“By knowing things that exist, you can know that which does not exist.”
Book of Five Rings
I was having coffee with a former student who was complained that my idea of building a first product release with a minimum feature set was a bad idea. (One of the principles of Customer Development is to get out of the building and understand the smallest feature-set customers will pay for in the first release.)
“Steve, you’re wrong. I can’t get more than one of ten potential customers to think that this is something they’d buy.” I asked, “So what does the one who likes it say?” “Well he didn’t like it either.” he replied, “but when I started talking about our entire vision, he couldn’t wait to help get our product into his company.”
The Minimum Feature Set is Not The Goal
This minimum feature set (sometimes called the “minimum viable product”) causes lots of confusion. Founders act like the “minimum” part is the goal. Or worse, that every potential customer should want it. In the real world not every customer is going to get overly excited about your minimum feature set. Only a special subset of customers will and what gets them breathing heavy is the long-term vision for your product.
The reality is that the minimum feature set is 1) a tactic to reduce wasted engineering hours (code left on the floor) and 2) to get the product in the hands of early visionary customers as soon as possible.
You’re selling the vision and delivering the minimum feature set to visionaries not everyone.
Why A Minimum Feature Set?
The minimum feature set is the inverse of what most sales and marketing groups ask of their development teams. Usually the cry is for more features, typically based on “Here’s what I heard from the last customer I visited.”
In the Customer Development model, the premise is that a very small group of early visionary customers will guide your product features until you find a profitable business model. Rather than asking customers explicitly about feature X, Y or Z, one approach to defining the minimum features set is to ask, “What is the smallest or least complicated problem that the customer will pay us to solve?”
This rigor of “no new features until you’ve exhausted the search for a business model” counters a natural tendency of people who talk to customers – you tend to collect a list of features that if added, will get one additional customer to buy. Soon you have a ten page feature list just to sell ten customers. Your true goal is to have a feature list that’s just a single paragraph long that you can sell to thousands of customers. Your mantra becomes “Less is more.”
You’re Selling The Vision
Most startups following Customer Development and a Lean Startup methodology understand the idea of a minimal viable product. But they get it wrong in thinking that’s the point. It’s not.
Most customers will not want a product with a minimal feature set. In fact, the majority of customers will hate it. So why do it? Because you are selling the first version of your product to Earlyvangelists.
Earlyvangelists = Early Adopter + Internal Evangelist
Earlyvangelists are a special breed of customers willing to take a risk on your startup’s product or service. They can actually envision its potential to solve a critical and immediate problem—and they have the budget to purchase it. Unfortunately, most customers don’t fit this profile.
- They have a problem.
- They understand they have a problem.
- They are actively searching for a solution and has a timetable for finding it.
- The problem is painful enough that they have cobbled together an interim solution.
- They have, or can quickly acquire, dollars to purchase the product to solve their problem.
These Earlyvangelists are first buying the vision and then the product. They need to fall in love with the idea of your product. It’s the vision that will keep them committed the many times you screw up. You’ll have bugs, your product will eat their data, you’ll get the features wrong, performance will be bad, you’ll argue about pricing, etc.
But Earlyvangelists will stick with you through good and bad because they share your vision. In reality Earlyvangelists are now part of your team. If you’re selling to a business, your Earlyvangelists will end up using your slides and metrics to help sell your product inside their own company!
This means Earlyvangelists, particularly in corporations, will be buying into your entire vision, not just your first product release. They will need to hear what your company plans to deliver over the next 18 to 36 months.
That means your Product and Customer Development groups must agree that:
- The minimum feature set is spec’d with Earlyvangelist interaction,
- You will provide a one-page product vision or roadmap (typically 18 months to 3 years out) that’s shared with Earlyvangelists
- Everyone (including the Earlyvangelists) understand the vision is subject to change.
In Customer Development your goal is not to avoid spending money but to preserve your cash as you search for a repeatable and scalable business model. Seeing a repeatable pattern of sales to Earlyvangelists is a sign you may have found your first scalable business model.
- Minimum feature set (“minimum viable product”) is a Customer Development tactic to reduce engineering waste and to get product in the hands of Earlyvangelists soonest.
- Earlyvangelists require a 18 – 36 month product vision past the minimum feature set.
- You’re selling the vision and delivering the minimum feature set.
Filed under: Customer Development