Innovate Successfully by Creating a Lean, Minimal Product

Investing in a new product always involves risk. We may have targeted the wrong market segment, envisioned the wrong product or the wrong features, or the market may have changed by the time the product is launched.

To create a new product, we have to peek into the future and state what we believe our product will roughly look like and do. For anyone not blessed with perfect foresight, predicting the future correctly is notoriously difficult. After all, the only thing certain about the future is that it is uncertain! No market research technique can deliver a forecast that is 100 percent accurate. And in the case of disruptive innovations, it’s not possible at all to make a sound prediction, as Clayton Christensen observes in his book The Innovator’s Dilemma: “Markets that do not exist cannot be analyzed.” Investing in a new product always involves risk. We may have targeted the wrong market segment, envisioned the wrong product or the wrong features, or the market may have changed by the time the product is launched.

Envisioning a Lean, Minimal Product
Envisioning a lean, minimal product with the smallest possible feature set is a great strategy to minimise the investment risk. I refer to such a product as the minimal marketable product. It contains just enough functionality to be viable; to launch, market and sell the product successfully. Developing a minimal product is quicker and cheaper than a more ambitious, feature-rich one. If the product bombs, less time and money is lost. If it is a success, the product will earn money sooner. Additionally, a minimal product allows us to receive feedback earlier, so we adapt the product quicker to the market response. Rather than trying to create the perfect product, we follow the motto “get it out, then get it right.” Note that the product’s quality must be high from the start. Otherwise, it will be difficult to adapt the product; bugs may hinder its adoption or even damage the brand.

Getting it Right: The iPhone
The original iPhone, launched in 2007, is an example of a minimal product. One of the secrets behind its success is the narrow set of customer needs Apple selected. The company avoided the trap of trying to please too many people at once, and trying to copy all of its competitors’ features. Instead, Apple took a fresh look at what smartphones should look like and do, and deliberately left out some functionality. The original iPhone shipped without many features standard on existing phones: Copy and paste, the ability to send text messages to multiple recipients, and a software development kit, for instance. These limitations, though, did not hinder its success. Paring down the functionality allowed Apple to develop and ship the product within a competitive timeframe and gave the company a significant lead over its competitors. Building on the success of the first iPhone version, Apple extended the capabilities of the phone both in terms of hardware and software with the launch of the 3G model in 2008. This version also allowed the company to enter a new market segment by targeting business users.

Getting it Wrong: The Apple Newton
Developing a minimal product may sound like a no-brainer, but my experience suggests that many start-ups and established companies alike find it difficult to restrict a new product’s features. It’s often too tempting to opt for a big-bang release, trying to satisfy as many users and customers at once in order to maximise the revenue. Contrast the iPhone with another Apple product: The Apple Newton, first launched in 1993 after five long years of development. Remember those Apple ads that promised a PDA that could do all sorts of wonderful things, including recognizing your handwriting? When it was finally shipped, the Newton proved to be too bulky and heavy. Worse, its most important feature, the handwriting recognition, did not work properly. The product underperformed and was finally withdrawn from the market in 1998. In hindsight, Apple was overly ambitious with its Newton plans. The company launched a product that tried to do too much at once and failed.

Steps Toward a Minimal Product
To create a lean, minimal product, limit the target group and “build a product for the few, not the many,” as Steve Blank recommends in his book The Four Steps to the Epiphany. For instance, if you use personas to describe members of your target group, consider the impact of removing a persona. Would the product still sell? If yes, reduce the target group by dropping the persona. Once you have done a great job for your initial target group, you’re in a position to build on the initial success with a new, incremental release.

Second, understand your product’s value proposition and only select the features that are essential to address the target group’s needs. Have the courage and discipline to discard all others for now. Selecting the minimal set of features does not mean creating a bland, boring, or simplistic product. It means focusing on those properties that are essential for the product success. If you work with user stories, for instance, review each story or epic, and ask yourself if the product can be shipped without it. If yes, exclude the story. As the French writer and poet Antoine de Saint-Exupery put it: “Perfection is achieved, not when there is nothing more to add, but when there is nothing left to take away.”

Minimal Viable Products and Minimal Marketable Feature Sets
“Words are but sound and fury,” says Macbeth, and there are several similar but confusing terms to denote minimal products. Mark Denne and Jane Cleland-Huang coined the term minimal marketable feature set in their book Software by Numbers to denote the smallest amount of functionality creating value for a customer. As I view a product as more than a set of individual features, I prefer to talk about minimal products rather than minimal feature sets. The idea of quickly delivering a small set of features and enhancing the software incrementally dates back to Tom Gilb’s evolutionary delivery method developed in the 1980s.

Eric Ries has more recently popularized the term minimal viable product, which he defines as “the product that allows a team to collect the maximum amount of validated learning about customers with the least effort.” Based on this definition, the minimal marketable product may or may not be the minimal viable one. It could be, for instance, an alpha or beta version or even a throwaway prototype, such as a mock landing page. But, the core idea is the same: Quickly launch an initial product to learn from the market response, and then adapt the product accordingly.

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