TBC 4: The Process for Products

February 20, 2015 § 3 Comments

In this series I have been building a case that Transforming the Bay with Christ (TBC) should consider reframing itself as a startup building a platform for governance. In this, our final installment, I will discuss the process necessary to build such a product.

One of the key insights about entrepreneurship in the last decade is that a startup is not just a small version of a established business. Rather, a startup is an organization formed to search for a business model, rather than execute one.

In particular, this implies that startups should be designed to maximize learning by exploiting surprises. This is the exact opposite of a traditional business, which attempts to increase predictability by avoiding surprises.

To get the optimal structure, we need to be clear on:

  1. Which things we need to learn (the problem)
  2. How we are going to learn them (the process)
  3. Who will own the learning (the people)
  4. What will prove we have learned the right lessons (the product)

Note that the order is essential. The type of problem determines the necessary process, and only the right process using the right people will lead to the right product.

I. The Problem We Need to Solve

The typical technology startup is searching for a repeatable, scalable business model. That is, it needs to keep iterating on how it defines both its product and its market until it finds sufficient product-market fit to grow profitably, sustainably, and exponentially.

TBC probably isn’t concerned about making money. However, I believe that to succeed in its mission it will need a repeatable, scalable process for:

  • Demonstrating the Kingdom of God the Father, by
  • Unifying and Growing the Body of Christ, by
  • Tapping in to the power of the Holy Spirit

To be sure, I believe TBC already is doing these things. In fact, this is exactly what TBC’s interim President Kevin Palau accomplished in Portland. But, as they say in startup land:

  • a prototype is not a program
  • a program is not a product
  • a product is not a business
  • a business is not profits
  • profit are not an exit

For TBC to achieve its “exit” of bringing revival to the Bay Area, it is not sufficient (or frankly, possible) to simply replicate the Portland model in San Francisco. The Bay Area is too big, diverse, and interconnected to impact one city at a time in a manual, labor-intensive process. Instead, we have to figure out how to productize the Portland experience into something that can be easily replicated and customized by multiple entities across the Bay Area:

  • Cities
  • Churches
  • Denominations
  • Pastoral associations
  • Ministries
  • Cultural groups
  • Companies
  • Individuals

That is a daunting task, to say the least. However, if we can pull this off in the Bay Area, it would provide a template for regional transformation anywhere in the world!

II. The Process We Need to Follow

Finding product-market fit is a small scale version of a ‘wicked problem’ — one that it is extremely hard to solve because we don’t even know the right way to frame the question.

Fortunately, in this particular case there is a robust methodology for finding a workable framing, called The Lean Startup. In a Christian context, we can restate its foundational assumptions as:

  1. God is already at work in the Bay Area to bring revival
  2. The hard part is opening our own eyes and hearts to see and embrace the people, places, and processes He is already using
  3. The tedious part is building systems that help others do the same
  4. We aren’t smart enough to figure it all out in advance
  5. We need to rapidly research, create, test, discard, and refine hypotheses until we find out what works

To good news is that we can see TBC following many of these principles in hiring Jon Talbert from Beautiful Day to launch “Serve the Bay”. But if TBC wants to be a scalable platform instead of a series of programs, we need to do more than hire a handful of Jon Talberts. Instead, we need to develop a repeatable process for identifying, resourcing, and amplifying thousands of micro- and macro- Jon Talberts.

Why This is Hard

One of key lessons of disruption theory is that it is impossible to do this kind of “fast failing” in the context of an established organization. Human beings will only ask such painful questions when their organization is facing an urgent existential crisis, and has leaders utterly committed to finding a new way out. In fact, the only non-startup to pull this off is Apple, which was six months from bankruptcy and brought back a charismatic founder who fired the existing board. Absent that, human nature and organizational culture will conspire to revert back to what has worked in the past — even if it is not working now — rather than trying something radical, unproven, and likely to result in humiliating public failure.

For that reason, organizations seeking to reinvent themselves need to create a sufficiently autonomous business unit, skunkworks project, or spinoff with completely different incentives. Consider how the Target discount chain succeeded brilliantly in escaping the legacy of its department store parent. Contrast that with ailing retailer J.C. Penney, whose board fired Apple retail genius Ron Johnson only six months into an experimental redesign, in order to revert back to their previous mode of operation.

