How Product Startups Can Take ‘Hacking’ Offline

    By Kit Hickey | Small Business

    How do you hack offline as rapidly and as effectively as you hack online?

    Web startups can iterate a product and get it back on the market in a matter of seconds. But with product companies, we’re faced with manufacturing lead times that create a much longer development cycle. Luckily, Ministry of Supply's co-founders also went to MIT, where we learned the importance of hacking -- i.e., moving fast, iterating quickly and using customer insights to educate design.

    To that end, I want to share some creative ways that MoS brought some of the best online practices offline, and applied them to our product company:

    A/B testing isn’t only for web companies.

    When A/B testing, companies randomly test two variants and determine which one better achieves the company’s goals (e.g., click-through rate or conversion).  Web startups are notorious for doing this often and well -- and then optimizing based on the results.

    When we started Ministry of Supply, we wondered if we could take this same principle and apply it to the offline world. Here's how we did it: When we created our first batch of shirts, we used a different proprietary fabric for our white, blue and black Apollo shirts. This way, we could test three variants at the same time, gather customer feedback, and understand which fabric we should move forward with.

    Any product business can design a simple, offline A/B test to determine what customers really want (or want more of) and make better business decisions as a result.

    Small batches and world-class partners allow for rapid iteration.

    When we first started out, we were forced to manufacturer in small batches, because we had cash constraints and uncertain demand. In short order, we learned what an advantage this supposed constraint actually was. Namely, it enabled us to iterate extremely quickly, and get a new product on the market in about three weeks.

    As we’ve grown, we’ve made a decision to continue to work with partners who allow us to do smaller batches so that this mindset can become a part of our manufacturing DNA. So far, it's paid off handsomely. When we shipped 8,000 shirts as part of our Kickstarter campaign, we started to get feedback that customers thought they were running too small. So we adjusted the pattern, trained our manufacturers, and had new shirts on the market -- in just three short weeks, a timeframe completely unheard of in most product companies.

    When customer relationships come offline, real relationships can develop.

    Most web companies are obsessive about understanding their customers' online behavior (what they’ve bought before, other websites they’ve visited, etc.).  At MoS, we’re obsessive about understanding customers' offline behavior.  This includes who they are, what makes them tick and what they love and what they hate.

    By getting to know our customers values and personalities, not just their online behavior, we’re able to form deep and meaningful relationships with our customers.  We communicate with our customers in every way that we would communicate with friends: we've gone running with our customers, we Snapchat with them, we go out drinking with them, and we invite them into our office and homes.  In short, we get to know who they are, not just what they do.

    And, because our customers are some of the most badass people in the country, these relationships are, simply, what makes us tick.

    Kit Hickey is the co-founder of Ministry of Supply, a brand which is inventing the future of men's professional wear. The company has been featured in NYT, TechCrunch, Inc., Forbes and Elle Magazine. In addition, Kit is a lover of mountain sports and has half an MBA from MIT. Follow her: @kit_hickey

    The Young Entrepreneur Council (YEC) is an invite-only organization comprised of the world's most promising young entrepreneurs. In partnership with Citi, the YEC recently launched #StartupLab, a free virtual mentorship program that helps millions of entrepreneurs start and grow businesses via live video chats, an expert content library and email lessons.

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