To create a new product, we have to peek into the future and anticipate what the 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! Investing in a new product hence 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
A great strategy to minimise the investment risk is to envision a lean, minimal product with the smallest possible feature set. 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 starts earning 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 right from the start. Otherwise it will be difficult to adapt the product; bugs may hinder its adoption, or even damage the brand.
An example of a minimal marketable product is the original iPhone, which launched in 2007. 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, of trying to copy all the features competitors offered. 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 started to extend 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.
The Apple Newton
Developing a minimal marketable product may sound like a no-brainer. But my experience suggests that many start-ups and established companies alike find it hard to restrict the features of a new product. 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 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 recognising 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.
The Steps towards a Minimal Marketable 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 early customers, you’re in a position to build on the initial success with a new, incremental release that attracts new customers.
Second, understand your product’s value proposition and only select the features that are essential to address the needs of the target group. 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 with out 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.”
You can learn more about minimal marketable products by attending my Agile Product Planning training course. You can also find a more detailed discussion of the concept in my book “Agile Product Management with Scrum“.