Ready, Fire, Aim.
Now we aim after we fire. It works better.
It has long been a truism that to hit a target, you first get “Ready,” then you “Aim,” then you “Fire.” What I have found in the world of startups is that if you shoot first, and aim later, there can be many practical benefits. This means that if you start building your product before you know exactly what it is supposed to be, and you do this in a way that gets you customer feedback at low cost, you can get to your goal faster, more accurately, and in less time. My engineering team calls this “Ready-Fire-Aim,” at least in part because my name is “Ready” and I push this principle so hard.
The primary benefit of this approach is a shortened and less expensive timeline from “Not Knowing” to “Smarter” about your product and your market. It prompts you to get moving and start work immediately, without being paralyzed in the analytic stage. You are also forced to produce a feedback mechanism (the “Aim” part) that will provide guidance for your project. In my experience, this feedback mechanism is usually a test regime that will put the offering in front of people online and measure their response. For product features on an existing business, this is a performance test that compares various web page presentations against one another. For new products, this could be a nice-looking dummy page for a potential offering, or simply an Adwords campaign that you measure for performance.
As “Ready-Fire-Aim” suggests, you will decide what target you are trying hit using the best guess available at the time you start. This is your hypothesis: “I believe THAT group of people will respond THIS way if we build SUCH a product or feature.”
You immediately start building, and you vigorously collect feedback while doing so. The comparison to artillery is informative: Old-school battleships would come equipped with big guns on their decks. To hit a target, they would turn the turret towards the target, set the elevation and select how many barrels of powder to put behind the projectile. So as far as aiming goes, they are done at this point. The gun will be fired and will either hit the target or miss. This can be problematic if the target is moving in unpredictable ways. The first shot will often be nothing more than a targeting aid, to be followed by a second shot or third shot, which will be required to home in on the target. This wastes time and gunpowder, but it was the best that any Navy could do at the time.
More recently, guided munitions solve this dilemma. A projectile is fired in the general direction of the target. Feedback (usually a laser, GPS, or RADAR) allows constant adjustment of the path in flight. Even if the target moves, so long as the feedback loop is intact, you will arrive at the intended destination.
Projects to introduce new products can operate like this. My approach, which has worked very, very well, is to build something small and quick, gain feedback, and repeat. This cycle continues until we have a product that works.
Just to be clear: I NEVER have a complete specification before getting started. Firing first and aiming later gets you to market fast, which is critical for small businesses—especially if your first guidance was close to the mark.
This speedy approach also helps you to validate the market early. You can get out there and start learning and get engaged in the market quickly and adjust (and even get out) quickly if need be. Ready-Fire-Aim is particularly appropriate for consumer-facing web businesses, as there are lots of potential users (lots of good feedback) and relatively low costs associated with development.
A partner company I worked with was planning to spend well over $2m on a new text search feature on their homepage. They had jumped right into a full spec design of the product and spent a lot of the money up front. They were committed to building it, and it was scheduled to take up to a year to implement. My suggestion was that they should have built a text search box on a new version of their homepage, while directing just 1% of their home page visits to that dummy text box for a period of a week or so. If users tried to use the text box it would simply respond that “This feature is coming soon” and direct customers back to the existing site paradigm of selecting products from a list. This way they could quickly and cheaply test the base proposition that “customers want to do text search on our site” (which had never been offered before).
Total cost: A week of time, and a few hundred dollars of customer traffic.
Benefit: Invaluable guidance from the market about their huge bet on text search.
Note well: Ready-Fire-Aim is not always appropriate! The capacity to play this quick strategy decreases as the number of potential customers decreases. If you are aiming to sell software to enterprise clients (IBM, GE, etc), then you had better have a very well-targeted product and a clear story of how it works and why it is valuable to the customer before you deploy or package your offering. Packaged, physical products and consumer goods that have long lead time and a physical delivery cycle are the same way—do your market validation and research before you build!
Got a product to develop? Get away from the drawing board quickly, and out into the market. That is where the intelligence you need is waiting to help you develop a product that people want.
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