Founder and principal
“Startup Product Success” is a framework for entrepreneurs I developed over my
30+ year career to help reduce risk and accelerate adoption for consumer tech products. — Peter Radsliff, Posted January 16, 2016
STARTUP PRODUCT SUCCESS
Developing plans for a new product is fundamentally different for a startup than for an established company. I know this because I’ve worked as a marketing and product executive at five startup companies in addition to two medium-sized and one Fortune 100. Almost all were selling consumer technology hardware products, some which were connected via the Internet, and a few that incorporated an ongoing subscription. In all, my teams have launched thousands of new products and from this vantage point, I’ve seen what has separated successful startup products from those at established companies.
With existing businesses, their brand and product category have usually already been established. With the vast majority of startups, their initial product launch will be the first time they put forth their brand, vision, position, category and value proposition to an intended market. Suffice it to say a lot is riding on a startup’s first product launch.
A common problem I’ve seen is how many startup founders place a strong emphasis on one particular aspect of their company’s first product launch, usually to the detriment of other areas. It’s not uncommon that tech entrepreneurs revert to their core expertise when developing product development plans. Founders who are coders focus on code. Founders who are marketers obsess over story. And founders who are designers lose sleep over ID/UI/UX. It’s like seeking medical opinions for an injured knee: physical therapists prescribe PT, and orthopedic surgeons want to cut; i.e. to a hammer, everything looks like a nail.
But for a startup that may only have one turn at bat, planning based on personal bias can induce additional risk and limit potential success. Yet even though tech CEOs may know that, they may still feel it an unnatural act to devote a disproportionate investment to areas outside their domain expertise. Although startup CEOs may understand the theory behind a multi-disciplined approach to product design, technology development, and marketing, all too often their budget and organizational decisions belie a deeply-held bias towards one versus the others. The goal of this article is to propose a framework to help inform organizational and budgetary decision-making to reduce risk and provide the best outcome towards Startup Product Success.
Before I explain the Startup Product Success framework it’s important to understand what it’s designed to accomplish: to get noticed, to make people care, and to create product love.
Those goals may seem pretty obvious, but they can be incredibly difficult to achieve. Some of the problems startups encounter trying to achieve these are because: 1) they don’t understand what efforts are necessary to accomplish each goal, 2) they don’t invest in building their organization to have the skills necessary to accomplish each goal, and/or 3) the people they hire don’t know how to, or aren’t motivated to work together to, accomplish all three. To address each goal, here is a framework consisting of the tasks necessary to achieve them.
THE STARTUP PRODUCT SUCCESS FRAMEWORK
Very simply, startup product success stems from having a product with three well-executed elements: Killer Design, a Compelling Story, and an Epic User Experience. ‘Killer’ design is industrial or user-interface design done so well that it cuts through the noise of the market and competing products plus it supports long term interest from the user. A ‘compelling’ story is one that draws people in and causes them to want to spread the news on their own. An ‘epic’ experience drives customer satisfaction, stellar reviews, and post-sale word-of-mouth marketing. The combination of design, story, and experience defines a startup’s brand essence and can significantly accelerate market adoption while lowering costs of PR, advertising and customer support.
When each of these three startup product success factors are executed well, they amount to more than the sum of their parts. When only two factors are strong and one is lacking, startups may find specific deficiencies as noted in the space between each Venn bubble pair above. For example, killer design with a compelling story, but lacking a commensurate epic user experience, may produce good initial uptake followed by mediocre user reviews and a stall of adoption after launch. Likewise, an epic experience and compelling story that lacks killer design can produce a lackluster product launch because the press and blogosphere may not even take notice of what looks like a ho-hum product. And without a compelling story, you better be prepared to fund a lot of PR and advertising, because even with killer design and an epic experience you’ll be pushing your new product news to a world that doesn’t much care to talk about it on its own.
INTERPLAY BETWEEN DESIGN, STORY & EXPERIENCE
Although well-executed design, story, and experience efforts can produce higher value than each individual effort on its own, it’s the interplay between the three that can produce a true product gestalt. For example, it doesn’t help to have ‘killer design’ that does not help bring physical form to a compelling story or somehow embody an epic experience.
My favorite example of this is the 2000 Nissan Xterra, a youth-focused, small 4×4 SUV with very specific features for its target demographic, such as a roof rack to dry wetsuits, inside mountain bike mounts, rear theater seating and my favorite, the integral first aid kit.
What makes the first aid kit worthy of mention is that it was a perfect example of killer design in support of a compelling story that provides an epic experience. Notice how there is a bump on the rear hatch. Inside this bump is the Xterra first-aid kit (see inset photo). Also note how the bump pushes up into the rear window glass to make it very evident that it is there. I guarantee you that: a) it was not necessary to have that outward bump in order to accommodate a first aid kit inside the vehicle, and b) the odd-shaped glass that was necessitated because of the bump’s upward intrusion caused a significant increase in cost versus a more plain straight-across design. So why would the Xterra’s designers go to the cost and effort of having that bump be expressed so prominently on the car’s exterior?
