The standard approach for launching a new digital product today is to get a Minimum Viable Product (MVP) out into the marketplace and then refine it using rapid iterations informed by usage from actual customers.
That’s an easy concept to embrace, and seems pretty intuitive. The hard part is deciding which features are really part of the required minimumand which features should be deferred. The fact is that an entrepreneur is often in love with what he/she thinks are the “magical features” that will differentiate the product, but it may be that it’s better to first prioritize the key features that will prove what an MVP needs to prove, and then the “magic” can be added in later. Because in the short run, the magic can often be mimicked manually.
A famous example from history is that when Pandora launched, even though the core part of their proposition was that a proprietary software algorithm would choose the next song, that didn’t really need to be in their MVP because it was easy to just have minimum wage interns creating the playlists. What their MVP needed to test was whether people would pay for streaming music. Once they proved that, then they invested in the software engineering required to create the automated music-choosing algorithms.
Going back to some 18th century history, a guy named Wolfgang von Kempelen created a mechanical machine that could play chess. It was a large wooden box with a chessboard and a Turkish-looking figure sitting at it. As a human made moves on the chessboard, the figure would reach out its mechanical hand and make its move. This amazing device was demonstrated in all the royal courts in Europe, and became known as The Mechanical Turk. Eventually, of course, it was discovered that there was actually a small man inside the box who was controlling the Mechanical Turk, but rather than disappointing anyone, that fact made the invention even more famous for its cleverness, not less.
There are lots of great examples of startups using the “man inside the box” method for getting an MVP off the ground. When CardMunch launched their service of automatically turning business card scans into text entries, at first it was interns doing the transcription. When Wealthfront launched their automated investing platform, the “automation” was just plain old humans sitting at desks. Now a new startup, Magic, is using a mixture of AI and humans to deliver a service that they hope will eventually be all AI. Because that’s how it’s done.
To me, the thing to think about is what features of an MVP are required to prove demand for the product. Get those features in first. The scaling ones can be added later. Needing to add automation in order to scale is a good problem – it means there’s a lot of demand for your product. In the meantime, a Mechanical Turk inside the box will be just fine.
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For more reading on the amazing 18th Century machine, I highly recommend the Tom Standage book, The Turk.