Ask Alexis and the SMS MVP by Josh Seiden
Josh Seiden is co-founder and principal at consulting firm Neo. In this ProductTank NYC talk, he shares his work on a project called Ask Alexis.
Josh refers to a quote by Eric Ries: “The unit of progress for lean startups is validated learning.” The minimum viable product (MVP) is the smallest thing you can do or make to create validated learning, says Josh. When thinking about that MVP, he asks two questions:
- What are we trying to learn?
- What’s the fastest way to learn it?
Follow the Conversation
Following the conversation is valuable. Josh shows a clip from a skit from The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon that emphasizes the cultural significance of the hashtag in social media. Josh points out that the first hashtag wasn’t something that Twitter planned to use. A Twitter user used it in 2007 as a way to track conversations when he tweeted at some of his friends. It caught on among other users, and in 2009 Twitter added official support to the hashtag. Twitter saw its users doing this value-creating behavior, and so built it into its product. Many other features, such as @replies and retweeting, emerged in a similar way.
It could be argued that entire companies have formed from following conversations on Twitter. FourSquare, for example, saw that people were checking into venues on Twitter, and developed a business model around that.
Josh’s company was working for a large company on a project which targeted women, primarily single women and heads of families with small children. A product manager noticed a way to pivot the project towards a male audience. The client, however, wasn’t interested. So, during a startup sprint once the client engagement had ended, Neo explored the idea.
This new project was a new type of lifestyle advice service for men. So, the team asked themselves if men would be interested in lifestyle advice, and what types of questions they would ask? And how quickly could they get an advice service like this up and running?
They decided to develop an SMS-based service to get something up and running quickly. They would recruit about a dozen pilot users, start having conversations, and see what happened. They came up with an MVP that consisted of only the essentials. The home page had one possible action (enter your phone number), a generic, open-ended call to action”Up Your Game” (allowing users to interpret it in their own ways), and a small hint of content (with the ability to change the type of content depending on responses). They also built a minimum viable admin panel to manage the application on the back end efficiently.
Within 24 hours, they had over 1,000 users, answering the first question.
What did They ask?
The next step was to follow the conversation. They began getting questions about shopping for significant others and realized that men needed lots of advice. They also realized that there was a lot of power in their choice of tone of voice. People responded very positively when it was a more branded experience. However, making it a more branded experience invited the possibility of the conversation drifting off into nonsensical areas. They eventually decided to model the voice after Mila Kunis, because it was relatable enough for users to feel comfortable but still strong enough to control the conversations.
Can We Scale the Voice?
They conducted SMS-based interviews with the temps they hired to staff the service in order to get an idea of what they were like over text. They also had them play out role-playing scenarios in their Mila Kunis-inspired voice.
As they followed the conversations with both temps and users, they were able to find places that they could implement new admin features like auto-fill responses for common questions.
Pivot, Persevere, or Kill?
Every Friday, Josh’s team has a decision meeting. At this meeting, they decide what they’re going to do with their product. They decide if they’re going to change what they’re doing (pivot), if they want to keep doing what they’re doing (persevere), or if they want to stop doing what they’re doing (kill). They ask these questions on a large scale regarding the product as a whole, as well as on a smaller scale regarding specific features and design elements.
They track their progress with a risks dashboard, where they lay out every possible risk in their service regarding things like profits and business models. They also use the dashboard to note whether the risk is yet to be tested, being tested, or validated.
At the end of eight weeks they decided to kill the Ask Alexis service. Neo is a consulting firm, not a product firm, says Josh, and there wasn’t a strong enough signal for Neo to continue to put resources behind the service. A different type of company, like an incubator, may well have continued with it, he says.
To conclude, SMS MVPs deliver rapid learning, rich conversations with users, but scaling them is tough.