I’m making a little pause on my “Digital Shift & Accelerated Disruptions” episodes to share my current return on experience of transforming an idea into a real MVP ( Minimum Viable Product) in a startup context and how this could translate in the corporate world.
First, let’s give some context. Not so long ago, while I was working as an IT Director for the first e-commerce player in France, I came up with an idea that finally led me to quit my senior management position and launch a startup with a small team in the first months of 2016: Oh My French.
Some important things I had to take into consideration in the launch of this startup were:
- Cash, cash and cash. Not being a billionaire, being in my early 40’s with a (wonderful) family to take care of with my wife, the question of finance is something I had in top priority, as we injected personal fundings in the startup and as we had a “personal burn rate” higher than young bachelor startupers who can feed themselves with potatoes / pasta and sleep on a couch… This gets indeed more difficult when you have children and that you don’t want to sacrifice their education, that you may have a mortgage, etc… That’s what i call the challenge of “first time middle-aged startupers :)”.
- Time, time and time. The consequence of the previous point is obviously that I couldn’t afford to waste time and burning my cash fuel without knowing if the project may be successful or not. So going fast is all the more vital to know whether you get it right or wrong.
- Having no huge amount of cash available for the startup, we also knew we would not have all the top guns skills available right from the start, so we mainly looked for people with enthusiasm and potential that would develop their skills in time. To give you an idea, our personal funding in the startup enables to pay 3-4 young people (trainees or with little experience), general expenses (housing, administrative costs, equipments, etc…) on twelve months… and with no salary for the founders to start with, as this is the case for most startups.
- The mission of the startup is to promote French savoir-faire of craftsmen / craftswomen and promising designers towards Asian markets. There are really many of them with a talent in France but with no such means as prestigious brands like Vuitton, Chanel… for them to enable their development alone in Asia.
So much for the context. When we started the project, we decided that the most important thing for us was to test the market for real rapidly enough to see whether this seemed more than just a good idea. So we decided to give us 3 months and go live after 3 months, not more. Why 3 months? Well, when you look at the result, with the small team we had, I guess we could have reached the result in two months time if all the “structure” aspects were already set (finding the 2 right trainees, a place to work, creating the company, opening a bank account, identify which partners to start with, etc…). So I would say that 3 months seems relevant to take into account the latency to set up the working environment when you start from scratch, and also some latency for your brain to come up with something both minimal and consistent (actually, we launched a “Coming Soon Page” just a few days after starting the project, you could consider that as a very first MVP to see if there may be an interest for your idea, but this is not yet a real test of the market in live conditions).
When we started, we identified:
- What would be available for the project in the 3 months period. 1 people full time (me), 2 others part time, some friendly expertise from time to time, 1 trainee in Chinese and 1 trainee in Korean joining the team starting the 3rd month as they were not available before.
- What were the must have that you really must had to set up the working environment: finding the trainees, making the official agreement with schools (implying the creation of the company), opening a bank account to pay the trainees, find first partners for the platform, etc…
- What we wanted to be able to test when launching the MVP: would Asian tourists make the step to change their itinerary to discover new shopping places, how much would they spend at our partners place if they went.
With that in mind, we brainstormed on the MVP: what did we think we could do in this context? We applied techniques and tools such as Value Proposition Canvas, Personas techniques, rapid wireframing, etc… and came up with a product and perimeter in mind.
From there, we started to work on the product (a mobile responsive site) with approaches and tools I applied in my previous work: agile (Daily scrum meeting, 1 week-sprint to start with, etc…), Kanban, use of Trello, Slack, etc…
For the solution, we made an extensive use of proven solutions, mostly free to start with (WordPress, MailChimp, Google analytics…), and most importantly, solutions that in the team we had sufficient skills for to produce the result.
That’s why we chose to make a mobile responsive site and not a mobile app even though we thought this would have been better to have a mobile app: we decided that a mobile responsive site would be enough to start with, test and learn, rather than losing time to develop a more complex solution since we didn’t have the expertise to go fast.
Apart from that, as time went by, there were many other subjects to handle: start to work on our social presence on Asian social networks, contact and meet craftsmen/women or designers, co-construct with them the offer, make the storytelling of their brands and products to fit with a mobile display and Asian expectations, dealing with administrative things, meeting candidates for the trainees position, etc…
Using a Kanban approach with priorities helped a lot to stay focus, and visual management was also very helpful to see at a glance where the bottlenecks were.
Week after week we made some adjustments and we also took some specific time to re-evaluate the distance to the product we had in mind for the MVP and the time remaining before the beginning of May 2016. That’s how, beginning of April, we decided to simplify a part of the solution we had been working on for two weeks and that we felt was not going to fit with the deadline although we would have preferred to have it: many items stayed in the “not started” backlog for further releases!
In the end, I think that we were proud of the MVP produced, not because it had all the features we thought absolutely needed to be present for the launch, but because we had the feeling we didn’t waste our time during these three months, because we decided together about the cut when needed and how to overcome it, and because we managed to find a way to deliver on time something that we think professional and sufficient enough to learn from customers feedback, may they be negative or positive.
Most of the approach I’ve been describing here can be adopted in larger corporations, for example to test a new idea of product or service at a small scale just to evaluate if the idea is more than just a good idea. The 3-month period to launch a MVP in a company is also something that seems both reasonable and ambitious, when considering the fact that in an established company, there are also inevitable latencies to deal with (getting the budget approval, setting up the team, getting in touch with partners, etc…).
In my opinion, the only real challenges when in a larger corporation are (provided that the principle of testing a MVP on the market has already been approved):
- The “lean startup” mindset: for having experienced it myself, your mindset is very different when you’re working in an established company or in a startup that has very little capacities and where time is precious. In an established company, even the most motivated staff wanting to work in a lean startup mode may themselves find hard to produce only the very essentials for the MVP as urgency is not felt the same way (what if the customers are disappointed given their positive feeling on the brand because we don’t have this functionality? shouldn’t we put all the complete stack of monitoring, it will only take 1 more month? etc…). One way for a team working in an established company to really stick to the notion of MVP is also to stick to the deadline and not move it, and like in lean management when you ask yourself “why” 5 times to make continuous improvement, the team may ask itself 5 times “what can we simplify in our MVP” to make sure to stick to the essentials.
- The decision factor: we were a small team, completely autonomous about our decisions. In a large corporation, often even proof of concepts, prototypes will need to seek approval at different stages (can we send a marketing campaign to 200 of our customers, etc…) and this affects the time to market and efficiency. At the same time, a large corporation risks more than an unknown startup in terms of reputation if the MVP really sucks and gets really bad buzz. How to deal with these constraints?
This issue around decision will be the content of another post about the Digital Shift and how management may accompany the autonomy of teams to enhance time to market while securing the interests at a larger scale of the company as a whole.
Thanks for reading and don’t hesitate to share your experience / comments!