Lesson for startups from smart men in sheds with spanners: prototypes & MVPs

Henry Ford first drove his prototype Quadricycle from the workshop behind his home at 58 Bagley Avenue, Detroit in June 1896. It was the first automobile he had designed. Named for its four bicycle tyres, the Quadricycle used an ethanol-powered two-cylinder engine that achieved a top speed of 20 mph.

The Quadricycle had two driving speeds, no reverse, no brakes, rudimentary steering ability, and a doorbell button as a horn. Aside from one breakdown on Washington Boulevard due to a faulty spring, the drive was a success. Ford was on his way to becoming one of the most formidable innovation stories in history.

The Quadricycle was the outcome of many years of passion for everything mechanical, from watches to industrial machines, and perseverance in experimenting with portable engines, but when Ford and James Bishop, his assistant, attempted to wheel the Quadricycle out of the shed, they had overlooked one detail – it was too wide to fit through the door, so Ford took an axe to the brick wall of the shed, smashing it to make space for the vehicle to be rolled out!

Ford was a tinkerer in his backyard workshop trying to make an experimental technology into something marketable. There is a prophetic story of how the 13-year-old Henry got a pocket watch for his birthday and proceeded to take it apart. He simply wanted to know how it worked. It was a character trait that marked the rest of his life. He wanted to know how things worked and, just as important, why they didn’t work.

Only three Quadricycle prototypes were built. Ford sold his earliest prototype shortly after testing for $200, and it took three more years to build a second, and another two years to finesse a third. Meeting Thomas Edison in 1896 encouraged Ford to further experimentation with automotive design. Returning to prototyping, he built and successfully raced a new car, which won him the backing of investors.

Henry and his team-borrowed concepts from watchmakers, gun makers, bicycle makers, and meat packers, mixing them with their own ideas. They really were smart men in sheds with spanners. He incorporated Ford Motor Company on June 16, 1903. However, it would take another five years of passion and perseverance to overcome financial and operational challenges to launch on October 1, 1908, Model T, the first commercial model. By 1918 half of all American cars were Model T, with 15.5m sold by the time production ended on May 27, 1927, when Ford went onto launch to further models.

Ford’s passion, curiosity and ingenuity are the traits we see in many C21st innovators. The approach has at its heart the philosophy that a startup is an experiment, and build-measure-learn, growing from concept to prototype to MVP. It is searching through testing hypotheses to create a sustainable business model, managing risk at each stage of the problem-solution design-customer fit journey.

It forces the innovator’s thinking to focus on the problem they’re solving, recognising customers are forever in motion, and demands that a startup constantly explores, learns, iterates, and adapts to create a value proposition, a balance between leadership and chaos.Many founders fall in love with their ideas and start tunnelling, preferring to spend time building the perfect product instead of getting a quick ‘Not that, but this’ and then finding out how to improve it.

However, recognise that strategy is a bet on the future, about how the customer landscape is going to evolve . Under these conditions of extreme uncertainty, you need to move away from spending time and effort designing a product in isolation before revealing it to the market and encourage the creation of prototypes and experiments to find out if customers actually value what you are planning to make.

Get out of the building is the call to action, find out what the real problem customers have, and what value they place on a solution – not what you assume they have. This underlying narrative also captures economist Keynes’ sentiment of it’s better to be roughly right, than precisely wrong in your business thinking.

And that’s the key takeaway for me from Ford, understanding that prototypes and MVPs  are a critical part of product development. Sure, you could dive right in, spend months developing a product with bells and whistles, only to find that at launch, nobody wants it. Or you’ve built it completely wrong. Or you could have built something way better if you’d pivoted halfway through. Not testing your ideas is a great way to fail (and not in a helpful way).

Ford built three prototypes over seven years, and the commercial Model T – his MVP – went on sale five years later. Compare this twelve-year journey to Tesla – the Roadster prototype commenced in 2006 and they opened their first Gigafactory in 2013 – a similar pivoting journey, but ignoring the differences in technology, let’s focus on the lessons from Ford’s product development methodology for today’s startups.

What is a Prototype? Prototype is Greek meaning ‘first form’. It’s an initial try, a rough draft, an experiment. It’s a starting point from which to learn and improve. It’s what happens when you give form to your product idea. It’s something tangible, not just in your head.

They might be a simple sketch on paper, or something more functional and interactive, using a tool such as Figma to create a digital version.The main benefit of a prototype is that it enables you to unleash your ideation. Depending on your preference, you can make your prototype as complicated or as simple as you like.

Dropbox is a great example of product-led growth executed well. At the outset, instead of building a full product, they created a video explainer of the prototype, essentially pretending that it existed. This helped them to test their idea. Had they built the complex backend, only to find that nobody wanted their product, they would have lost countless hours of work. From their introductory video, they received 70k email enquiries wanting Dropbox ASAP, and used this feedback build the real prototype. They’d proved their idea had legs without spending a lot of money getting it to walk.

