The Lean Startup & Minimum Viable Products for Retail

By Nina Lamia

Last term, I was enrolled in a field course to evaluate a startup idea for a vertically integrated online intimate apparel retailer. I read Eric Ries’ Lean Startup principles but struggled to understand how to apply them to a physical retail product. I had only ever heard of the principles used in relationship to a web application, but I wanted to understand if they could also apply to a physical product that I wanted to sell through the online channel. Further, I was confused as to how to build a minimum viable product for something I thought would have to be physically produced in order to receive customer feedback.

Through conversations with other entrepreneurs about their experiences in launching online retail businesses, I discovered that by expanding the definition of the lean start up and a minimum viable product, I could effectively test my idea.

The core pillar of the lean start up methodology is build-measure-learn. For a physical product in an established industry, I learned that I could still measure and learn without physically building the product.

FAKE IT TILL YOU MAKE IT: Build without building

Originally, I thought I needed to actually produce the actual product I intended to sell.  In my case, this would have required significant time and capital investment –including hiring a designer or contracting out design work, finding a manufacturer and ordering a minimum quantity of the product. I learned that I could gain valuable customer insights by using competitor’s products to get feedback.  I found competing products that were similar to the line I wanted to create and ones that were quite different. Using the customer feedback and watching customers interact with various competitors’ products help me refine my product concept.

After getting user feedback on disguised competitive products, I utilized Etsy, a unique online craft marketplace, to find a designer who had a similar line of offerings to the one I envisioned I would produce. I worked with her to create a unique piece for me based on my initial customer feedback. I used this prototype to get further customer feedback.

I had learned that by getting creative around using competitor products and by utilizing ways to create one off items, I could utilize the lean method, which was much more cost effective and timely than designing my own pieces and producing them in quantity.

BUT HOW DO YOU KNOW?!: When is the timing right?

The biggest question I still have about employing the lean methodologies with a physical product is how you know when the prototype is good enough to go to production? Customers will always have more feedback on what they would like to see, but does the customer always know what they want? I haven’t yet moved to this phase, but continue to grapple with the question of when have I incorporated enough customer feedback into the product?


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