Focus your MVP right

Thanks to Anthill for this wonderful footage of Bruce Lee playing ping pong with nun chucks! Yes you heard that right, nun chucks no less. Shot in the 1960s and reused in a desperate attempt by Nokia to boost sales for their N96 phone, this short film shows what can be achieved with a life time of dedication and focus.

So what I wanted to talk about today was how to focus your own efforts effectively when selecting which features to introduce in your Minimum Viable Product. Here are some of my own thoughts, having read and digested this wonderful article on the ABCs of an MVP by KissMetrics:

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Validating a Value Proposition

There seem to be a ton of products starting to emerge for developing business model canvases, and running lean customer discovery experiments. This one in particular caught my eye:

How Trevor Saved $10,000 and 6 Months With the Validation Board

This great story takes us through Trevor’s efforts at launching a business focused on getting people to ride around on Vespas. Here are the headlines:

  1. Trevor tried to launch a vespa resale business on campus. He managed to score 1 customer in 6 months. He kept trying but it just didn’t work
  2. A while later, Trevor tried out the validation board to test out some key assumptions. After just 2 days he had a validated value proposition and 50 paying customers in just 2 hours of posting his launch page…

And here are the assumptions he busted using the board as a tracking mechanism:

  • Assumption 1: people care about the environment and want a vespa because it uses less oil
  • Assumption 2: commuters will want one…if only they knew someone else who had one
  • Assumption 3: commuters will rent one for a bit and try out the hipster thing [YES…50 paying customers in 2 hours! dowser, this is what I call validation]

For me, this nice story brings out a couple of really important features of this approach. Firstly, the focus is on the value proposition…not the entire business model, just the core proposition of what the heck customers want. Second, Trevor uses a Minimum Viable Product to test out his assumptions, in this case a single web page with a submit button taking users to a “coming soon” page. And most importantly, during the test phase, Trevor gets out of the building to talk to his customers. He observes the environment and comes up with some real insight as to what customers want. He isn’t sitting behind a desk making guesses about what else might work, he is going to subway stations and talking to people.

It’s difficult leaving the comfort of your own space and getting in front of people. And it’s difficult to challenge yourself and move from one idea to the next in the face of evidence and customer feedback…especially when that feedback is vague. But when you have a value proposition that works, boy does it work. Great work Trevor. A really nice example of fieldwork and persistence.

Bootstrapping by any other name

This article about the rise of Los Grobo, an innovative farmer using a fully outsourced business model, introduces the term Jugaad, hindi for bootstrapping. Making things happen by any means necessary, using your own ingenuity to get around resource scarcity. It’s a great story, and a fabulous example of driving innovation out of nothing.

It brought to mind another story I heard recently from the CEO of what is now Brisbane Materials, a company making antireflective coatings for solar panels. In a previous incarnation the business used a lot of startup capital to fund the equipment that would apply their surface to solar panels,rather than partnering with firms who already made this type of equipment for a living. With little to show for their investment the firm were critically exposed to funding risk, and so a few jittery investors brought down the company. Having learnt their lesson (don’t invest in anything that isn;t going to add value to your business model), they now partner with EVG group – the people who build silicon wafers for samsung and the like.

What can we learn form this?

1. Only invest what you need to, you’d be surprised what you can make do without

2. If you are going to invest in innovation, make sure you are adding value to your business model

3. If at first you don’t succeed, try something different (there are no prizes for failing to learn from your mistakes)


Using Actionable Innovation Metrics

Ash Maurya writes about actionable metrics. They are very different to regular metrics, which Ash refers to as vanity metrics. Here’s an example:

Imagine you are running a consulting practice which wishes to differentiate itself from two types of competitor (i) contractors, and (ii) tier one consultancies. You want to grow the business but don’t have the cash-flow to recruit new staff. You decide to start leveraging contractors, but only until you have enough cash-flow to start bringing in more full-time recruits. How do you control and monitor this growth? 

I would suggest using a simple rule to ensure you keep to a basic ratio, say 1.5 contractors to every 1 staff member. Too many contractors and you become a high cost, low value body shop. Too few and you are toast (out of cash). What about the monitoring? Here is where we can see the difference between vanity metrics and actionable metrics:

  • Vanity Metric: revenue. As it gets higher or lower, you get to plot numbers on a chart. Ooooooooh
  • Actionable Metric: staff/contractor ration. If the ratio gets out of whack, change your recruiting.

Note: another key point about actionable metrics is in cohort analysis, but I’ll get back to that another time. In this post, I want to focus on the “what are you going to do with your newfound knowledge” part.

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Players Only

I was wandering around a casino the other day, exploring the corridors, walking in and out of different rooms, passing kitchens and restaurants, and generally soaking up the atmosphere. I mustn’t have been paying attention as we ended up in the high roller area (someone came through the door the other way and we just walked in). You could tell it was the high roller areas because the carpet was nicer and the noise level suddenly dropped. I was enjoying the quiet and the fancy canapes being handed out when I passed an almost closed door and  a sign saying “players only”. The room on the other side was packed. Since I wasn’t playing I passed on by but the image stuck in my mind and got me thinking. What was so special about this room?

