Communication strategist and an expert in branding, high-stakes pitching and strategic storytelling
Imagine a new, disruptive product idea is presented to a
corporate executive. Let’s assume that this is a perfect idea which, if
executed correctly, will make a lot of money for the company. And let’s also
assume that it’s a perfect executive who will push this idea forward: someone experienced, appreciated and capable. She loves the idea so much, she becomes the patron of this innovation and pushes it forward with the funds needed for initial product design.
What could go wrong???
Well, statistically speaking, pretty much everything.
Big companies are rightfully accused of being the killers of innovation, simply because the vast majority of great ideas in a big company die off. Yet I don’t see any evil people there—just a lot of good intentions and high standards. The practices that are designed to make existent corporate products as good as possible are the same ones that kill new and disruptive products.
Let’s continue our scenario: after the (minimal) budget approval, a strong team is established and some sort of a prototype is expected within a couple of weeks. Naturally, it takes longer and costs more. Why? Well, because at the beginning we are all ignorant of our own ignorance, as the Dunning-Kruger effect teaches us.
So, at this point, the team is close to the bottom of the Dunning-Kruger curve and begin to feel much worse about the project. The product is far from being finished, the marketing team hasn’t yet wrapped it up in an attractive package, and whatever does work, doesn’t work well. All these problems should be expected from a product in the design stage, but their weight starts to build up as the project reaches the end of the initial funding.
Now our executive is ready to request the funding for full product development. This funding must be substantial; thus, it demands approval from a CEO and maybe a board of directors. This is not a joke, and not even a fun innovation experiment anymore. Her career is at stake, and the product feels much less attractive than it did in the beginning.
Think about it—it’s the same great idea, but by now it has lost its charm, the product looks bad (this fact should be ignored at this point, but it still leaves its impact) and there is a long list of problems and challenges prepared by our professional team members. All with zero indications from the market about the potential of the product—indeed, maybe no one even needs it…
At this stage, the vast majority of executives, even amazing ones like the one we’re using in this example, bail on such projects. But I do want us to pause for a second on the last point in the previous paragraph, because I think this is THE single point of failure for corporate innovation.
Corporates, as opposed to startups, lack the ability to quickly validate an unfinished product with real customers.
One of the reasons startups succeed where corporations fail is their ability to “move fast and break things.” (like Facebook’s early moto stated)—the ability to launch half-baked products in order to gain initial traction which can prove to investors that there is potential to tap into.
Gartner’s combined model of Design Thinking and Lean Startup describes this as an experimentation stage.
Startups are encouraged to launch their innovation as quickly as possible and either fail or validate their project. Here is how Reid Hoffman, the founder of LinkedIn and co-founder of PayPal, puts it: “If you are not embarrassed by the first version of your product, you’ve launched too late.”
But how can mature companies, with a name and prestige to risk, launch a half-baked product?
Who said there should even be a product?
What I propose (from my experience in leading such projects before) is to launch a marketing campaign prior to the product development (or in the initial stages), and to see if the offering is relevant to its audience.
This methodology allows you to create a range of different offerings, each describing a slightly different product strategy, and to see which formulation works best.
How is it done?
It starts with a number of marketing funnels: different ads or content sending people to click on certain calls-to-action, if the offering interests them. It can be a landing page with a “buy now” / “contact us” / “schedule a call” button or a direct mailing campaign that asks potential customers to respond.
The assumption is that good conversions and good ROI point to a product strategy that the market actually needs. It’s as simple as that. We call it Story/Market Fit validation.
You might be thinking, “This is great, but irrelevant because we cannot compromise our brand like that and lie to our audience.”
No need to compromise anything—just create a quick, ad-hoc brand for the product through an experienced third party that has no legal obligations [like ourselves, for example]. Then, if people declare they want the product, you can truthfully say it’s currently unavailable and sign them up to be notified when it does become available.
There aren’t many things that are sadder than seeing a good idea die. So, instead of sending your idea to the usual “walk of death,” start with this initial validation. It will cost you a fraction of the development budget, and after this stage you’ll be able to:
Want more in-depth information about Productless Product
Validation? You’re welcome to contact me here.