At San Francisco’s most recent Lean Startup Conference, AltSchool’s Max Ventilla suggested applying an evolutionary theory to product design. This struck a chord with me as I imagined the parallels in building startups according to the principles that Darwin brought to life such as natural selection, variant introduction and evolution.
In nature, species are constantly adapting. For instance, Moscow’s stray “commuter dogs” have adapted to ride the subway to find food and stay warm.
Darwin theorized that a species that evolved faster would have a larger footprint in time, and this is certainly true in the startup world. A product that doesn’t evolve will ultimately fall behind the competition and fail in the marketplace.
But it doesn’t take an evolutionary biologist to apply Darwin’s principles to product design. Just follow these 5 simple steps.
1. Launch early with less
Archaea is an organism thought to be the first known species on earth. Compared to the complexity of species that exist today, we’ve certainly come a long way.
When designing your product, create a minimum viable product that will achieve the business goals and test underlying assumptions on product usage while using as few resources as possible. This will get you to market faster. Grandiose master plans for products filled with assumptions don’t work.
2. Test constantly
Different species have different mutation rates, but species are constantly evolving based on the environment and the species’ genetics.
When you launch your product, be sure that the right feedback channels are in place to get both qualitative and quantitative input from actual customers. Tools such as Google Analytics, Flurry, Mixpanel, Get Satisfaction and Pure Chat can help you get feedback for web and mobile products. Then, use customer feedback to see what aligns with the product vision, and intelligently tweak your product roadmap.
3. Iterate based on real data, not opinions
Species evolve because variants are introduced. Variants that improve rates of survival or reproduction stick, and those with a negative impact are removed naturally over time.
When you launch your product, use real customer data to determine the direction of the product. Data from paying customers is far more valuable than developing feature sets and product road maps based on the assumptions and opinions of those designing the product.
GoLoco’s founder, Robin Chase, admits that the company made a mistake by building the website first, then waiting to incorporate customers’ opinions.
4. Move fast, but not too fast
In nature, those species that mutate too slowly tend to die off, as do those that mutate too quickly.
Information is everywhere. Talent is more accessible, and tools exist to design, build and market products faster and cheaper than ever before. You have to innovate, or your product will die. Be ready to use the data you have to iterate quickly.
Blockbuster didn’t iterate fast enough, despite having weathered the change from VHS to DVD.
5. Learn from failures
Over time, trillions of variants have been unsuccessful. Evolution takes care of killing off negative variants naturally. It’s typical for species to even die off entirely.
Once we have real customer data, we have to make decisions to pivot, push forward or kill the idea entirely. In “The Lean Startup,” Eric Ries writes that failure is a prerequisite to learning.
The PalmPilot was hailed as a revolutionary communication device, but it eventually failed. It didn’t continue to innovate, and it eventually fell behind the operating systems of Apple and Blackberry.
Evolution is nothing new, but it’s a great way to think about your startup. The best products start with a simple concept and iterate quickly -- and become the Russian street dogs of the startup world.