Today's conversation on Spark TV dives into methods for emerging companies to gain momentum in unpredictable environments.
Morgan Pelissier, CEO & Co founder of Sparkmate sits down with entrepreneur and iytro co-founder Philippe Vella to share the lessons learned launching multiple startups. As co-founder of iytro, Phil has pioneered approaches to prototyping solutions with focus and speed.
They discuss concepts of minimalism and viability - doing less to prove more. How can founders gain clarity amid ambiguity, navigating between vision and feedback?
MORGAN PELISSIER (MP): Hi everyone. Welcome to Spark TV. Today we are with Phil. Phil is the co-founder of iytro. iytro is a company that provides marketing services, they help startups with CMO services, so ‘on-demand CMO’. Their thing is Minimal Viable Marketing (MVM). Today we're going to speak about Minimum Viable Product and how to reduce the scope of your product. With Phil, we’ll try to make a good parallel between Minimum Viable Marketing and Minimum Viable Product. Hey, Phil. How are you?
PHILIPPE VELLA (PV): I'm good Morgan. How are you doing?
MP: I'm doing great. So today we will speak about Minimum Viable Product. I think you have some questions about this. Let's get started?
PV: Morgan, the first thing I wanted to ask you - I've been wondering this for a while - why did you start Sparkmate? What was the thing that you saw happening that prompted you to begin a business like this?
MP: We decided to start Sparkmate to help entrepreneurs go from zero to one and to help them in their prototyping phases. We feel that most of the time, entrepreneurs and people that want to develop the product get a bit lost in that phase of starting your company. Most of the time people want to build products that are super complex. And we see that there is a need for a simple engineering services company that helps you to kick start your journey, helping you to make a bit of clear design, the first version of your prototype, and iterate on that. So that's why we started Sparkmate and we started Sparkmate to change the way people develop products.
PV: Is there a particular type of entrepreneur that you normally work with or business even
that you normally work with? Because it seems to me like there's a lot of entrepreneurs who are engineers so they can kind of build something themselves. So what's the value of outsourcing it? Why would they do that?
MP: Most of the time we work with entrepreneurs that are not technical founders at the beginning, but sometimes we also work with people that are tech founders and they just use Sparkmate to go faster in their product development. We're really helping them to kick
start their journey into entrepreneurship by building their product very quickly. So we have this five week milestone where we develop a first version of a product and then iterate on that. That's a way of really shrinking the scope of a product to just focus on what matters and we generally help them for that.
PV: Cool. Because we obviously help people with growth, once they have a product. Do people always come to you with a fully formed idea or do you help them decide what they should build basically or can they just come with a rough idea?
MP: Most of the time the prototyping helps them to refine their ideas. From what I saw, when you externalize, you give your take to be built by someone else. You need to be very strong
on distribution, growth, marketing and everything. Because both things work together. You always have to involve the marketing team and things like that during the product development and the people that will handle more the tech than the marketing. And it's really something that you need to make both grow at the same time. Even if you're not a tech funder at the beginning, interest yourself in tech. And if you're a tech funder, interest yourself in the non tech part.
PV: That kind of works well with my attitude because I always think that people build stuff and don't think of how they're going to sell it. And I've always thought of you as a really good natural marketer. Does that mean you help them decide if there's a market fit or there's a need or what's your involvement in understanding what the product can potentially do in the marketplace?
MP: Obviously - when you develop the product - for me, the definition of product is tech plus business and that's what makes a good product. And so when you develop the product, even if we are tech at the beginning, we need to interest ourselves in the market and what the market wants in order to build the product that people want to use. When you are a tech, it's too easy to develop something that will stay on the shelf for ages and nobody is going to use it. And it's very important to interest yourself with the end user, interest yourself in the market. See the trends. I think (this is) something that makes the difference in the long term, you should see that every time with your clients.
PV: You don't just do hardware, right? You also do software solutions, you build software for people? So if I wanted something - if I wanted a growth marketing tool that I need to build - I could come to you?
MP: Yeah, you can. We do hardware and software. It's the same way when you develop the product, if it's hardware or software, I think for me, the way you develop it matters more than the techniques you have, like the skills, the art skill and your way of developing. So really focus on what's the most important feature, the feature which people will be ready to pay for. It's very important.
PV: Okay. This kind of fits well with some of the things that we see, because if I start working with a company, I see that they've tried to do a lot of stuff. They've tried to sell to everybody, they've tried to run different marketing campaigns that hit way too much of a broad market. Do you have people come to you with a product that they want everything in it and you have to help them work out what's the most important piece?
