News & Views

Three Lessons From Making Products, By Andy Bell

by Contagious Team

Digital agency Mint has 11 self-funded product launches under their belt, developed over the past eight years. Some have become very successful, others much less so. Founder and CCO Andy Bell shares the lessons that the company has learned and how the business has adapted as a result.

Whenever Mint has a gap in our client work, we build and launch self-funded products. That's not uncommon amongst digital agencies. What is perhaps uncommon is our persistence. In eight years, we've launched eleven would-be businesses*. Many were succailures, to use a word coined by Mills at USTWO, another London agency with a track record in this area. Succailures are great for learning, valuable in terms of PR, energizing for the agency... but failures as businesses.

Then, over the last two years, something wonderful happened. We hit upon an unmitigated success. StickyGram, our Instagram magnet printing service, sold over a million magnets to 90 countries and then was bought  by PhotoBox in June (for an undisclosed sum that I wish I could tell you). 

What have we learnt? How did Mint go from succailure to success? 

Lesson #1: Humans love physical

We are cavemen. We love shiny stones. Google search is incredible but it will never generate as much love as an iPhone.

Since StickyGram, Mint has launched two more customisable, physical projects.Foldable.Me, which lets you create a 3D cardboard avatar, raised 10 times its target onKickstarterProjecteo, a mini Instagram projector, raised $87,000 there. Neither has yet achieved the success of StickyGram... but both have legs. 

StickyGram bursts beyond your screen: just noodle about online and a few days later something pops through your letterbox. Chatting to friends, making music, watching films: these vastly different activities all get flattened online. For all the brilliant things the web gives us, the screen lacks texture. 

And here is a related problem. As every media business migrates online, as every advertiser migrates online, as self-publishing gets ever easier, competition for attention is increasing. It's ever harder to generate interest in online-only projects. Mint's experience: In the last two years, we launched two pure digital projects that I'd say were more innovative and strategically smarter than our customizable products. Both won awards. But neither generated the traffic, or the love, or the retweets.

We see this as an opportunity for our agency. Customisable, physical products have great potential in brand communication. There have been interesting projects like Burberry Bespoke and Heinz Get Well Soup but brands are only just scratching the surface. 

Lesson #2: Products are hard. But distribution is key.

Along with everyone in the startup world (and their mouse), we've come to see that product development is rarely the biggest risk. Failing to get distribution - failing to find a repeatable way to get customers - is more often the killer.

Having made this mistake 11 times, we're beginning to learn our lesson. We now explore demand before building the product.

With StickyGram, our first step was to spend half-a-day creating a holding page. It got 1,400 signups in the first week. That led to further incremental investment, with the focus always on the customer rather than the product. 

It's a reason to love Kickstarter. Kickstarter forces you to work out your story before perfecting your product. Without that discipline, it is easy to lapse back into the comfort of designing first. 

More generally, looking back on our earlier products, it's amazing how little thought we gave to how they would get distributed. We thought the web meant people would find our brilliant innovations.

I'm not sure I can stress the importance of distribution enough. Peter Thiel delivered abrilliant lecture on why good product teams are so often blind to it. In a nutshell: we all like to believe our desires are not shaped by advertising. This has a double effect: we underestimate the effect of advertising and astute advertisers disguise their activity to play to our self-conceit. 

Lesson #3: Be lucky. Be able to play the odds  

StickyGram caught a perfect wave, starting just after Instagram opened its API. Instagram grew from 6 million to over 100 million users. There were few other marketeers competing for attention. What joy!

We won't catch exactly that wave again. But Moore's Law - the ongoing exponential increase in computing power - means that opportunities are continually emerging, often from surprising places.

Our agency business gives the product businesses scope to wipe out several more times until we have the next success.

What next for Mint? 

Fail (even) more 

Since selling StickyGram, we've rejigged Mint. Rather than squeezing self-funded projects in round the edges, we are devoting 50% of our time to them. 

Currently we are working on about 10 ideas simultaneously. A radically devolved structure maximizes the number of experiments we can launch. Many of these ideas are in the customizable, physical area. Expect the first few to fail shortly.

Four Days to Launch: Get to product faster

The other 50% is Mint the agency. This has a renewed focus on helping firms develop products that people really want.

The fail fast, lean startup approach has been invaluable internally but we've struggled to work this way with our clients. The nature of client-agency engagements pushes projects towards a big bang.

The breakthrough has been a new process we call Four Days to Launch. A mixed team from the client and Mint lock themselves away and develop a product over, you guessed it, four days.

4D2L encourages close, trusting collaboration. The prototype that emerges always seems to push to an edge in an interesting way. Normally it is complete enough that the client feels she has expressed her vision and test users can give decent feedback. It is cheap enough that if can be thrown away if testing discovers the need for a radical change of direction.

Can all agencies launch products?

Or is there something about Mint that positions us better than most? We've been asked this many times since selling StickyGram.

A recurring theme in the blogosphere is how agencies can and should use their skills to create their own IP. But for all the chat, it is conspicuous how few success stories there are. 

Over the years, we've met a lot of agencies trying to launch their own businesses. We've only met one that had got any traction and even that wasn't on the scale of StickyGram (let alone the Facebook-sized hits we dream of).

Launching a web business is harder than it looks. Failure is likely and you need to have a setup which allows for this. Once you get past that, however, agencies have valuable skills - and the world is tilting in our direction. Our story-telling and UX skills are vital commodities. The scale of incumbent brands is perhaps less of an asset than it used to be, as production can be outsourced and the route to market becomes more digital. 

So, who's to say no? Launching a product shows the triumph of the optimism of the spirit over the pessimism of the intellect... so give it a go!

* A roll call of the fallen: Adoptio, Ace InvadersJoint AngelHemlock, BriarPatch, Simplista, LadyBlaBlaOllyAndroid Challenge, Mint Metrics, TicSnaps

Andy Bell is Founder and CCO of Mint