The Hacker Way: Minimum, Viable and Viral

Posted by Christina Coleman on

The concept of a Minimum Viable Product (MVP) can be elusive because it comprises a contradiction: it’s both minimum and viable. However, the MVP has well known precedents. For instance, there once was a place where lone profile pictures congregated, there were no photo albums, and the “poke” button reigned supreme. That place was Facebook. But less than ten years later, Facebook’s 845+ million users need more. Yet, that simple blue and white design released in 2004 was enough to demonstrate that Facebook could grow virally. It grabbed hundreds of users within the first week and eventually knocked other flashy social networks off the grid.

Learning as you go

I stumbled upon an Eric Ries’ blog post focused on "The Hacker Way," which, in short, is the process of building something quickly and then improving it as the product grows. It couldn't have come at a better time. He celebrated Zuckerberg for creating a simple and useful app that changed over time with constant iteration and execution. Take it from The Zuck himself: "Hackers try to build the best services over the long term by quickly releasing and learning from smaller iterations rather than trying to get everything right all at once. To support this, we have built a testing framework that at any given time can try out thousands of versions of Facebook. We have the words ’Done is better than perfect‘ painted on our walls to remind ourselves to always keep shipping." If "The Hacker Way," worked for the Facebook team, it will work for other start-ups too, right?

Just in Time Jewelry

Courtney McColgan, co-founder of Wokai.org, would soon learn the meaning of that old adage at the January 2012 LSM workshop in Palo Alto. The idea for Crowd Jewel, a community-driven jewelry website, came from McColgan’s interest in crowd-sourcing web innovation such as Quirky and Threadless. She wanted to figure out, however, why women-focused businesses—like Velvet Brigade (acquired by Modcloth), Garmz (restarted as Lookk), and and Fashionstake (acquired by Fab)–were, in her opinion, stagnant. “All failed to meet big success because it is hard to nail customer experience (fit, wait times), manufacturing (long lead times, high minimums), and designer acquisition (hard to find lots of them online).” “I thought it was because manufacturing, product fit and community building were just too darn hard.” She added, “why not focus on an easier category like women’s accessories; and go for a very sticky online-user community like women’s jewelry,” she added. Her idea was to have designers submit designs to the user community’s vote. Reminiscent of the just-in-time lean manufacturing, Crowd Jewel would bring only the winners to market. The only thing to do was build her online platform.

No Shiny Product? No Worries

After two years of studying designers and manufacturing, a month of meeting with high-end established jewelry designers, meeting with manufactures in Guangzhou, and a blow up with a technical co-founder, McColgan had all but abandoned the concept. However, meeting Michele Battelli, an engineer at Google, and Hung Pham, a project manager at Cisco, only a day before the LSM workshop, the three decided to give it another go. After all, once there was a technical individual to bring McColgan’s ideas to life on a high design website, Crowd Jewel would flourish…right? Learning as your company grows seems like a natural idea, but for many entrepreneurs, the thought of not having it all together before their service/product hits market can induce panic. McColgan remembers thinking, “I would have to build the whole thing. You think of this idea, and you think, ‘We’ll have a community, a form, and a manufacturer, and if I don’t have that from the beginning, people aren’t going to get it.‘” There was one thing McColgan knew. She took time… and lots of it… to pinpoint her potential customers. She realized that there were over 2 million jewelry posts on Etsy. She also saw some research that suggested that 1 in 20 women might be or know a professional or amateur jewelry creator. “I knew I was targeting designers. And in my gut, I knew that the voters would in turn become customers.” This was her riskiest assumption. Cue Crowd Jewel’s starting point.

Out With the Loftiness, in with the Lean

After figuring out that they needed to target designers to build their community, McColgan, Pham and Battelli decided that there didn’t need a “shiny” product to gain an online presence. Introducing the contest, in less than ideal ways according to McColgan, by spamming Etsy users, didn’t push them away; in fact, it bulked up CrowdJewel’s user community. What worked in Crowd Jewel’s favor was McColgan’s relentless work to validate her market. It took only 24 hours at LSM for the team to validate assumptions without the product that took nine months to build: jewelry designers like competitions, there isn’t a model identical to Crowd Jewel, and voters will convert to customers. With this information, McColgan, Pham and Battelli realized they could build a successful beta, even without sequin. “I just came to the conclusion that it’s a marathon and not a sprint when building a company. Lean helped me realize that,” McColgan said. A few weeks after LSM, the company wasn’t doing any manufacturing, but was successfully building a database and focusing on developing interesting features to separate designers by types of jewelry that their 500 voter community base would utilize. And this, they say, works in the meantime. By throwing away the idea that you need to have it all or you will fail, they are solidifying a foundation and serving their customers’ needs by learning as fast as they can. Here’s to Crowd Jewel adding a chapter to "The Hacker Way."