Hardware has a very simple business model: People either buy the product or they don't. And although hardware has a very clear path to market, building a successful MVP is anything but obvious.
Thanks to Apple, the bar for consumer hardware is incredibly high. Even though you are a startup, everyone will compare your product to the phone in their pocket, which means you have to nail the experience right out of the box.
Here is a short guide to help you build a hardware MVP that doesn’t suck.
In hardware you get one chance to solve the right problem. Even if you deeply understand the problem, it’s important to validate that others have the same struggles.
Customer interviews can be an informal process, but the key to them is to understand how people solve the problem today, why they chose the product they did, and what frustrates them. The goal is to gather customer insights by asking them questions and watching them use existing products.
If I was building an action video camera my interviews would go something like this…
Q: How do you capture action video today?
The goal of the question is to understand who is capturing action video and with what products.
Q: If no, why not?
Every time you hear a no, you want to understand why. You will either learn a series of problems you can solve or you will learn that your problem doesn’t exist.
Q: If yes, why are you capturing action video?
The goal is to understand the real reason they even record action video. This motivation is super important and will be the basis of your customer experience.
Q: Can you walk me through the experience you take from capture to share?
Ideally you watch people use the product from beginning to end, asking them why they took each action. If you can’t watch people, you can change this question to asking what frustrates them from capture to share.
If you don't interview potential customers, you will create a product that either slightly misunderstands the customer or even worse, solves a problem they don’t actually have.
Hardware is considerably harder than software because the problem is totally unconstrained. Starting with the customer need you have to first imagine a device that doesn’t exist today and then create software to make that device useful. To do this right, you have to understand all the customer problems from the beginning to the end of the experience.
A standard tool used in user experience research, a customer journey maps out the key interactions before, during, and after. Listing these key interactions at the top of the chart, you then brainstorm multiple ways to solve each problem, from easy to hard. Once everything is on the board you begin to draw a line from left to right, demonstrating what level of solution you will provide in your MVP for each core problem.
Cash and time are your biggest constraints in building hardware. Cash enables you to hire large teams to make hard problems look easy, while time enables you to be patient as you craft and re-craft the experience.
Unless you can raise millions before you launch, your only option is to start driving cash by selling your product. Being forced to get to market quickly is a fantastic constraint that requires you to only solve THE most important customer problem.
To help you do this, you can borrow Maslow’s hierarchy of needs to refine your customer journey to what the product has to do really, really well. The bottom of the triangle represents THE basic (core) customer need. Any product you ship that misses the core need will result in poor reviews.
Even our competitor started small. The first GoPro cameras strapped to a person's wrist and only captured pictures of the ride. But it didn’t stop them from selling thousands of cameras long before they could capture HD, and millions before they could even connect to a mobile phone.
Driving positive cash flow as quickly as possible is incredibly important because with that cash you can re-invest in the product to make it better. If we hadn’t created a $400K accessory lens business, we never could have paid a firm to design the iconic Contour product you see today.
Once you launch your MVP you should iterate quickly to introduce your next version within 12-14 months. It doesn't mean version two should add a bunch of new features. More importantly it should perfect the features you already shipped, making the product robust enough for millions of customers.
No matter the device, it takes a lot of work to bring the whole system (engineering, design, testing, packaging, supply chain, certifications, documentation, logistics, etc.) together into a product ready for mass consumer adoption. Starting basic and adding one feature at a time, is incredibly important.
- Fitbit started with a single pedometer that wasn’t wireless and didn’t have subscription revenue.
- The iPhone began as the iPod with up/down/left/right buttons.
- Skullcandy started with black headphones that didn’t have color
until the supplier accidentally shipped the company a set of red
- The Kindle was first an e-reader that every editor blasted because
it didn’t have a color screen, couldn’t browse the internet, and wasn’t a
Just remember, every new feature multiples the level of complexity so think hard about what comes second, third, and fourth in your product.
A Minimal Viable Hardware Product is not about searching for a business model, smearing features on the wall until people buy the product, or promising something you can't execute.
A true hardware MVP is about quickly delivering a simple, but amazing product that customers will pay for. Because driving positive cash flow is the most important ingredient to making your product better.
Image Credit: Eigenes Bild via Creative Commons