(The ideation phase is the honeymoon phase of a startup – when anything is possible. That is until you are forced to confront the brutal realities of your current situation which is riddled with constraints. Most of us complain about constraints, but constraints are a gift.
There are numerous examples of constraints driving innovation: Southwest Airlines was constrained in the early days by their fleet size. Rather than trying to grow their fleet, they turned that constraint into a competitive advantage by maximizing their gate turnaround time ironically by adding even more constraints such as using a single type of airplane. A plane on the ground is waste.
Emiliano Villarreal is the founder of Aesop’s Garden and is building a product around personalized storytelling for families. In this case study, Emiliano tells a story of how he confronted his constraints without compromising on his vision.
Constraints not only drive innovation but force action. -Ash)
The spark of inspiration for Aesop’s Garden came from a problem I personally experienced. My niece Caty and I have lived in different cities (different countries) since she was born. Given the little time we’ve shared together and her young age, she should see me more as a stranger. But thanks to the effort her parents and family put into showing her pictures of me and explaining the context of our relationship, she knows who I am, smiles and hugs me when she sees me.
Aesop’s Garden lets parents take the family and friends that are important in their life and put them into the stories their children read.
Even though I wasn’t sure how I was going to do this yet, I felt there was something special. Something that excited me, had real emotional value, and the potential to make people happy. That got the ball rolling.
Getting to a product that actually does this has been an insightful journey full of waste, roadblocks, and ingenuity.
This is a hindsight tale of how those initial fun ideas evolved to a Minimum Viable Product (MVP) which strives to create more hugs between family, friends, and those special seedlings.
There were four critical periods that had a transformational effect on my MVP.
Chapter 1: Chasing Solutions in my Head
I began by brainstorming multiple solutions: simple smartphone games, illustrated stories for iPads, picture sharing software, and educational games. These possible products were all dictated by my own interests and requirements, not by my target customers.
For instance, I was against any solution that required a physical product. I didn’t want to hold inventory or have to deal with shipping. I failed to consider that many parents strongly prefer physical books and don’t allow their children to play with digital gadgets until they are much older. I am not a parent myself. More importantly, I am NOT the customer.
I didn’t yet understand the concerns or demands parents experience. The majority of ideas I had during this period were not used in the final MVP. An overabundance of ideas also meant I wasn’t making measurable progress.
Chapter 2: Finding Focus
The Lean Canvas tool helped me flesh out each of these ideas separately.
First, it helped whittle down many of my ideas by forcing me to consider all the business components of around the idea (channels, operating expenses, unfair advantage). When I was able to visualize the full scope: some solutions were flaky, some were beyond my resources, and some weren’t feasible for the initial stage of Aesop’s Garden.
Second, working on my unique value proposition made me consider what mattered most – not just to the customer but to me also. Aesop’s Garden was my dream. While I was trying to make parents and little kids happy, it still ultimately needed to make me happy. I believe without passion it’s hard to create something special.
The Lean Canvas gave me focus and help put down what was important to me and what I believed to be true.
Chapter 3: Interviewing Customers
My first two problem interviews weren’t very smooth. I was vague on articulating the problem I was trying to solve, and communicating with parents was tricky as I didn’t yet understand their world.
I was asking open-ended questions, having small-talk, testing multiple hypotheses, and barely winging it. I ended up with way too much information to sift through when reviewing my notes.
I read the Problem Interview chapter again in Ash Maurya’s book: Running Lean, created my script, and got him to sit in on the next interview. Needless to say this interview went much better. It wasn’t perfect and Ash interjected with a few questions when I missed an opportunity to explore a possible solution. My two must-have problems became clear and a solution I had dismissed on my own earlier re-emerged – printed stories.
Problem #1 - Building relationships between family members who live in different cities is difficult to do.
Problem #2 - Parents are super busy which means they don’t have a lot of free time to create things that solve problem #1 .
Armed with clarity from problem #1, it was easy to eliminate the educational aspects to my solutions. Did adding pictures of family members to educational games make them better? Probably So. But did educational games serve as the best vehicle for building relationships. Definitely Not.
When you hit the problem(s) on the head like this, a rainbow explodes inside of you because with every subsequent interview you know what people are going to say. Within the first five minutes of the interview, your problem hypotheses are validated and from there you’re testing out possible solutions.
Talking to possible customers was invigorating, legitimized my ideas, and made me more accountable. I also received many great blog ideas and plots for stories. I started to understand the customer’s pain points.
Chapter 4: Creating a Demo
I began working on a demo story that demonstrated my unique value proposition. But little was accomplished, as I quickly ran into a boatload of obstacles:
- I didn’t have the graphic design capabilities to produce the required vector art myself
- I couldn’t easily find people who could perform this for me, and even if I could find them, I didn’t have the budget to hire them
- There were technical challenges to integrate people’s faces into a story. If a parent uploaded a picture that was at the wrong facial angle, or if the photo was low-quality, then the resulting story wouldn’t be appealing to view.
- I wasn’t sure which plot to use for the stories, since I received a wide range of responses (an adventure in the park, learning to share, family history, etc.)
- I wasn’t able to find a printing company willing to do individual print-on-demand books at a commercially viable price point.
- I needed to make my books out of special “boards” because young children are quite destructive, and finding a publisher for this type of book was challenging.
I had to stop and reassess my situation. I began by diagramming the components of my possible MVPs, the challenges in creating them, and a forecast of my net income with each one. Then met with my mentor, and other entrepreneurs, and a clear path was found.
What emerged was reducing down my MVP on many levels. Instead of doing an illustrated book that was personalized with pictures and available in hard copy, my new MVP did not involve any photos. Instead, it was about coloring stories slightly personalized with text that parents could print themselves. Coloring books are easier to design as they are line drawings and easier to output since parents can print them at home. Doing just text for the personalization removed risk, and still allow me to test one of my riskier hypothesis that personalized stories would increase the child’s engagement with the story.
I was concerned that this level of personalization might not be enough so I presented my problem/solution to a few people. One of them was the founder the Tech Ranch incubator, Kevin Koym. He made a commitment on the spot and then so did two other people! That next day I found an illustrator and the money from the commitments covered seventy-five percent of the cost of getting the demo produced. Six days later I had a real physical personalized coloring story created and ready for feedback.
The first customer I showed it to loved it so much that she cried!
Here’s a peak of the MVP.
Update: Emiliano presented this case-study at the April Austin Lean Startup Meetup.
Here are the slides: