The process by which small businesses develop is changing. Thanks to the "lean movement" people are realizing that the same strategies governing large companies simply don't work with startups. Make no mistake, you are a startup. Maybe you've been in business for 20 years, that's fine. I've been a pro now for over a decade and I still consider myself in the same startup category. Why? Because of the resources the company has at it's disposal to use for growth.
Companies with 20+ employees and millions in profit have different abilities than my little 1099-based photo show. This means that I as a budding entrepreneur have to use more effective strategies to grow than they do. I have to stay as lean as possible to make my very exhaustible revenue do the most it can. Based on this fact, which I will go ahead and assume you identify with, we need to go over a specific shift in thinking. The MVP, and the beautiful feedback loop it brings with it.
There are three big points you need to grab onto in this article. Each is a piece of the whole, and the whole doesn't work without all of it's parts. So pay attention, don't just skim. I've made a point to bold things and put pretty pictures in just in case.
The first crucial concept is what this acronym means. MVP stands for Minimum Viable Product. That is, the absolute bare minimum product you can push out to test customer response. When it comes to applications or physical products (a new toaster, umbrella, camera, etc...) this can be very simple to apply. You develop a simple iteration of the product and test it against your customer base to see how they respond. Does the product do what they expect? Do they have changes in the product? Do they even want it? Obviously these are important questions for product development, but how does it translate into a service industry like ours? It's pretty simple once you understand that you and the images you create are your product.
There are a number of ways to look at the photography industry through the MVP lens (I love puns). I'm going to give you a few situations first and then we will expand on them. Focus on the one that speaks to you.
- You want to move into a new style of imagery. How do you determine what style to move into, or whether to shift at all?
- You're just starting out in photography. You know you want to make a career of it, but what genre is best for you?
- Your wedding business has been going strong for years but you want to bolster album sales. You've taken plenty of sales classes and are sure of your ability to close, yet album sales have never been anything to write home about. How do you change this?
Each of these requires that we create a sort of sample product to see how customers respond. This sample must be created at a minimal cost, that's the whole point of running lean. If we could spend limitless cash on R&D none of this would matter much. Right? Right. So what happens?
Photographers 1 and 2 are pretty similar in how to approach this. We start of by going in the direction our gut tells us to pursue, and why not? We have to start somewhere. Maybe (god forbid) Photographer 1 thinks that black and white images with selective color are just amazing and that people would fall over themselves to pay for them. Ignoring how wrong he is, he would need to first develop a few images to showcase this idea.
Photographer 2 believes that fashion is her calling. So, she chooses to find a team willing to work for free, trade or on the super-cheap. They make a series of images reflecting her take on the fashion market.
Photographer 3 has a bit more to do, and a different place in the process to start, assuming there is already an album available to customers for purchase. So photographer 3 goes on the backburner of the article for the moment.
We have our direction now, as well as our second crucial point. The feedback loop. If you haven't looked at the books I recommended to you in the first piece of this series this will likely be new for you. If you have, then you may know the process I'm outlining for you already. (thank Toyota for the process, and Eric Ries for making it so simple). If nothing else I guarantee you learned it as a kid but either don't remember, or never thought to use it here. For me, two main lessons came from science class in school. The first, geodes are awesome. The second, the scientific method.
I doubt seriously that geodes will help your business.
The feedback loop, the scientific method, whatever term you need to use...it all means "build, measure, learn." I'm not kidding when I say you should apply this daily for the rest of your career. Not everyone or every idea will start on the same point though, which is why the loop aspect is so great.
Using the above diagram let's start with photographers 1 and 2. They begin in the build phase. The idea or product is made flesh first (if necessary), in it's most basic functional form. Then we move them into the measure phase. This is where we reach out to the marketplace (hopefully a properly defined one) and see what sticks. We have to get honest feedback here so approaching friends and family will only work if you trust them to crush you should the idea need crushing. It's more effictive to seek out the people you are hoping will buy this new thing. After all, money is the goal, not praise. We also need a good sample size for this phase. One person's opinion is not enough. This is the science of success and it requires a good pool of data to draw from. From there we take our data and go into the learn phase. You're smart people, you know what this means. Validated learning, we look at all of the feedback we've gotten and see what clear answers we are being told.
Did our targets respond favorably? What did they like/dislike? What percentage of them, when asked, said they would purchase? How much would they be willing to pay? How many of them actually bought?
That last question is important. It is perfectly fine to ask someone to buy a product you haven't created for them yet. Don't be afraid of this. People buy into great ideas. Kickstarter proves this point so well that I'm not even going to elaborate further. When we ask a test customer if they would buy what we've created, and they say yes...you say "awesome, cash, check, or charge?"
