A Sprinkling of Unvalidated Vision May Pay Long Term Dividends

by Charlotte Jepps

Conventional wisdom in ‘lean startup’ theory appears to prescribe the following formula:

1.      Sketch out an initial vision

2.      Test these ideas and the resulting products rigorously, engaging users to play with a ‘minimal viable’ version early on as a tool for learning

3.      Use these test results to pivot the product systematically to nestle it snugly into the chosen market niche, ensuring maximum engagement

4.      … and then scale scale scale!!

5.      Follow up with ongoing A/B tests and refinements

“Product-market fit” is the pivotal moment, at the end of step 3, that serves as the trigger for transition from research and development phases to customer acquisition and eventual monetisation.

While convincing as an approach to attain maximum user engagement at launch, I think it is important to remember that “fit” is less of a static formula, but a state of alignment that requires continuous maintenance over the lifetime of a user’s engagement. Whilst the “flow” of new users to a site is important, it is surely the “stock” of loyalists that captures the attention of venture capital and advertisers.

By testing the water with a “minimal viable product” there is surely a risk of focussing solely on attributes that attract initial interest based on their recognised needs (truly ‘lean’ products stripped of all elements that did not appeal to
today’s testers), but failing to adequately value elements that might grow progressively in value and drive user stickiness in the longer term.

I think there is an argument for taking pause after step 3 to reintegrate a little more ‘top down’ strategy and vision to the initial offering, even if it means adding a little risk.

Obviously the reasons certain ideas are de-prioritised in user tests is that users do not currently see their value. But I think it an oversight to consider optimal product-market fit as a unidirectional or static concept: a “fit” of one to the other. Rather I believe ventures should aspire toward “synchronisation”, where both products and markets evolve together over time each with the capacity to observe and adapt to each other (albeit after the site has got the user’s attention). After all, surely one of the most exciting attributes of a new technology is the potential to open doors only the visionaries realised were closed – and once users come to value seemingly ancillary initial features they will be increasingly predisposed to explore new features in the future.

As an example, consider a technology product like the Ipod. The user is going to give the team positive feedback relating to their initial needs: something that plays music transferred from a CD via their computer - but I assume Apple already had designs on capturing online music distribution. This ultimate vision involves multiple interlinked products and services which would likely overwhelm the early user, but was clearly worthwhile planning from the outset. Similarly, a user would inherently undervalue product attributes that leverage archives of their own usage data, but this data capture is most valuable if initiated at the outset.

I wonder if there is a way to be lean but avoid focussing too religiously on current “ fit” at launch, stripping the product (and team) down, and thus failing to lay the groundwork to transition smoothly toward a grander vision?


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