Consumer 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 minimal viable product (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.
The enthusiastic flood of hardware startups are generally getting into trouble for three reasons.
- They over promise and under deliver.
Instead of selling a single feature, they sell everything their product will eventually do. They’re afraid they won’t be loved by customers or investors so they show a series of features they can’t possibly deliver on. The result is long delays, crappy product, or both.
They try to mass distribute their MVP.
The first version is never amazing. Trying to mass distribute a product with average reviews and known quality issues is a fast path to irrelevancy.
They are too slow with version two.
An MVP is supposed to be replaced quickly with a refined second version. Instead these startups spend so much time on everything else (customer support, distribution, brand awareness, raising capital, etc) they can’t iterate fast enough on their product.
Here is a short guide to help you build a hardware MVP that doesn’t suck.
Talk To People
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 skip this step you will create a product that either slightly misunderstands the customer or even worse, solves a problem they don’t actually have.
Map Out The Entire Customer Journey
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.
If done properly, a robust customer journey will provide you with a series of problems you can solve over time.
Only Ship the Core Need
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.
At Contour the core need was to capture action video, which meant the product had to be robust, easy to use, and capture amazing video. Except our first version wasn’t anything like you see today. It wasn’t even a stand-alone camera. Instead we combined a CMOS security lens, battery pack, and AV cable to create an accessory lens that plugged into your existing video camera. Sold for $250 we quickly built a $400K business doing one thing: Turning your camcorder into an action camera.
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.
Build On Your Foundation
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.
Nest is a great example. Even though they raised significant amount of capital they were diligent about introducing version one, iterating quickly on the software, and introducing version two within 12 months. They could have added a lot of new features, but they didn’t. Instead version two did exactly what version one did, just better.
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 headphones.
- 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 tablet.
Don’t be afraid to break up the system and ship one piece at a time. Despite being a hardware startup, the guys at SoundFocus launched their software first as a stand-alone mobile app. And now with thousands of customer downloads they are ready to take the next step, introducing hardware that makes their software better.
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