When your first product isn’t selling

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I’m a big fan of the lean startup philosophy.  Applied judiciously, this can save a lot of startups from developing a bloated product that nobody cares about.

While I don’t think the minimum viable product concept can be naively applied to hardware products, I do think that the basic principle of not over-designing the product and testing early and often with real customers are the key to developing a great product and a successful business around it.

One of the key tenets of lean startup is the pivot.  Eric Ries has a great post that explains this concept. The core idea is that when your product isn’t performing in the market, pivot, don’t thrash.  Change direction, but stay grounded in what you have learned.   Take prudent risks. Over time and across multiple pivots, the company could end up in a substantially different place from the  original vision, but it will have done so over multiple iterations with a process oriented approach, always grounded in facts and in customer feedback.

Pivoting is easier said than done. Generally when something doesn’t work, the leadership team does one of two things:

  • Prematurely announce the product is a dead loss, and launch a new product development effort to chase the Next Big Thing
  • Refuse to give up and doggedly try to get it to work long after all rational alternatives have been exhausted

None of these are helpful.  Abandoning ship prematurely throws away valuable customer learnings and brings the company back to square one, resulting in thrashing.  Doing the same thing over and over again in hopes it will work eventually is a measure of insanity.

The trick is to find the courage to acknowledge there is a problem, take a deep breath, and find a way to do a course adjustment that is solidly grounded on facts and learnings, that will hopefully lead to the right solution.  Easier said than done… but it’s the only responsible thing to do most of the time.

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