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The importance of good enough: “Cooped Up” MVPs

Watch Alex Cowan discuss learning and scaling when introducing new product ideas.
We’ve talked about how important it is to move through discovery to validation, and the junction point of those two things is a minimum viable product. So, we go out, we observe our customer, we understand them, we create an MVP to see if we really have something, a proposition that’s valuable to them. And your MVP is not your 1.0. The 1.0 is your first software product, if you decide it’s investible. The MVP is a vehicle to learn something. So, it’s not about starting to build something permanent. And it’s really important to keep that distinction in mind, otherwise this 1.0, just going off and building something has an incredible gravity that you kind of need to resist.
But I thought we could go through a couple of fictional companies - hopefully fictional, and fun - that will help us illustrate how these MVPs you might actually approach them. So, our first company is Cooped Up LLC. They are currently in the business of supplying industrial feeding and watering equipment to factory poultry farms. And they have seen this surge in people keeping chickens in their backyard, and so they thought, “Hey, this could be a great new business for us if we can somehow take our general know-how in this area and adapt it to these backyard coops for better feeding and better watering.”
The persona they’ve gone out and observed and learned about is Barbara the backyard chicken coop keeper, she has kids, she shops at Whole Foods, she is very concerned about where her food comes from, she doesn’t like factory farms. She doesn’t like the idea that there are antibiotics and preservatives in her food, and she loves the idea that she knows where food is coming from, and they can go out and get eggs every day, and she thinks it’s good for the kids.
The problem scenario is the specific jobs within the activity of keeping chickens in the backyard that are of interest to Cooped Up LLC are feeding and watering the chickens, maintaining the coop because they’re going to have to install and maintain, to a degree, this equipment, and rodent control, which is a job that these people may not know that they have yet, but if you have chickens in your backyard, you know that rats come and mice, and try to eat the chicken feed, and it’s kind of gross, you might be like, “Why we have all these rat droppings around all the time? Yucko!”
And they know what the alternatives are, they are these sort of standard, relatively OK products that are on the market now. But they think that they can cut the amount of times that you have to go out and feed and water the chickens every week in half. And they think that they can pretty much eliminate the rodents, because the stuff that they create is so tight, and it works so well that there’s not enough food around to interest the rats. Is that enough? Are people going to bite or not? We don’t know. The team is not sure. So, they need to create some MVPs and go out and test that.
What might be a concierge MVP, a hand creation of this experience that the team could execute. One idea is that there is this backyard chicken coop, if these guys can go and kind of hand-install a system that they build, that’s, you know, it’s outrageously expensive and it’s not that durable, but it’ll do the things that they think that it needs to do, like automatically feed and water the chickens and cut down the amount of trips and keep the rodents away, then it’s good enough for the current purposes. It’s not there to be the first version of this thing, it’s there to see if the customer cares.
Now, the concierge MVP is really generative and focused on the customer experience, so they do this, how does the customer relate to it? Do they understand how the machine works? Do they, you know, they can have the customer do part of the set up, how does that work out? You’re going to learn a bajillion things about how the customer interacts with your product and what they kind of care about over the course of this concierge MVP. And that’s what you’re really focused on. It is a perfectly OK idea to tack on a sales MVP at the end here, and say,
hey, did you enjoy that, we’re going to have to take it out now because it was, you know, it’s temporary and it’s not really maintainable, but if you give us 100 bucks you’ll be first on the list to get these things when they come out. And that is sort of separate, that’s a sales MVP. It’s OK to sort of put these together. What about a Wizard of Oz MVP, how might they fake the customer experience for for these people and observe what happens? Basically a kind of an infomercial. You know the infomercial itself of, you know, here is people happily, you know, feeding their chickens half as much, and you know, we control rats.
It’s kind of a thing that they can post and, you know, maybe post and drive traffic from Facebook groups about keeping chickens, or kind of wherever these customers are physically or digitally. And the customers see it and they want some kind of metric, does it get a lot of views? Also OK to tack this one on with the sales MVP and say, hey, sign up or give a deposit.
You know, a Kickstarter-type thing. It’s OK to take the Wizard of Oz and kind of pair it with the sales MVP at the end. But the focus of the Wizard of Oz is can we somehow make it look like the experience is happening, or sort of artificially create it so that the customer can see it without actually doing all this stuff. So, in a concierge we hand-create the experience and the customer actually has it; in the Wizard of Oz the experience may be sort of more partial and kind of abstracted, so the video demo versus the actual installation of a thing.
By the way, on the concierge MVP, if you could think of a better way that they could do that concierge MVP, post it to the discussions, or any of these. What about a sales MVP? There’s a whole bunch of different ways they could try to sell this to people and see if they buy it. It’s especially easier in consumer markets. So, they could - we talked about a couple of ways sales MVPs could be tacked onto the end of the concierge or the Wizard of Oz.
Another idea is to do a Google AdWords ad, so they could pick some search terms that they think people are putting in to talk about some of these problems, like, if I type into Google “keep rats out of my chicken coop, “ or something like that, they could post the ad that you’re seeing here. I went in and just created this real quick, and it’s about “stop rats stealing your feed, a smarter dispenser. We’re the experts in doing this, click through if you want to learn about it.” If you do these Google AdWords ads, that’s a great way to very quickly iterate through your propositions.
Just make sure that you’re leading with the problem, and ideally use the specific language that you hopefully took note of during your customer discovery interviews when you do this, because they’re obviously more likely to use the terms that you actually hear them use when they search for this rather your specific lexicon that you create around the solution. Another idea for a sales MVP is, they could go and present at some meetup groups for a backyard chicken coop keepers, and they could see if people want to put down a deposit on the thing, or sign up for email updates, or something like that.
So, those are some ideas about how these folks at Cooped Up LLC might approach the job of customer validation. The other thing they’re going to need to do is prioritize their assumptions. So, I would lead with, what assumptions are most existentially important? But as you unpack those, and you kind of examine them, and you sketch out all these MVPs - and I would really encourage you to sketch out all three, and then pursue one of them, but kind of look at all of them, and then you may iterate through them - you get a sense of which one of these are quick and easy versus slow and hard.
And, you know, even if one of these may give you a better validation or maybe is more appropriate to a certain assumption, I recommend you do be a little pragmatic about, you know, if there’s a really quick win in over here, that may be better to do than something that’s, you know, way out here. So, those are a few ideas on how to both think about your ideas and test for value with your customers.

In this video, Alex talks about learning and scaling missions in introducing new products. Teams introducing a new product are on a learning mission. A scaling mission is for products that already have a market fit. Alex says that, “one thing that kills new products [is] treating them like products that already have this product-market fit.” How does that idea fit into learning versus scaling?

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