A.) Money is good.
2.) If they give you a sale, they were being honest about whether or not they would buy this product. If they don't want to hand us money, we always ask why not. We have to do this because the answer and resulting action don't match. Find the reason. Maybe when they said they would buy they were just being nice. Maybe there is a point in the feedback that wasn't 100% true. We have to ferret out the issue in order to learn from it.
I haven't forgotten about lonely photographer 3. In their case we start at a different point on the loop. Measuring. Photographer 3 has a product already, but people don't want it! That second cardinal sin I mentioned is right here in full force. We need to know why. Pulling from past customers, we start surveying. Maybe it's online, maybe in person, it doesn't matter much how we survey so long as we are being honest and they are too.
Hi Carl Customer, thank you again for choosing us to blah blah blah. I'm reaching out to you because we want to offer the best that we can to our customers. I remember that you weren't too interested in an album from whatever we shot. Would you be willing to tell me what would have made that product more appealing to you? Construction, design, packaging, price? If we develop something better, could we get your opinion on that? We appreciate your willingness to help us get more of your business!
Please don't use that verbatim. Just get the idea.
Finally, what happens after the learn phase? Crucial concept number three! Pursuing or Pivoting. We actually learn something, and apply it. Crazy right? Apparently so because this is one of the most difficult things for people to do in this process. The first is adhering to the "minimum" part of "minimum viable product." We have to be willing to test with an imperfect product. Something that may not be super polished, or even totally complete. The goal of this loop is to learn as much as we can, as fast as we can. When I pitch campaign images they are often nothing more than stick figure "illustrations," a stock shot of what I'm thinking stylistically, and a big confident smile. If they don't bite...feedback loop.
Learning here means that we are taking this information and using it to find our next best move. Even if the feedback is phenomenal we want to find a way to be even better. The difficulty here comes when we resist responding to the measurements. Maybe Photographer 1 found that people unanimously hated the selective color idea (if you're picking up on my disapproval of this style, good). More likely, maybe he found that only 10% responded favorably. Now he has a choice to make:
- Does he continue to push the concept, trying to find a higher percentage that are positive about it?
- Does he spend more time and money making a better example of the idea?
- Does he take the feedback to heart and pivot towards a different stylistic option?
If you chose the third option, awesome, there's hope! We have to be willing to pivot. Never get married to a direction, be willing to change completely from your original plan. Pivot, pivot, pivot!
Shout it at your computer. PIVOT!
Photographer 2 didn't get a good response from her foray into fashion, but people are responding well to the product shot that was in the editorial. Seeing this, she tries again building another series with a focus (this pun is unavoidable) on product, maybe in still life. Measure. Learn. Rinse. Repeat.
Photographer 3 hears that for some people was the layout, and for some it was price, but that perhaps if the album were a bit nicer it would seem more worth it. So, he finds a different maunfacturer or two. Before spending a dime on redesigning layouts, or getting new samples (unless they can be had for free) he uses the already existing sample imagery from the manufacturer's site to survey customers again. The majority like the album options from manufacturer C, and nobody specifically mentions the image layouts. What's more, not only do they prefer C's albums...they expect to pay a little bit more! Now he has a direction, and since he asked for the sale while surveying, the improvements are generating revenue before a single new album has actually been created.
Of course sometimes (often) these processes take a few iterations. That's going to happen, but as I mentioned before, the goal of this process is to get through the loop as fast as you can. For example, the last company I founded went through 13 iterations of our product in the first month of development. Each iteration was an improvement based on facts from our target market. Each iteration was effective, and each one has garnered another investment commitment from people interested in the product. Every time you build a new version of your concept based on the important feedback, test it, measure the response, learn from it, and build the new knowledge into the next attempt. This should be a quick, constant and ceaseless process.
The days of wasted, misguided efforts are over people. Your customers want to give you a living, but they need you to listen to them and provide the solution they crave. This build-measure-learn cycle is the core of the lean startup methodology, it is your new mantra. The lean methodology is meant to give you the greatest progress for the least amount of money (not effort, this is hard work). It teaches us to become entreprenurial boxers dodging the jabs of failure. We pivot away from every potential knock-out blow until we find that opening that wins. We elude failure by remembering that we must always adapt or pivot based on the crucial information we are learning. There is power in this approach to your career. There is even more in this approach to your life.
If you need further evidence of how significant this method truly is...think about the major innovations in human history. We very rarely just stumble into success, there is a process by which it is built.