WHEN PEOPLE today talk about innovation, they’re generally talking about Web and mobile start-ups. Yet as Boston’s entrepreneurship scene grows, innovation can be found everywhere, including the less prestigious small-business community. Local consumer-product companies like Batch and Cuppow may not be Facebook or Twitter, but would-be Mark Zuckerbergs should look to them, especially when it comes to getting to market quickly without sacrificing quality. No, they aren’t based in the Innovation District, Kendall Square, or the Route 128 corridor. Batch makes ice cream. Cuppow sells lids.
Start-up purists might cry apples and oranges. But both Batch and Cuppow sprang forth from local incubator spaces dedicated to innovation in consumer products: Crop Circle Kitchen in Jamaica Plain and Fringe Union in Somerville, respectively. Both companies launched with very limited products, used small subsets of their customer bases for market research, and made a steady stream of improvements. Both companies have generated high growth.
And, crucially, both have drawn the right lessons from — but not been led astray by — the latest groundswell of groupthink within the entrepreneurship community.
Every few years since the first dot-com boom of the late ’90s, there’s been some inspiring idea, often from a business book or a superstar entrepreneur, that becomes an article of faith. Lately, and very troublingly, it’s the idea that new companies should launch with the “minimum viable product” — something with the fewest possible features needed to solve a problem — and then add onto it later based on consumer feedback. This view was popularized by the strategy book “The Lean Startup” by Eric Ries, and by LinkedIn founder Reid Hoffman. “If you’re not embarrassed by the first version of your product,” Hoffman famously said in 2009, “you’ve launched too late.”
After spending the last 10 years at 11 start-ups in the Boston area — on product, marketing, and executive/founder teams — I’ve seen plenty of companies get buried in the digital graveyard. Some of those failures, far from being inevitable, were the result of people running off to incorporate business-book sound bites into their strategy without really thinking them through. Some of those failures, far from being inevitable, were the result of spending too much time focused on launching quickly with minimum features — and not enough time spent on connecting to target customers through good branding and design. It’s become an occupational hazard for companies: You can launch with half a product, one fellow local entrepreneur told me this week, but you can’t launch with a half-baked product.
Batch followed the minimum-viable-product strategy, too, but with better results. The company launched in 2010 with a few ice cream flavors using local, handmade, and fair-trade ingredients. Now it has an expanded list of seven flavors, a well-loved food truck, and New England distribution in Shaw’s, Stop & Shop, and Whole Foods, plus other specialty shops and smaller grocers — all in just over two years. Their Pinterest-like, chalkboard-inspired packaging design and focus on wholesome, fresh ingredients hit a nerve with modern consumers craving simplicity from the start.
Meanwhile, Cuppow launched their first product in 2011, a simple BPA-free lid insert that allows people to upcycle ordinary mason and canning jars into to-go mugs. Over time, based on customer feedback, they altered the shape of the mouth opening to better accommodate straws, launched a variety of colorful versions of the lids with charity partners, and just launched the BNTO, a clear plastic adapter that turns a wide-mouth canning jar into a compartmentalized lunch box. (It’s named after the bento boxes offered by Japanese restaurants.) Their clever videos, high-quality food photography, and active engagement on social media connected with modern domestics embracing the Depression-era mantra of “make it do, or do without” in the postdownturn era.
There are local tech firms that have followed the minimum-viable-product strategy successfully without weakening their brands — The Grommet, CustomMade, Gemvara, Recovers.org, and BostInno all come to mind. But hundreds of now-forgotten local start-ups — forgotten to everyone but those of us left holding their worthless stock options — have made the mistake of going to market with half a product and half a brand.
Every business from the dawn of commerce has struggled with the tension between getting it right and opening the doors quickly. But instead of just looking to business books and other start-ups for inspiration, entrepreneurs today should also look at lids and pints of ice cream.
Melissa Massello, a serial entrepreneur, is the founder of Shoestring. She also blogs for Boston.com.