You may not guess it at first glance, but Todaymade is a product company.
We build digitally tangible products for our customers that help them become better at marketing. This includes websites, web applications, and online training tools that all provide great value to our customers. Each of these products is different and each has its own set of features, but all of these products share a life-cycle that has become very common around our office.
At Todaymade, we call this cycle “The Product Loop.”
The loop organizes all phases in the life of a product — from invention to implementation — into a familiar pattern that can be executed and maintained by a team. This process is something that we have learned over time and continue to refine every day. We aren’t perfect at it yet, but the power of the loop is that it is not an overly formal process. Rather, it is more of a “big idea.”
Think of it as a framework. We don’t believe that following it will guarantee success, but we do believe that it can help us achieve all of the necessary stages that product development requires.
This loop could benefit all companies, even service-based providers. When we start to see our core services as the product, rather than just hours on a time clock, professional services can easily follow the product loop.
Invention (The First Loop)
The Product Loop is devised of two major development loops.
The first is the invention loop, and it is primarily connected to the origin of the product idea and the initial creation of the product. This process is loosely based on the lean startup model developed by Eric Ries, which outlines a learning-based approach to product development and business. The invention loop, however, is designed to serve as an early environment for new product development. It is a method that helps organize the invention process into four primary processes that focus on taking action and building off of valuable feedback.
- Idea – It all starts with an idea. This is the easy part of the entire process. We all have ideas, and if we spent a few minutes brainstorming, we could probably develop a few more. Choosing the right idea to move forward with is an art in itself, but the invention loop will quickly expose ideas that don’t deserve further development. The first process is developing a feasible idea, and then moving it into development.
- Create – Similar to the Lean Startup model, we always need to begin new product development with the creation of a minimun viable product. What is the simplest way that we can execute our original idea? The goal of this is not to start and finish the product all at once, but merely get it to a point that will allow us to move onto the third process in the invention loop.
- Test – The third process of the invention loop is to test the latest iteration of our creation. The goal of this phase to get our product into the hands of an end-user (customer) as quickly as possible. It is important to observe how these users interact with and understand the product. Feedback is the operative goal of this process.Without it, the loop cannot continue.
- Measure – Once we have completed a successful testing phase, we must measure the results of our exercise. What assumptions did we make about the product that were not actually true? What assumptions about about our own ability did we make as we created the latest iteration of our product? This is the part of the loop where we force ourselves to measure our strengths and weaknesses and make strategic decisions regarding our original idea. This is absolutely essential, and a critical process that should lead us back to the beginning of the loop with a revised idea.
The invention loop is not something that we do once and then move on. In fact, it is actually something that we will do several times in the early life of a product.
Before we can move into the second loop, we must have a mature product idea that has been tested and proven. The result should be a mature(ing) idea, a business model, and a plan for ongoing development. There is no limit to the number of times we follow the invention loop, as long as we are constantly moving in the right direction and not belaboring our efforts.
Implementation (The Second Loop)
The implementation loop defines that process of launching a product with a well-considered business model. This is not something that necessarily happens with the flip of a switch, but it is generally defined by a product launch.
At this point, your product should be able to hit “hit the ground running.” The goal of this phase is to bring the product to a self-sustaining level. This means that it takes on a life-cycle of its own, outside of the original founders. In this loop, the overall team and the customers strongly define the product’s future course. This loop is split into four processes.
- Sales & Marketing – The absolute top priority when it comes to a successful product is the ability to market and sell that product. If we can’t sell it, we don’t actually have a product. In this case, we may have left the invention loop too quickly, or we may be sitting on a dud of an idea. Selling is really the primary difference between the invention and implementation loop. Our sales will help provide ongoing feedback from existing customers (testing), and it will provide monetary support to fuel the three additional process of the implementation loop.
- Research & Development – Just because our product has launched doesn’t mean we can stop moving it forward. As sales roll in, we will continue to learn a great deal about our product, and why it matters to our customers. New features will be invented and core changes will be suggested. This phase continually monitors new ideas, runs them through a small-scale version of the invention stage, and finalizes new ideas that will eventually be built into the product. This process can be easy to skip when things go well. Ignoring it, however, might find us falling behind.
- Building & Design – As new ideas are discovered, tested, and approved, they will need to be built into the product. Particularly with software products, new features and technological improvements are vital to long-term success. This process focuses on building new features or add-ons that will continue to move the product forward. It is also the primary process responsible for responding to competitor products that threaten to knock us off our game.
- Maintenance & Management – All products will come with some level of ongoing maintenance and management. This could include customer support, or necessary repairs for an existing product feature. The bottom line is that this is an essential element of all products. Keeping current customers happy has much to say about what your product eventually becomes. Because of its direct connection to current customers, this process loops back perfectly into the sales and marketing process.
Overall, the product loop is designed to be a continual rolling process. Think of it like a wheel. If any of these elements fail to be executed, the circle will not be complete, and the product will not be able to move forward. All of these things must be happening simultaneously in order for the the product loop to work effectively.
At Todaymade, this has been a particularly difficult task because we run a very small staff compared to the amount of work that we do each and every day. We will be looking to fill some of our own gaps in the coming months, and hopefully get our product loops rolling the in the right direction.
The Loop In Two Words
The product loop is something that we have been thinking about for a while now. While its current iteration is a recent development, the process is something that we have been doing naturally.
The two keys for success, we believe, lie in the testing and selling points of the product. We cannot improve our product properly without proper testing and feedback from customers. It is absolutley vital that we understand how and why our customers use our product. As inventors, we tend to make numerous assumptions about our products and the customers they serve. We will need a steady does of reality to make sure that we don’t fall victim to our own ideas.
The second key for success is selling. It is vital that we move our product to become a sellable item as soon as possible. In our case, we have made the mistakes of launching too soon or not soon enough. The timing needs to be just right, but reasonable momentum cannot be built unless the product begins generating its own income.
The invention loop runs on excitement and the implementation loop runs on dollar bills. Sales will energize, or re-energize, your team and help you move the product loop forward.
If we pushed a big circle off the top of a cliff, it would start to roll. As the circle moves down the mountain, it gains speed. This is something that we all call momentum, and it is precisely the idea behind the product loop. When each of the processes in the loop are filled, the product loop can move forward. Once that forward momentum begins, hard word and determination, multiplied by roll, will get us to maximum product velocity.