MP: Every time, you know, people, they want a product that is able to do the best things like that… and they want it for the next week! And that's something we work a lot on, educating a client. And that's the same way with your Minimum Viable Marketing. We try to focus on what really matters and what is super important, what people will be ready to pay for,that’s what makes a difference. And that's generated by where you start. This is something important because we try to give that to our clients. But in the end, the entrepreneur is the person that has the vision. They’re the person that has all the information. So we need to help them make the choice, but we cannot make the choice on what we're going to develop for them. So we need to help them to refine their ideas. Because if you are the entrepreneur and you take the decision, you take the decision not because you're the smartest person in the room. You take the decision because you have all the information and you have a broader view of the market, of the user and of everything. And generally you tend to want to have the perfect product, at least what you think is perfect. And so we help them to refine their idea in order to just focus on what can be started in like five weeks, what can be done in just a few weeks time. And we start with that, and then we iterate, and we add complexity to the product. We add more and more things and more bricks. But at the end, we need to start with something, and that's something very important to do. And most of the time, for me, people fail their product development because they fail at the beginning. They want to go for something big. They don't put it on the market. They try to develop something for like six months, ten months. They spend time building the best product before putting that on the market and getting feedback and not speaking with their users. And that's the biggest mistake an entrepreneur can make.
PV: It's interesting that you have timelines, because we operate in a similar way where we have a three month model (for the MVM), and it's broken down into months, so similar to your five weeks. But the biggest challenge is always, like, to get someone to recognize that they need to do less. And especially when you're dealing with entrepreneurs, like, you probably know, if you're an entrepreneur, you have to be pretty strong willed and you have to be fairly confident. So getting people like that to change their mind is one of the biggest challenges. How do you deal with that? How do you get them to understand that they need to do less?
MP: In a way, the first thing we say (sometimes) less is more. This is the most important thing to say. And then after we explain to them what it really takes to build all the features. And generally we always make the parallel with the budget. When we design a product we do design to cost. We try to have a target cost and target budget and we design for it. So most of the time we're like okay, it's just by explaining and speaking with them and their minds are changing at this moment and people realize that it's way better to have something that is a bit smaller but you can put on the market, you can get feedback. People don't want now to spend like months and months and months on development: they want the perfect product. Yes, we can do it, we can build what's in your mind but (what is) the probability that what's in your mind is what the market wants? Even if you're an entrepreneur and you have all these views and all this data about the market, it's very small. We try to distill that mindset of being very pragmatic and only trusting the market. And if people want it, it's too easy to develop the best product by drawings and market research and things like that. What's the picture: is the user going to use your product?
PV: Is user feedback part of your five week process or is it later or where does it come in?
MP: Feedback is really part of these things. So generally we do pre-delivery at three weeks. So we pre deliver the product to get the first set of feedback and then we implement some changes and things like that to have a version that is a bit more workable at the five weeks and then after we have super pragmatic people. So when we need to do some testing, for example in hardware things like… for example we designed the connected lock for our clients and part of the testing was just taking big machines and trying to knock it down, take a flame tower thrower and burn it. It's very… because the user testing was “can we steal these things?” so we tried everything to steal it, we tried it by ourselves. But we only trust reality when entrepreneurs develop the product they should only trust reality. And what's in the real world when your product is in the hand of the user and using it in their life? Most of the time people develop a product and when they give it to the user, they explain to the user how to use it. This is a super bad way of doing users or testing. You just need to give the product to potential users and make them use it and you need to see what they’re doing. But we do not have any very clear way of doing user testing. We just try to test as much as possible but we don't have a clear method because the diversity of the product that we are doing is too wide. So we cannot have the perfect method. There is each method for each product but there are some principles to keep and I think for me, the main principle when it comes to testing is like do not test it yourself. Test it in real conditions.
PV: When you say don't test it yourself, are you talking about the person who came to you and wanted to build it or you guys (Sparkmate)? Because you guys are obviously building it. And then you test it yourself?
MP: When I say don't test it yourself because I speak generally about product development and not just about Sparkmate, but when you're developing a product, don't test it yourself. But you should not make your decision based on your testing, but give it to somebody else. Yes, somebody else. Because this is when this person is testing, you know, your product. So obviously you will not like shrinking down or like anything else. You will use it the good way because you've developed it.
PV: Yeah. You'll make sure it works.
MP: Yeah, (you’ll) make sure it works.
