A start-up is a human institution designed to deliver a new product or service under conditions of extreme uncertainty—Eric Ries
Associations can be as steeped in tradition as a Japanese tea ceremony. What can they learn from business start-ups? Entrepreneurs take uncertainty as a given, and I’m convinced that they have plenty to teach us. The minimum viable product (MVP) is one of those lessons.
Now that we have collectively experienced extreme disruption, it is time to accept this as a permanent state. With or without COVID-19, association leaders must adjust to a digital marketplace where constant adaptation is required for survival. Old business models will not accommodate the rapid shifts in behavior and attitudes that are necessary to keep pace. The Association 4.0 books that I wrote with my business partner Kevin Ordonez, Positioning for Success in an Era of Disruption and An Entrepreneurial Approach to Risk, Courage, and Transformation take this idea as a theme.
The business leaders we interviewed for the books were ready with considerable advice. One powerful idea ran through many of those conversations. Approaching product development as a quest for perfection is a losing strategy. The process is too rigid and too slow. If you wait to unveil your widget to the world until it is flawless and fully loaded, you’ve waited too long. That new learning management system may already be old technology. Sigmund VanDamme, Membership Software Evangelist, Community Brands, put it like this: “Associations are risk-averse. They want every project to be a home run. That’s an unrealistic expectation.”
Focus on Discovery and Learning
The first time I heard someone say minimum viable product, I thought it sounded like a terrible idea. Who would want to offer members something that is only half-baked? But, when you embrace the concept of the MVP, you stop being the prisoner of a culture that demands answers before the important questions can be asked.
The MVP is the brainchild of Eric Ries, author of that entrepreneur’s bible, The Lean Startup. Ries turns product development away from outcomes and describes it as a journey of discovery. He emphasizes that an MVP does not mean you create minimal products. This is the definition he offers:
The MVP is that version of a new product which allows a team to collect the maximum amount of validated learning about customers with the least effort.
The MVP will likely be the first generation of several iterations of the product. It should be robust enough to attract users and showcase the product’s value. Subsequent iterations will incorporate changes that are the result of metrics, analytics, and consumer feedback. The idea is that you create what has been validated in the marketplace and spend resources where evidence suggests there will be return on investment. This concept can be applied to everything from building an association management system to developing a practice marketing manual for members.
Create an Innovative Culture
Leaders who are comfortable with the MVP open the door to positive cultural shifts. The MVP mitigates risk and rebrands a less-than-perfect outcome as a learning opportunity rather than failure. This open-minded approach to development gives teams the freedom to innovate. Amith Nagarajan, Chairman of the Board, Association Success, encourages leaders to allow a more expansive outlook to take root. He advises that the willingness to experiment is especially beneficial for groups that are planning to introduce new technology:
“I’ve frequently been asked to speak about AI in the last couple of years. The most common questions center around how to get started with this new technology. I tell people that the first step is to fuse the idea of experimentation and growth into their culture. The problem is that association staff often worry about failure more than anything else. They’re afraid that if they try something new and it doesn’t work, they’ll get fired, looked down upon, or suffer some other kind of career damage. That perspective is holding associations back.
“The invisible barrier is fear of dipping a toe in the water. What I recommend is picking a simple project with the idea that the only goal is to learn. Put a chatbot on your website and see what happens. Implement an AI newsletter and see how it performs. Pick something simple that you can do quickly and learn from. Don’t spend six months debating what to do with the board and volunteers. Just test and evaluate.”
Improve the Bottom Line
A more adaptive culture is the icing on the cake. An MVP can also have meat and potatoes benefits on the bottom line and the ability to serve members effectively. These are some of the tangible benefits an MVP delivers:
- Allows for early promotion and brand identification
- Cuts the initial cost of bringing the product to market
- Makes it easier to switch direction, if necessary
- Produces revenue which can be reinvested in product development
- Incorporates customer feedback at each step in the process
- Uses data to build the product your constituents want and need
Despite the significant benefits, the MVP is counterintuitive to the way outcome-oriented executives are accustomed to working and may require jumping some mental hurdles. Charlie Judy, Founder, WorkXO, describes his initial struggle to embrace the process like this:
“The firms that I admire the most are those entrepreneurial giants who are good at taking the first step. They know their product isn’t as shiny, flashy, or pretty as it will be one day, but they’re willing to let people start kicking the tires and to discover what customers think. The goal of this experimentation is to bring you closer to your vision—to arrive at a better iteration of the model. That was the hardest thing for me to learn. Entrepreneurs aren’t afraid of mistakes. You have to be very comfortable with hearing no. Negative feedback doesn’t mean that you have the wrong product. It provides an opportunity to adjust and to keep moving closer to the ideal.
“I have learned this from working with software development companies. Sometimes you need to roll out a technology that isn’t 100 percent baked because you want to see how it works in a real environment.”
Judy captures what I believe is most powerful about the MVP. If you abandon the idea of a flawless launch, start simple, and approach each project with the humility to listen to the market. You will realize perfection that could not have been achieved in any other way. The product you create may not be exactly what you intended to build, but it will be the thing your members value and need.
Read interviews with Sigmund VanDamme, Amith Najagaran, and Charlie Judy in An Entrepreneurial Approach to Risk, Courage, and Transformation.