Everybody was there for one reason

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Innovative teams need diversity

Nancy Napier, director of the Centre for Creativity and Innovation at Boise State University, gave a talk recently about a what she calls ‘The Gang’. Imagine bringing to together a group of business leaders from an american football team, a law enforcement agency, a health information provider, a dance company, a theatre company, a software vendor and a marketing firm! The amazing part is that the gang meet regularly, they listen to and learn from each other, and they have a track record of innovation that goes way beyond the borders of small town Boise, Idaho.

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Different ways to fail

I ran across this great collection of quotes on the importance of failure to innovation:

  • “Ideas won’t keep. Something must be done about them.” – Alfred North Whitehead
  • “To accomplish great things we must dream as well as act.” – Anatole France
  • “99 percent of success is built on failure.” – Charles Kettering
  • “The man with a new idea is a crank – until the idea succeeds.” – Mark Twain
  • “The way to succeed is to double your failure rate.” – Thomas Watson, (Founder of IBM)

But are all failures created equal? It struck me that there are many different ways to fail, including (i) failure to act, (i) failure to get it working, and (iii) failure to get it working but learning what might work better and trying again. The last one is my personal favourite. Here they are in a bit more detail.

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What to do with your lotto win

I should clarify that this post does not apply to tonight’s Australian lotto, which I am going to win. But for next week’s lotto and those played elsewhere there is quite a lot of advice on what to do with your winnings. If like me you intent to strike it big, you should check out what my fellow millionaires had to say. Here are some of the main points:

  • Manage your risk: your main goal should be to protect your capital, and figure out safe ways of living off the interest.
  • Diversify your holdings: don’t stick all your eggs in one basket, choose lots of safe baskets instead. And then buy the basket making factory
  • Tax Evasion: find as many legal ways as you can to ‘shelter’ from or otherwise avoid paying tax. This applies to your payout, and to any money you will make from now on. It seems to work a treat for Google, Amazon and Starbucks, check here for more

And here are two far more important points that I picked up somewhere else:

  • If you’re not happy now, being rich is not going to change that
  • People are going to start to expect much cooler christmas presents

What does this have to do with innovation?

Plenty. Let’s start with a look at a popular attribute based creative thinking technique called SCAMPER (see Michael Michalko‘s book Thinkertoys):

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The Vooza volcano is about to disrupt…

That’s right world, watch out. It’s Pinterest meets Instagram but for weddings or sandwiches or something. Actually we’re not really sure yet but its going to be a cloud based, social web app and its going to be local…with some wiki stuff. It’s the web app you never knew you wanted

Vooza is a mock startup poking fun at some of the latest buzz words in the startup industry. Posted as a series of short clips, the team have made fun of standup meetings, business model pivots, and the use of hype and buzzwords to launch non existent businesses. It’s also a quite brilliant marketing campaign for a string of legitimate value propositions. Look closely along their timeline and you’ll see Brand Bucket (a site where you can buy a ready to go logo, domain and company name for a couple of grand), Grasshopper (a virtual telephone network for small and medium sized enterprises) and a plug from the web hosting company the site uses.

So what’s so good about it?

  • The clips are funny. Really funny. Which means they’ve driven millions of visits to the site
  • The subject material is all startup based, neatly targeting the primary customer segments for the value propositions they are actually promoting
  • The site is on autoplay, and before you know it you’ve watched a genuine value proposition and are back on the funnies again
  • The clips are smart and the site is well linked to from big names like CNN, Huffington Post and the like. They get the material, understand their business and have persuaded some very big names that they are worth looking at. Instant credibility

If you haven’t seen the Vooza volcano yet, go check it out. If nothing else, the Radimparency clip will make you question the true genius of the pivot. When is a pivot a smart strategic play and when is it a random change made by a business with absolutely no idea? Enjoy

If you want more time, give it away

HBR recently published this short piece on giving time away. Counter intuitively, people who donate their time doing work for others feel as if they have more time for themselves. By doing something for someone else, people feel more effective and expect to achieve more with the time ahead of them. This was the basic set up. Test subjects were split into two groups:

  • Group 1: subjects donated a small amount of time to helping others (10 minutes writing notes to sick children, or 30 minutes in a soup kitchen)
  • Group 3: subjects spent the time on themselves (watching TV, or simply leaving the experiment early)

Both groups were asked to spend some time completing surveys for money, and were asked how much time they could spend doing it the next week. Those who had spent time on others estimated they could spend more time on the surveys the following week and actually did more too. These are the main findings:

  1. People who donate even a small amount of time to others, feel more capable, confident and useful. Feeling more effective in the time they have, these people felt as if they had MORE time available in the future.
  2. It does’t make any difference how much time you spend helping others, even a small amount of donated time made subjects feel more productive and time rich.

So the next time you have a large stack of work on your desk, schedule in 10 minutes helping someone else. You’ll feel more effective and productive with the rest of your day.