developing An Unfair Advantage: Getting a team to think about their strengths is hard to do. But when you talk about your team’s strength, document them on post its. Have your discovered strengths hanging on a wall. Help everyone with day-to-day decision-making criteria, by focusing everyone on adding to those strengths. By building on your strengths, you are much more likely to succeed. You rapidly develop an unfair advantage, by reinvesting into your strengths.
  4. Verbalizing Your Unique Selling Proposition: Why should a prospect buy from you specifically? Immediately after they decide to buy your type of solution, this is the next question you must answer. It’s simple. It’s critical for your business. It’s also easy to forget about. Post-Its are a good way to organize your thoughts. You can add information about your competitors and alternatives. This will distill the one sound bite which will convince you and your prospects that your offering the best one possible.
  5. Identify Unmet Market Needs: Sometimes you may be struggling with identifying a problem worth solving. To build a successful product, you need to be addressing a difficult problem for your prospects. A good example of using post-its for this process is in the book Blue Ocean Strategy. You can map out the offerings of an entire industry against how customers “scratch their itch”. This identifies unmet needs in the customer’s process of solving their problem.
  6. Feature requests or bug reports: Post-Its are already the bread and butter tool of any decent development team. What about yours? Working from Post-Its, it’s much easier to deliver prototypes or new features faster. Post-Its capture nuggets of wisdom gleaned from direct access to customers or the product owner can be. Post-Its help gather together the relevant considerations for a new product. If everyone is looking at the same wall of post-its, it’s much easier to deliver.
  7. Long Term Planning and Vision: While there is often a strong focus on increasing certainty and clarity with tools like product roadmaps, you risk destroying value by pre-committing to things which don’t need to be committed to. A good example is the default setting of task dependencies within Microsoft Project. In contrast, if you continuously articulate your vision with post-its, you can adapt your vision as you learn. Even though Agile tends to be tactical and focussed on the short term, you can also track long term visions with post-its.
  8. Hypothesis Test Backlog: Post-Its help keep track of assumptions and hypotheses you still haven’t proven. This is the valuable “grunt work” which Lean Startup prescribes. A great way to keep track of what you still need to learn about your market, your product, or your business model, Post-Its allow you to adapt Lean Startup to your situation. Launch that product successfully!
  9. Map Features To Business Goals: Quite often product teams get lost in tons of feature ideas and “things to do”. It’s easy to feel overwhelmed. The most creative way I’ve applied post-its? Gojko Adzic’ Impact Mapping tool. Impact mapping helps you identify high level business goals. Then you organize your development around reaching those goals. It’s a powerful and subtle process.

More Visibility + Less Structure = More Learning

If your goal with Lean Startup is to de-risk a product idea as soon as possible, you need to identify where you are going. To do that quickly, you need “signal”. Signal will help you achieve that faster.

A smattering of post-its on a physical wall are a true “information radiator”. Anyone and everyone can jump in, comment, or move the post-its around. This means you engage everyone’s head.

Post-Its are a thinking tool. They help your team think clearly about

With Post-Its, it’s not really about using post-its themselves. Using PostIts means that you interact more effectively: in-person, on-location, face-to-face.

As you can see, the lack of structure which post its give you, help you to discover and learn about your problem much faster. By using a software tool, you are hard-wiring in assumptions which may not be true for you or your product.

Stay light. Move fast. And share this with your network. 🙂

[image: infinity studio]