The Startup Mentor: Product Development and Adaptation

Uncertainty is still a huge issue for small businesses, start-ups and entrepreneurs, especially in these Brexit times. The economy and the business landscape are very much in the hands of both politicians and the future business leaders. After discussing why now is the best time for business owners and start-ups to make their own mark on post-Brexit Britain, I want to now discuss how exactly to go about doing it. Following last week’s post on the importance of agility in start-ups, this week I want to narrow the focus to product development and how the ability and willingness to flex and adapt to the surroundings of the business are the key to navigating and staying afloat during the uncertain times which lie ahead.

Agile Principles

Lean product development is the application of a process to ensure that the product development cycle is responsive and flexible, so that changes can be made almost on the fly. A flexible approach allows start-ups to modify their products and services quickly to adapt to changing demands and respond to feedback in a sharp, intuitive way. By allowing for small, constant changes, businesses and start-ups eliminate the need for lengthy product development cycles, which can cause frustration to investors and cause them to lose interest in what may eventually become a successful product. An example of how lean development can be applied to digital product cycles has been investigated by PC Quest. 

The key lesson here is in bringing prospective clients into your circle of trust. There is always the option of creating a team of clients who get access to early versions of your product on the basis they give you honest feedback. You could even call this type of thing an ‘innovation committee’. If you have built a good relationship with some of your clients, they will value input on innovation. It gives them a sense of primacy and kudos that you respect their opinions; they will also appreciate having prioritised access to new tools or services that may give them a competitive advantage.

The Lean Methodology Checklist

1. Determine whether the product is interesting.

A common mistake made by start-ups is to rush head-first into designing and creating a product that they think people want, and then approaching investors with a prototype after internal reviews. In reality, talking to prospective investors – the businesses and organisations who really may be interested in the product – before creating anything beyond a brainstorm or an idea, is the best practise.

When I started I was meeting prospective customers before a line of code had even been written! The idea is to position it as a passive request for their opinion and expertise: “I’m planning on building something that would work like this, what do you think? Would this be useful in your space? How can I improve it? How could I make this an easy decision for you”.

 

2. Keep the initial ideas basic

Start-ups don’t need an extensive master plan, the key to being flexible is taking a more laid-back approach to developing products. A rigid, unyielding development strategy offers no flexibility and can be shaken apart by the slightest unforeseen complication.

That is not to say that start-ups should not be looking into all possible eventualities. As we discussed last week, having multiple basic plans to account for a range of possibilities is better than one military-style plan which will not hold up if external factors differ from the expected.

 

3. Experimentation Is more effective than extensive planning

Smaller changes and trying something new is much more effective and adaptable than planning an extensive design without any feedback. Make smaller changes based on first impressions, rather than redesigning the entire product at each stage. Over-engineering causes start-ups to lose sight of the goal – which is creating a product which has an advantage over competitors and piques the interest of investors.

Regarding over-engineering… What is often see is that  businesses load up on features and they think that they will offer so much that people can’t say no. This is generally a fallacy. If this is a new-to-market product it actually makes it harder for people to understand. Look at the iPhone, when it was announced the CEO of Blackberry (RIM) stated that he wasn’t concerned because they didn’t have the features the top of the range Blackberry, specifically a qwerty keyboard:

The most exciting mobile trend is[…]full Qwerty keyboards. I’m sorry, it really is. I’m not making this up. People are running out of their two-year contracts and they’re coming into the stores and they want to be able to do Facebook and they want to be able to do instant messaging and they want to be able to do e-mail and they ask for those features thinking that they’re going to get another flip phone and they’re walking out with a (BlackBerry) Curve or a Pearl because they’re the best devices for doing those kinds of activities. And so what is the defining factor? The keyboard.”

What he demonstrated by saying this was; whilst Blackberry were busy trying to build ‘features’, Apple simply made a product that was easier to use- and therefore easier to choose – and we all know what happened after that…

 

4. Keep it small, keep it simple

Small changes are quicker to make and easier to plan than large changes – the best changes are those which respond to the external feedback without affecting any other factor of the product. As a simple example, a plastic-cased product which receives the feedback ‘This would be more exciting if it were available in metallic silver’; the answer is not to recreate the casing in metal, but to apply a layer of paint or use a different colour of plastic. This keeps all other factors – ones which have not received any complaints – intact.

 

5. Maintain feedback

Little and often is the key to maintaining an adaptable approach to product development, where small, regular changes are the aim, feedback which suggests a lot of changes, but which is only received occasionally will not be practical.  A regular reporting system, and a ‘one feature at a time’ approach is much more useful.

 

Product development is arguably the most important focus when planning a start-up, each improvement leans toward a more successful end product and early interest and input from investors give start-ups the opportunity to create a product that the larger clients will already be familiar with and connected to. If this is a problem that you are facing right now as an entrepreneur, or if you have a totally different take on it, I’d love to hear from you. Please post a comment below, or connect with me on Twitter: @bradindigital

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