When it comes to product development, there are different approaches. For larger corporations who have time and money to
waste spend, they tend to spend a lot of time on the planning and development phases. But what about for startups who have neither to waste? The months it can take to launch a product may be more than they’ve got before a competitor swoops in and makes all that work null.
For this group of businesses, the minimum viable product is the better route to go. With this method, you put together what’s pretty much a prototype, a bare bones version of your product, and see what the reaction is in the marketplace. Let your early users shape where the product goes from there.
Early adopters are thought to be more honest and open in their feedback if they understand this is an MVP. They know the product can and probably will have more features, and they can help shape what it becomes. It’s like handing half-formed clay over to a group of artists, who then shape it into their own version of what they think it should be. You compile all their ideas into what the final product becomes.
“Markets that do not exist cannot be analyzed. Suppliers and customers must discover them together. Not only are the market applications for disruptive technologies *unknown* at the time of their development, they are *unknowable*. The strategies and plans that managers formulate for confronting disruptive technological change, therefore should be plans for learning and discovery rather than plans for execution.” -Steve Blank
Very few large companies are ‘tuned’ for learning and discovery. This is why unproven markets, unquantifiable projections, and unknown market needs usually lead to projects that never see the light of day. Large companies with profitable operational methods and proven business models are in the business of risk management. That is to say that their primary job is to “keep the car on the road at the current speed or above.” To ask these companies to be disruptive or innovative is akin to asking them to take the car off the road (where there may not even be a road) to an unknown destination.
Startups, on the other hand, are in the risk business. They exploit the fuzzy edge
, the gaps, and the unexplored opportunities. They reason they can capitalize in these areas is because when they stumble upon them, they explore them and see what its all about. They are tuned for learning.
There’s a concept in product development referred to as the Fuzzy Front End. This is where the ideas happen. It’s where Twitter went from being a secondary tool internal to a company to the idea that sparked the social media revolution. It’s where things you can’t imagine the origin of (marshmallows, perhaps?) are born. Good things happen here, on the edges.
If you’re an inventor, or just have an interesting idea, this is the place where people will shoot down your ideas. Where they’ll tell you it’ll never fly (metaphorically or physically). Where, if you’re not strong enough, you will give up altogether. But don’t! This is where the good stuff, the real magic occurs, if you’ll let it.
If you’re an entrepreneur, you may have more time to devote to that nebulous, endless phase where you’re tweaking your idea and trying to figure out if it’s viable. This is an advantage you have over corporations. They tend to want to skip over the creative process to get a fast turnaround on a product that will make them money.
But you! You’re an entrepreneur, and a creative soul. Take advantage of the incubation period that happens in the Fuzzy Front End and maximize what gifts it can give you.
Setting Yourself Up for Success
The problem with the Fuzzy Front End is that you either rush through it (corporations) or have zero structure (creative types). Either way, things can end badly. It’s important to have a combination of creative innovations, brainstorming and customer feedback, as well as a formalized idea of how you’ll get from the idea phase to actual product development.
Here’s a great list of must-haves for the Fuzzy Front End. Here’s my own list.
- Allow Creativity to Happen. Don’t fit your idea into a box so tightly that you can’t see that it’s supposed to go in a pool instead. Allow for the morphing of your original idea into something you never dreamed of.
- Get Input. Sure, you had the idea, but you might not be the best person to determine its viability. Talk to friends, your partner, potential customers and investors. If they like the idea after a simple explanation, you’re onto something.
- Don’t Run from Criticism. On the flip side, if someone tells you it’s a horrible idea, don’t immediately trash it. Listen to the reasoning. Don’t you think Zuckerberg met with some resistance when explaining Facebook in early days (“I’m on MySpace! Why do I need another place to update my status??”). Sometimes your critics are your biggest helpers.
- Revise, Rinse, Repeat. You’ll go back to the drawing board many times. And that’s part of the process. Go with it.
- Admit When the Painting is Done. Artists are known for never letting a painting be complete. Instead of adding tweaks to your creation for the next 20 years, set it free into product development and see what happens.
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