Agile: Ag-ile [aj-uhl, -ahyl]-Adjective
1. quick and well-coordinated in movement; lithe: an agile leap.
In the 1990s software development industry leaders developed the Agile Software Development methodology to get their products to market quickly and to rapidly respond to the everything-is-new-every-day world of the Internet. Now you can apply these versatile techniques to your startup, eliminating the need to complete a full traditional business plan before starting your business.
As a business coach, project manager and startup business owner, I speak frequently about planning techniques. At one of my recent live events I spoke with Mark, a startup owner who was, in his own words, “stuck.” Mark had reached an impasse and didn’t know where to turn next. He had a product directed at older adults who are looking to keep their minds alert, and he was seeking a distribution channel. Marketing his product to large businesses with national distribution of his product type just wasn’t working.
Mark had been using the traditional plan-the-work-work-the-plan-and-launch-it-like-the-big-bang approach to starting his business. He needed something different to take his business to the next phase.
There are various planning techniques, and they are applicable respectively on different types of projects. The appropriateness of an Agile approach to business planning depends on the requirements and methods involved, as explained below.
Traditional Business Planning
Traditional planning techniques make sense when the requirements, and the methods are well known. A good example of this is a franchise. With a franchise someone else has already established what you must do (the Requirements) and how you will do it (the Methods). That is not to say you have no freedom in a franchise, but you are not dealing with a world of extreme complexity where there are no rules.
Agile Business Planning
On the other hand if you are developing a product or service that no one has made before, if you are creating a new way of doing business, or if you are carving out a new market where there is no blueprint, then an Agile approach is what you need. Agile is a different way of thinking about how to execute on your ideas.
Fundamentally, Agile Business Creation does not make allowances for change. Agile assumes change is the norm and builds a process for development around it.
The Three Tenants of Agile Business Creation
There are three basic tenants of Agile Business Creation that are critical to startups, and that were critical to Mark’s future business planning:
- Collaborating with Customers
- Building Working Products
- Adapting to Change
What Mark desperately needed was a strong dose of customer collaboration. This does not mean customer feedback at the end of his work. Collaboration is a much faster/earlier feedback loop.
The software industry couldn’t afford to have its products released and then find they had missed one or more customer requirements. They instead needed a homerun every time. They found that by putting the customers right on the development team they were able to make sure they were meeting their customers’ needs every time. This is what you need to do if you want to hit the market and knock it out of the park.
Ideally you will have customers on your team from the very beginning as you design your product/service/offering. To do this, you need to bring customers on your team and ask them, “Would you use this?” and “How should it look, feel, be?” This may feel weird the first time. However, the insights are worth the investment.
Do you have customers on your team? Who are they?
What do they need? Think you know? If you haven’t actually asked, then you may have no idea or you may be going in the wrong direction.
One of the key benefits of this approach to a fast-moving startup is the complete elimination of prototyping. There is no need to prototype your product and do end-user testing. You have built it with them on the team all along! When your product goes to market, it is ready and you can be confident that your target market’s needs are met. You will not spend months prototyping and then redesigning your product in isolation, now that you finally have customer feedback all the way along. Imagine the time savings! We are talking months of profit you can have because your product is first to market (and not lingering in development!).
Mark’s Application of Agile Business Creation
How does this relate to Mark? As Mark and I discussed the ideas of customer collaboration, Mark reflected that, he had been focusing on the distribution channel as his primary customer. After a few minutes we discovered that he should be focusing on contacting AARP and its members to establish direct relationships with his primary customers.
I suggested that he meet with or call someone with the AARP national, not to pitch the product but to offer partnership in development of his product. This is the voice-of-the-customer and nothing can replace it. If upon reflection his product doesn’t meet the customer needs then it is time to refine the product. With these refinements in place Mark can go to AARP and let them know how the product meets their members’ requirements, ask for an endorsement and go to the distributors saying, “I spoke with AARP, and their members need abc. My product delivers that by doing xyz.” With an endorsement from AARP in his pocket Mark will have his choice of distributors and closing a deal will not be the problem.
As a startup you face the challenge of a constantly changing landscape of customers and the market at large. Software developers for the past decade have found that, in the face of such constant change, Agile Business Development is a dependable way to have ultra-satisfied customers. Don’t just get input, collaborate with your customers. Agile Business Development helps you by putting your customers on your team, empowering them to provide input to every step of your development process. With this early involvement, your probability of customer acceptance (and delight) increases greatly. And, because you will be iteratively developing fully working products and not just prototypes, you will deliver more quickly, enhancing your competitiveness in the ever-changing market.