What is an MVP? The phrase Minimum Viable Product was coined in 2001 by entrepreneur Frank Robinson and popularised by Eric Ries in The Lean Startup. To Robinson and Ries, an MVP is an early version of a new product that maximises validated learning from customer interaction with the least effort and cost.

An MVP is about doing one thing and doing it well. When Spotify first launched its MVP, it aimed to do one thing: stream music. Their MVP only streamed songs, without extra features (playlists, podcasts, video, mobile app etc), and launched a closed beta to test their idea. Everyone loved it, and the freemium model was popular with users.Knowing that their MVP was a hit, and their business model was proven, they rolled out a full launch.As of 2023, Spotify had 195 million premium subscribers.

Note that a prototype and an MVP are not the same thing. Prototypes are to determine whether a concept solution works, MVPs are to help understand whether customers will pay for a concept solution. So, looking at Ford’s prototyping and MVP, and the examples of Dropbox and Spotify, what are the habits of innovators using this approach you should look to adopt?

Habit 1: Always looking forward Being a startup innovator is all about being bold and forward thinking. You need to be a pioneer, always keeping your eyes open to create your own market space. A prototype is a framework for evaluating the outcomes of taking chances, supporting nascent innovation and discovery, so use it.

Habit 2: Be customer centric Startup success requires you need to develop an obsessive mind-set of living in your customer’s world. Understanding customers’ wants and needs provides you with a greater opportunity to earn their attention. Initially, ignore revenue as your purpose, focus on finding potential users to discuss your prototype and testing.  

Habit 3: Make decisions – and stay data driven From product feature to customer conversations, waffling with indecision won’t work. The ability to make decisions is directly related to your velocity and direction of progress. Combine gut instinct with facts along the way, but don’t dilute data with emotion.

Habit 4: Avoid the crowds Conventional wisdom yields conventional results. Joining the crowd – no matter how trendy the crowd or ‘hot’ the opportunity – is a recipe for mediocrity. Successful people habitually do what other people won’t do. They go where others don’t because there’s less competition based on a hunch. The MVP enables an entrepreneur to turn their instinct of opportunity into hypotheses and provides a framework to test them.

Habit 5: Always be selling I asked a number of startup founders to name the one habit they felt contributed the most to their success. Each said the habit and ability to ‘think selling’. Selling is convincing people to talk with you, and then work with you, to build relationships. You don’t need to sell, you just need to communicate. Get out of the building is the call to action, and an essential habit for startup success at all stages of development.

Habit 6: Kill your darlings Prototyping and MVPs support a disciplined data driven planning approach to laying out every step along the way to make it happen. Never start small, think big, look to the horizon and working backwards but whilst you might really love your prototype/MVP, if no one else does, it’s time to rethink! The only thing waiting for you is failure, so ‘kill your darlings’ and don’t launch something no one else wants.

Habit 7: Make small bets and pivot It’s unlikely that anyone will buy your first version idea. Your resources are limited, and you don’t want to risk everything on one roll of the dice. Get into the market fast and let potential customers tell you if you are onto something. Besides having great ideas, the smart men in shed with spanners are also good at shutting things down and moving on to the next good idea. Using prototypes and MVPs in the right way helps startups do just that.

Habit 8: Don’t be afraid or embarrassed by failure James Dyson is no stranger to failure. He made 5,127 prototypes of his vacuum before he got it right. There were 5,126 failures – that’s a lot, but he learned from each one – that’s how I came up with the solution he said. If you want to create something new, you’re bound to fail a few times and that’s okay. Validated learning embraces failure as an entrepreneurial experience, from which we can pivot to the next iteration.

Habit 9: Look for 80/20 outcomes There’s a strange phenomenon in life that almost always holds true: you’ll often see that 20% of the things you do account for 80% of the results you get. Being productive and being busy are two different things. Make the Pareto principle a key driver in your core habits of development.

Habit 10: Just build the thing You can agonise over perfecting your prototype before committing to an MVP. You can also spend months working and reworking your MVP before you feel ready to launch it. If you want to build products, eventually it’s time to let go and let people see them!

Almost every founder story is the same: work tirelessly on an idea, do all kinds of crazy things that don’t work, struggle to find traction, iterate and pivot before finally hitting on the thing that has product-market fit. The first years of chaotic activity are really tumultuous before striking on the thing that works.

There’s so much more to be learned from the messier moments in early-stage startups. There are two distinct phases: pre-product-market fit and post-product-market fit. From the outset focus on the customer problem, not your dreamed solution: Henry Ford wanted to create a faster mode of transportation that every person could afford, not simply ‘build the Model T’.

When you talk about your startup, frame it in terms of the problem you’re solving, not the solution you’re building. Hold a problem-focused mindset with your prototype, where the quality of your questions shapes the quality of responses and subsequent thinking.

And don’t worry about customer perception of your MVP, simply does it provide value that they will pay something for it today and use it to ask about the future developments they’d like to see. The reality is that startup success is determined by the founder mindset, and prototypes and MVP are integral to this mindset.

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