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The Challenges of Minimum Viable Products

John Grams about tea product development

From Idea to Product

Transforming an idea into a real product is one of the rewarding parts of starting a business. And it is also one of the most risky and expensive. One can spend thousands if not millions of dollars designing the “perfect” product and then find no one wishes to buy it.

But this is changing. Designers have started to abandon the traditional method of spending years and millions of dollars trying to design the perfect product through focus groups and market research. Recently, a different product development methodology has taken hold: Minimum Viable Products.

Minimum Viable Products in Concept

The Minimum Viable Product Development Process

Minimum Viable Products allow one to test product ideas quickly and cheaply with real customers. The Minimum Viable Product method advocates determining the minimum amount of product development required for a customer to purchase a product, and then sell it.

One typically determines this level minimal “product fidelity” by sharing basic prototypes— like paper sketches, cardboard mock ups, Legos – with customers and getting their opinion on what features the product requires for one to buy it. They then bring that set of minimal features to market as quickly as possible.

As sales start, designers incorporate feedback from actual customers in crafting the fully-fledged product. This allows designers to invest resources in features that matter instead of features that don’t make customers happy.

Minimum Viable Products in Practice at Mana Organics

Mana utilizes minimum viable product methods in the design of our tea products. But tea presents a very different problem than a “new” product. Everyone knows about tea. What makes Mana tea different is that our product tastes better while being better for the environment and growers than any tea in the cupboard.

This speaks to a core issue with Minimum Viable Product methods: what to do when your innovation is not a new product but a better way to create an existing product for the customer? When the real value proposition for the customer lies in quality, the opposite of low fidelity, how do you manage the brand while experimenting?

When we think about a fully-fledged Mana Organics product, we think of a certain look and feel of packaging (like this), and a supply chain that links our customers directly to producers.

Both of these require a lot of investment. To expand our supply chain requires us working with our organic farmers to grow the required ingredients, which often differ from what the crops they traditionally grow.

And packaging is hell. The constant revision of the graphics, outsourcing the printing, proof reading every detail, and getting the packaging to the factory costs twice as much as you estimate when you start.

To test the market potential of our product ideas, we have test products that sell straight on Amazon. This allows us to get our products into the hands of customers almost immediately—shortening our feedback delay, and identifying what needs to change with the product quickly. We’ve kept the packaging design very basic to get to market faster and avoid over designing the customer experience before understanding what customers expect from a tea.

Currently, we have 3 new teas— Golden Tips, SuperTwist, and Hojicha— that we are testing, with positive results.

Challenges of Using Minimum Viable Products

A main challenge we have found in using the Minimum Viable Product methodology is marketing. While we consider these products as market tests, we still must get customers to try them. And that requires considerable amounts of time and cash in online advertising and free samples.

Another is managing the transition from our test line to the Mana Organics line. We know that some of our test teas click with customers. Do we keep these test products alive while we design packaging and scale up production? Do we pause the test products in the interim, even though they are selling, and bringing in sales? Will we lose customers?

We have only begun to grapple with these questions. In a few months, we should have some answers, stay tuned.


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