PV: What do you see as the main issue that businesses face? Any kind of business, startup, corporation, whatever, with trying to build something new, what's the problem? They always have (problems) when trying to build something new. Whether it's a new feature or a new product line or even just starting a new business. What's the biggest problem they have?
MP: I think for me there are multiple types. But I see two main types: entrepreneurs that are too sure of their vision and don't listen to anyone. They're just too sure and they're like, okay, I don't have any clients. That's not a problem. We continue. We continue. We continue. They push really hard, but no one wants to use their product, no one wants to pay for it. And it's kind of a zombie entrepreneur, if I can say that. The second one is the person that
changes their mind on any feedback. Someone tells them that you should have new features on the product and it will change completely. Their mind will rush into that new feature instead of focusing. So when you're an entrepreneur, I think the art of product development is like finding the right balance between your vision and the feedback you get. And it's something that is very intangible. There is no method for that. But you need to find a good balance between your vision and what you want to build and what the market asks.
PV: That was what I was getting at. When you have an entrepreneur and they have a big idea and they want everything you need to get them to reduce. That's what I was trying to get you to talk about then. So as I've said before, you mentioned a bit that we have a thing called Minimum Viable Marketing. And we have a process that we follow and a methodology which is basically it's time based and we do like an audit of all current marketing activities. We then try to work out what they should be doing and what they should not be doing. And then the final phase over the course of three months is we do some activity. So we do some work in the market based on the strategy that we created. So that's like the three steps we go through and it's a bit longer than your five weeks. We obviously created it because we stole the term Minimum Viable Product and we applied it to marketing. And it kind of makes sense for us. And people really kind of get it straight away, but maybe there's a lot of people that don't really know. What is the process of going from an idea to an MVP from an engineering or product point of view? What happens? How do you get to an MVP from this big idea that someone has?
MP: When it comes to product, we have two things that we try to do at the very beginning. First, we look for the biggest technical constraints, the biggest roadblocks. We are trying to solve them. Let's say you want to develop a super complex product and you have something that is super innovative. Before digging into product development, we try to lift these technical constraints. Okay, so that's the first one we're looking for. And then after we are trying - but it's very much with intuition - we are trying to look for the feature that can add the most value to the user, the feature that they would be ready to pay for. And that's how we prioritize the roadmap and how we develop the product. We have this very intuitive way of developing products, speaking a lot with the entrepreneur because as I said before, they’ve got the vision and I think it's a bit the same for you with the marketing. They’ve got the vision and we need to translate this vision into a product. So we speak a lot with them. At the end of the day, they are the person that will sell the product. They are the person that will handle the distribution and we handle the development of the product. But we need to develop a product that is sellable and distributable.
PV: You talk about intuition or you have an intuitive way of doing something, you said before that they need to base it on facts and they need to base it on reality and stuff like that. So it's kind of data driven and we're the same. People often think of marketing as being like this creative pursuit. You just have to have great ideas and maybe you'll find the best growth hack and all this kind of stuff. The truth is, it's a lot of hard work. It's a grind. And the more information you can feed into what you develop and what you put into the market, the better. But at the same time, and you just hinted at it, there's nothing that competes with experience. And even though you might be young because you're building a lot and constantly building new stuff. Your experience is probably exponentially better than even big engineering firms or big companies and stuff. So it's intuitive because you know what you're doing, but it's also data driven because you only base it on the inputs that you get. How do you put the two together?
MP: Intuition when you develop the product, at the very beginning, you only have the intuition. You have no data, you have nothing, you have no user. When you start to develop a project, generally you come with an idea or with a problem to solve and we need to find a clever way to solve that problem. So it's a lot about intuition and I think for me, the further you go into product development, you should be more and more data driven and less intuitive. But at the beginning, it's all about intuition. Obviously you need to feed yourself with some data and things like that. But at the beginning, I think intuition is the most important one. And the more you go into product development, the less you should use intuition and use more data. For example, in the very early days of your product, you will never have thousands of users. In the early days, you only have a few users that give you only some feedback by phone call and things like that. It's not very clean data. It's just like feedback, raw feedback. And your job as an entrepreneur is to understand those feedbacks and understand what they mean by speaking with your engineering team. Bringing that into reality.
PV: Is it much harder doing it remotely now?
MP: For us it's not a big problem because when we designed the company at the beginning, we designed the company for becoming a major actor on the global scale of engineering. We designed the company with a lot of principles such as asynchronous communication and full English. So for us, the switch to full remote was not a big deal…