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Prototyping for Success, Power, and Unlimited Riches – Think With Google


Twitter was a mere prototype in 2006; now, many of us have become adept at saying all we have to say in 140 characters.
~ David Horsey

Lean Startups and Agriculture

Lean startup is a term coined after being proposed in 2008 by Eric Ries in  his book, The Lean Startup.  Ries based his ideas on his experiences working in startups, asserting that startups can shorten their product development cycles by adopting a combination of experimentation, iterative product releases, and what he calls validated learning. Ries’ overall claim is that if startups invest their time into iteratively building products or services to meet the needs of early customers, they can reduce the market risks and sidestep the need for large amounts of initial project funding and expensive product launches and failures.

Important lean startup principles include the following.

  • Eliminate uncertainty
  • Work smarter, not harder
  • Validate learning
  • Develop a minimum viable product

Does this methodology play a role in agricultural startups?  While software can be an important part of ag startups, often we are dealing with equipment, living organisms, mother nature, and other complexities not faced by a pure infotech startup.  In my view, the principles become even more important because of these complexities.

My adaptation of minimum viable product is what I term dirty prototypes.  What is the most crude prototype you can develop that will enable you test your assertions of value, customer interest, and technical plausibility?

Development of prototypes is a powerful means for an entrepreneur to try to avoid pitfalls typical in development of a startup business.  However, development of a prototype in isolation from prospective customers can also be an empty exercise.  Entrepreneurs need to develop prototypes, but also need to test and evolve them while working with prospective customers.

I experienced this, more by accident than design, at my first startup, E-Markets, in 1997.  I had developed a very crude prototype for a browser-based application.  Ultimately, our first customer pointed at the prototype on projector screen and said they wanted to buy it.  But they really didn’t want to buy the prototype.  Rather they wanted to buy a much more developed version of the prototype that was highly customized to their needs.  During about a 4 month process, we worked daily with the customer and their network of business partners to develop a solution.  In the end we had simultaneously developed a much better application, but had also achieved the buy-in of employees of the customer organization and a network of others involved in their business.

Prototype development, in the ideal, isn’t a linear process.  Instead it’s an iterative process of evolving the prototype or prototype idea based on rich interactions with prospective customers.  This interaction leads not just to a better prototype, but to the winning business model that contains the new product and/or service.

Developing a prototype while engaging potential customers helps discover and validate the important details of their problems and needs.  Most importantly, the engagement process converts those potential customers into real, paying customers.  As you develop those paying customers you’ve developed and built a company and business.

It’s an example from history, but David McCullough’s book, The Wright Brothers tells a powerful story of using prototypes to move to success.  The Wright Brothers gained very little through existing theories or basic research.  Rather, they developed the first powered airplane through years of trial and error.  Their pathway was through flying kites, carefully watching different kinds of birds in flight, building models, building a wind tunnel, and finally traveling for three straight years from their home in Dayton, Ohio to Kitty Hawk, North Carolina to try their planes.  Theirs is another example of theories following invention, not the other way around.  The Wright Brothers used some of the mathematical aerodynamic theories that had been developed with their second prototype, but they were wrong and a tremendous frustration to their efforts.  Articulate theories on why an airplane works the way it does emerged after the invention.

Wright Brothers First Flight, December 17, 1903. Orville piloting. Wilbur at the wing.
    Wright Brothers First Flight, December 17, 1903. Orville piloting. Wilbur at the wing.

Skipping forward from the Wright Brothers’ first flight in 1903 to 1997, my prototype work was with an Internet-based electronic commerce application.  It melded business processes in the agribusiness space with software that enabled new types of more efficient and effective behaviors.  Much to my pleasure, I have had Iowa State University students apply similar methods to their products.

Colin Hurd at Agriculture Concepts developed the roughest of prototypes while a junior at ISU for what became his Track Till product in 2012.  In 2013, prototype number 2 was a much more sophisticated product that has much resemblance to today’s commercial version and got Colin his first sale.  In 2014, he sold a more refined product, not anymore a prototype.  In 2015, he licensed Track Till to Yetter Manufacturing.

Ryan Augustine was senior at ISU in 2012 when he developed the business concept for AccuGrain.  The business anticipated using an ISU-patented technology for using X-Rays to measure grain flow.  By 2013/14, Ryan had secured the funds and expertise to develop prototype number 1 for AccuGrain. In 2015 he developed prototype number 2, tested it, and now is making his first sales.

Clayton Mooney, Elise Kendall, Ella Gehrke, and Mikayla Sullivan developed the concept of a mobile food dehydration unit and formed KinoSol in 2014.  They competed in the Thought for Food Challenge, making the finals in 2014, and continued to evolve their product through testing and prototyping.  After seven prototypes, KinoSol is today at commercial launch.

Prototyping while developing customers is one way that entrepreneurs fail successfully.  The only thing you know when developing new product and service concepts, is that they will be wrong.  The technology won’t work as envisioned, it won’t have a clear value, it won’t meet the needs of a type of customer, etc.  Product successes arise from the learning that happens while interacting with prospective customers who are experiencing use of the new product.  Sales is an essential function of the prototyping process, whether in agriculture or any other industry.

How may prototyping apply to your business?  How can you use a dirty prototype to develop a customer relationship?