Photo: Alberto Savoia
Entrepreneurs spend millions of dollars and waste time building products people would never ever want.However, Google’s Alberto Savoia thinks there’s a better way to start a company and avoid this nightmare.
He calls this pretotyping, a quick and dirty way to see if people would even want your idea to begin with. He describes it in his book, The Pretotyping Manifesto, available through Google Docs.
Savoia led the launch of Google AdWords, but is now Google’s Innovation Agitator and Engineering Director. We spoke to him about how he thinks collecting data about the product before the prototype is built can pick up the pace of innovation — and even increase the startups’ chance at success.
Business Insider: Last year in a room full of businessmen, I was the only person to guess “Elon Musk” to your “Spot the Innovator” question. Why were you so surprised I knew who Elon Musk was? I thought everyone knew who he was.
Albert Savoia: ….Since we’ve met last year, I’ve given over 30 presentations on pretotyping (totaling about 2,000 people in the audience) and I’ve kept a tally on how many people could correctly identify Elon Musk. Shockingly, less than 5% of people in any audience could name him. When presenting to European or Asian audiences, the recognition usually went down to 0%.
Tesla Motors is a great example of pretotyping.
BI: Tell me what pretotyping is. What are the steps you practice?
AS: Pretotyping can be defined as follows: Testing the initial appeal and actual usage of a potential new product by simulating its core experience with the smallest possible investment of time and money. Less formally, pretotyping is a way to test a product idea quickly and inexpensively by creating extremely simplified versions of that product to help validate the premise that “If we build it, they will use it.”
On the surface, pretotyping may sound a lot like prototyping, but it’s very different in terms of its objectives and its scope. The objectives of prototyping include answering questions related to the actual building the product: “Can we build it?”, “Will it work as expected?”, “How cheaply can we build it?”, “How fast can we make it?”
The main objective of pretotyping, on the other hand, is to answer questions about the product’s appeal and usage: “Would people be interested in it?”, “Would they buy it if we build it?”, “Will they use it as expected?”, “Will they continue to use it?”
Pretotyping does not replace the need for prototyping at some point. But since the building of a proper prototype can take months or years and millions of investment, if it’s possible to answer the latter set of questions with something simpler and cheaper, it makes a lot of sense to do that. The best way to explain pretotyping is with examples, so let’s look at one.
Below is a photo of Jeff Hawkins’ pretotype for the Palm Pilot:
Photo: Alberto Savoia
The founder of Palm Computing mocked up a Palm Pilot with wood and paper; then carried it with him for weeks pretending it was a working device. His objective was to learn if he would actually use such a device before going to the next, very expensive and time-consuming step, of building an actual working prototype.
Even though Hawkins did not use the term pretotyping (I hadn’t made it up yet) that’s exactly what he was doing. He was simulating the core experience of having and using a Palm Pilot with the smallest possible investment of time and money to see if he would actually carry and use it.
BI: How does a person use your technique?
AS: When I practice pretotyping, or help other people do it, the first question I ask is this: “What’s the cheapest, quickest way to validate the idea? What’s the equivalent of Jeff Hawkins’ wooden Palm Pilot?”
Nine times out of 10, I come up with something that is at least an order of magnitude simpler, quicker, and cheaper than a proper prototype. After I build the initial pretotype, I use it to collect actual usage data.
In the case of the Palm Pilot pretotype, for example, I would record how often I would use it, what functionality I would use it for.
A lot of innovators and entrepreneurs experience what I call “The Innovator’s Nightmare.”
They spend years and millions building and perfecting a product that people don’t want.
They fall in love with their idea, convince other people that it’s the right idea, and commit to it before validating their assumptions and beliefs about its actual appeal and usefulness.
This impacts innovation and creativity it because, more often than not, it often leads to slow and expensive failures.
If you prematurely invest all your time and money on the wrong idea, you have nothing left to try new ideas.
Since most innovations fail in the market, it’s important to fail fast and cheaply so you have the time and resources to try something else – or pivot, as the say these days.
BI: So who are you helping out with pretotyping?
AS: I have the opportunity (and luxury) to help teams at Google and major Google customers with pretotyping workshops and demos. But I also help aspiring entrepreneurs that are just starting out. I get at least a dozen requests for presentations or specific pretotyping help a week. I started pretotyping as a Google 20% project 2-3 years ago, but it quickly ballooned into something that I could do full time based on the demand.
The interesting, and somewhat surprising, thing is that large companies seem to be at least as interested in, and enthusiastic about, pretotyping as startups since all of them have had several experiences where they made big bets on something that turned out not to be “the right it.” Even government agencies and our armed forces have been very interested. In a couple of weeks I am giving a “command performance” pretotyping workshop to 22 Navy Admirals. They all know that fail-fast is important, but they are not quite sure how to go about it and pretotyping points them in the right direction.