III. The People You Need to Hire

If TBC is serious about pursuing this direction, the best approach would be to literally fund a startup whose entire survival depends on solving the above problem. To succeed, it would need:

  • To be arms-length from TBC, so its failures would not negatively impact TBC’s brand
  • Two years of funding, to provide the right balance of stability and urgency
  • An ownership structure that protects TBC’s interests but still motivates the founders
  • Two co-founders, one focused on the market (identifying scenarios where God is working), the other on the product (building a platform for scaling those scenarios)
  • A Board of Directors that is patient for results, but impatient for learning

The last point is critical. The Board should not expect the founders to actually solve the problem before the end of two years – if at all! However, it should insist that they tackle the hardest aspects of the problem first, and require them to clearly and rapidly document the data they are collecting and the hypotheses they are testing. That way, even if they fail to find a solution, there would still be a wealth of relevant data to inform future efforts.

IV. The Product We Need to Build

I’ve often warned about the dangers of designing a product before developing a deep understanding of your users.  What I am doing here instead is laying out a process for designing a testable product hypothesis. The key distinction is that we need to focus on the assumptions behind the design rather than the features of the design.

The foundational assumptions I am starting from are:

  1. God has a plan to bring revival to the Bay Area
  2. The job of TBC is discover and nurture what God is already doing to that end
  3. This requires building prayerful relationships between people who share a vision for building Christ’s Kingdom, rather than their own
  4. That job is to too big for a top-down approach based solely on one-on-one relationships

Given that, I believe the best alternative is to build a community to own that mission. Specifically, the hypotheses I suggest we test are:

  1. God wants us to build a new community in the Bay Area that transcends existing relationships and church associations
  2. God has already raised up hundreds of people who are working on key aspects of the problem
  3. We can only implement God’s complete plan if we all know, trust, and serve each other
  4. The only way to do this at scale is to build some kind of online social network
  5. If this idea is from God, the right people will already have a hunger for that kind of product

These hypotheses are ordered from most general to most specific.  We start by testing the most specific hypothesis, refining and replacing it as necessary. If that doesn’t result in progress, we start questioning the more general hypotheses.  However, a particular hypothesis does start to gain traction, we start fleshing it out into an actual product.

The crucial point is to put our faith in the iterative process, rather than any particular iteration.  By carefully framing our hypotheses and collecting evidence both for and against, we can build (or just as importantly, erode!) confidence in the current approach. That allows us to quickly and accurately “pivot”, by replacing a failing hypothesis with one that better reflects the data (and, hopefully, what God wants us to do).

A REVIVAL Platform

To make this concrete, my starting product hypothesis is an online portal I call REVIVAL: A Relational Environment for Virtually Identifying, Validating, And Linking people working to unify and grow the body of Christ in the Bay Area through the transforming grace of the Cross.

The premise is twofold;

  1. People who are eager to build Christ’s kingdom want a easy way to:
    – Identify other people who share that passion
    – Validate how much they can be trusted to put Christ first
    – Link each other up with resources (connections, money, ideas, etc.) to make us all more effective
  2. It is possible for us to build an online site that addresses that desire

The first premise is easy to test:  simply ask people already strongly committed to TBC’s mission how interested they would be in a product like this. The interviews should be as open-ended as possible, to detect weak signals about alternative products that might be even more valuable. We would start with purely verbal descriptions, then refine the pitch to include interface mockups and real-world data.

Once we have people excited about an idea, the next step is to test whether we can build an actual “Minimum Viable Product” (MVP). The MVP is the quickest and cheapest way to determine what customers would actually “pay” to use (even if only with their time).

From there, it is simply a matter of collecting positive and negative feedback, updating hypotheses, and iterating (or replacing) the MVP until we achieve product-market fit and start seeing exponential growth. Or run out of money.

Conclusion

It may seem strange to begin this series by emphasizing the need for ideology, and end by discussing how to launch a technology startup. But the easiest way to promote new values is by growing a community that embodies those values. And the easiest way to start a community is by giving people a novel motivation and mechanism for interacting. In other words, matching a compelling purpose for a community (ideology) with a platform where they can meet to fulfill that purpose (technology).

I have no idea whether TBC will adopt the ideology or technology I’ve described in this series. But this series of essays is effectively my Minimum Viable Product, based on hypotheses about what TBC needs and wants. Whether or not they “buy” it, I look forward to getting positive and negative feedback. And I trust that one way or another, we will eventually discover God’s plan for bringing revival to the Bay Area.

Sincerely,
Dr. Ernie Prabhakar
February, 2015
Santa Clara, California

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