The answer is because of the people they were selling the Xterra to, as evidenced by their original TV commercials: kayakers, mountain bikers, scuba divers and other Gen-Xers searching for adventure outdoors (hence the “X” in “Xterra”). For that audience OF COURSE you would prominently display a first aid kit, because that demographic lives their lives ‘on the edge’ and so fully they would presumably need one. And wouldn’t those target customers be more inclined to buy a car that understood their lifestyle and needs so well? They would, and they did. Design, story, experience, all wrapped up together to get across the concept of the product to its intended audience, in a way that was believable, powerful, and that drove viral spread of the new product. When done well, as with the Xterra, this is how design, story and experience add up to produce more value than each element by itself.
And although the Nissan design team does not reflect the typical resources available to every startup, it was their belief in the power of design, story and experience that made the Xterra a product gestalt. And this can be done at every level of product development investment.
ORGANIZING FOR STARTUP PRODUCT SUCCESS
There are many ways to build an organization to achieve Startup Product Success, but there are as many ways to create obstacles that will prevent a startup from achieving it. Belief in the power of industrial design is one thing, but how does one achieve ‘killer’ design for the product? Do you hire a design consultancy? Do you devote an internal headcount to be your design director? Or will you reserve a co-founder seat and equity stake for a partnership with a leading designer and use his or her resources? Answering the question of how you will accomplish ‘killer design’ says a lot about how much you really believe design will be a game-changer for your business. The same questions apply to creating a compelling story and epic user experience. These things don’t happen by themselves, and they won’t be created by people who are talented in different disciplines.
SIDEBAR: WHAT ABOUT THE LEAN STARTUP?
Eric Ries’ seminal book, The Lean Startup, relies on a methodology of “validated learning,” i.e. rapid scientific experimentation, as well as a number of practices aimed at shortening product development cycles. The Lean Startup method measures actual progress to learn what customers really want and allows startups to change directions rapidly. Nothing in the Startup Product Successframework necessarily contradicts the lean startup methodology. It just challenges entrepreneurs to develop their minimum viable products taking design, story, and user-experience into consideration as key elements to be validated. Still, some companies don’t rely on validated learning to gauge development direction. Apple’s Steve Jobs famously said: “It isn’t the consumers’ job to know what they want. It’s hard for [consumers] to tell you what they want when they’ve never seen anything remotely like it.” Whether a startup chooses the “give ’em what they want” or “build it and they will come” methodology, ignoring design, story or experience may be a fatal error which could lead a startup to crash & burn.
DECISION-MAKING FOR STARTUP PRODUCT SUCCESS
So let’s say you’ve bought in to the Startup Product Success framework and have hired an outside firm to produce the industrial design of your product and the user-interface screens associated with a connected mobile app. When the design firm presents three different versions of the proposed designs, who gets to choose the final design direction? Will it be the CEO, the product manager, a committee, the outside design firm themselves? What will the decision-making process be when determining if a design is ‘killer,’ or whether an experience is ‘epic’ enough? The time to determine how decisions will be made is at the outset of the process, and should not be dependent on what the design proposals are. It is critical to ensure everyone knows which person or group is responsible for making the final call, or you will encounter serious problems at the most critical time in the project. Many great designs have been scuttled because of a lack of managerial courage or because a group didn’t know how to evaluate a design proposal against the company’s goals. This is such an important topic, I will devote an entire post to decision-making in the future.
THE STARTUP PRODUCT SUCCESS FRAMEWORK IN ACTION
I’ve been lucky to have been an executive at multiple companies that have successfully combined design, story and experience to make truly groundbreaking products. These companies were able to invest money in product development and spend less in post-launch marketing costs because the story was so compelling, the design so provocative, and the experience so surprising and delightful. I intend to profile some of those products in future posts and focus on how to we addressed each critical factor. But for now I encourage entrepreneurs to let me know what you think about this Startup Product Success framework by sending me a private comment in the form that immediately follows, or by posting in the public comments section at the bottom of this page. ::
I’ve received some comments on this framework and wish to add this clarification. I have characterized “Killer Design” as the task necessary for a startup product to “Get Noticed.” This implies that design is all about the aesthetic and may lead some to think that the design process is separate from creating an epic user experience. This couldn’t be further from the truth. The essence of the industrial design process is to carefully understand the user’s problem and to define a solution which manifests itself through user experience. During that process, designers also attend to the aesthetic of the work they produce, and this can aid a company greatly in having their product stand out from the crowd. But the design process itself can contribute greatly to the development of a compelling story and an epic user experience as well. In truth, a well-executed product development process is one that is holistic in its application, tending to all aspects of business needs. But since many entrepreneurs I have met don’t have experience with a holistic design process, I have found it helpful to separate the critical factors that support startup product success into three discrete efforts: design, story and experience.
© 2016 Peter Radsliff — All Rights Reserved — All third-party trademarks or copyrighted works are the property of their respective owners and mention here does not imply any endorsement unless specifically stated as such.
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