Business

The ‘wizards’ helping start ups find their niche

By Uwin Lugoda

Innovative concepts are nothing new in this day and age, with almost every big company and start-up coming up with concepts that revolutionise its respective industry. However, not every start-up that has an innovative concept gets past its initial phases.

Recent studies estimated that around 90% of start-ups fail in their early stages due to several reasons that range from lack of resources to industry competitiveness. The 10% of the companies that do make it, like Flipkart and Airbnb, are ones that offered products with unique qualities that made them stand out from the rest.

The validation of these unique qualities by the product’s target market is what eventually verifies its success.

Companies often waste time and money on building products that don’t sell, no matter how innovative they are. This is because companies assume they know what their audience wants, and therefore create the product before validating its concept or unique qualities. This is especially the case in start-ups where early validation can make or break the company.

The identification of these unique qualities and its validation by the products’ target market is a tough process, especially during a product’s initial phase. This is where Very Bad Wizards(VBW) comes in.

What is VB Wizards?

VBW is a products and services agency that uses a human-centred approach to help companies and individuals turn concepts into tested and validated products. The company follows a very specific methodology built around design thinking and lean start-ups to validate concepts – and their problems and solutions – making it go from an idea to a validated prototype in just four days.

VBW Co-founders Mayun Kalutantri and Shavin Peiries first started the company in May 2019, after having seen a need for a new, more streamlined solution to get products validated by their target audience.

Kalutantri stated that having worked as a strategist in an advertising agency beforehand, he noticed that despite all the research and strategy that went into their concepts, there was very little in terms of execution. Simultaneously, Peiries, who was in the world of technology development and software, noticed the need for a connection between the technology they built and the people they built it for.

“If we were building a product for people in Australia, we would never be able to talk to that market and know what their problems, needs, and wants are,” said Peiries.

Seeing this obvious gap between the product creators and the people they create it for, the duo started discussing and researching on methodologies that integrate the two. They eventually came across a process invented by Google called Design Sprint.

Design Sprint was the methodology used by Google Ventures – the venture capital investment arm of Alphabet Inc., the parent company of Google – to convert an idea into a validated prototype in just four days, for their portfolio start-ups.

“The beauty of it was that it included drawing up a product strategy, as well as doing it by putting something in front of real users. So, there was a mix of thinking and execution which I really liked,” said Kalutantri.

Google first invented Design Sprint around eight years ago to use whenever they need a new version, had a big challenge to overcome, or wanted to take a new direction. Design Sprint was later adopted by several agencies around the world, some of which used it for their clients as a service business.

Seeing these various uses for Design Sprint, the duo decided use it to benefit companies in Sri Lanka.

How do they do it?

Kalutantri stated they help these companies validate their products by hosting a four-day cycle of workshops that begins on Monday and ends on Friday. Kalutantri facilitates the workshops helping companies frame the problem and map out a solution, while Peiries builds the prototype in one day in order to put it in front of real users and get genuine feedback.

Peiries explained that before they quit their day jobs and jumped into this, they performed a trial sprint in February 2019, to see if it would work.

“The trial sprint had to be a four-day process and we needed to do it back to back to see if it would actually work, so we decided to do it during a long weekend.”

Having completed the trial, Kalutantri compared the results with what he would have achieved while at his previous workplace, which also had a development arm. He discovered that the work done within those four days would have otherwise taken them up to six months to complete.

Peiries explained that the process was a two-week cycle; the design sprint takes the first week and the second is the iteration sprint, which is the repetition of the same cycle during the following week in order to perfect it. In the end, they’d have a full product design.

Kalutantri explained that the Design Sprint part of the cycle lasts from Monday to Friday, with Monday being the day the duo sits down with seven to eight people from the company developing the product.

Taking digitising a laundry service as an example, he stated that they would first identify the assumptions the company has about the problem – what the problem is and what their solution is, after which they will help the company map out the features – pick-up, delivery, and customer service – and frame these into challenges in order to see how these tasks will get executed.

The duo helps the company look for similar solutions that are already out there, in order to avoid the product from being another “me too”.

“We do an exercise where we look at laundry services in the US or Canada that are doing things differently, to see what we can learn from them – but not copy them.”

Kalutantri stated that to come up with a tangible solution for the assumptions they have about the idea presented, the team literally sketches the information out on a piece of paper. He explained that this is a design thinking tool that is used to get everyone on the same page and to put a stop to endless discussions which usually happen when brainstorming.

Come Tuesday (the next day), the duo returns to conduct the second workshop with the client, and puts all the solutions, including the client’s, on a wall. Kalutantri stated the workshop focuses on voting systems like heatmap voting and super votes, to pick out the best solutions. Finally, a solution is picked by the decision maker, who would be appointed from the team to help move throughout the day.

He went on to explain that the team then storyboards the idea in order to map out the user journey and identify the key moments that make up the idea.

Moments of magic

“Any good idea is usually made up of one or two key moments, everything else is just the features that support it. The first thing you want to do with a completely new idea is to validate those moments.”

Referring to them as “moments of magic”, Kalutantri explained that these are the moments of delight the consumer feels while using a product or service.

“If you take Uber for example, the magic in Uber is not signing up, the vehicles, the map, or the payment gateway, those are just features. The magic is in the moment when you’re on the fourth floor of a building, it’s raining, and with the press of just two buttons, you have a vehicle waiting for you downstairs. This is one of those moments of delight, and the other one is when you’re getting off and you don’t have to bargain with the driver.

“These aren’t features you can just add. If not for the differences the customer experiences in those 15 seconds in the beginning of the journey and five seconds in the end, Uber has the same user journey as taking a tuk from the road.

It’s those magic moments that make Uber a $ 70 billion company.”

After indentifying what those moments of magic are, the duo spends the entirety of Wednesday (the next day), sometimes with the client, building a high-fidelity prototype.

Peiries, who designs the prototype, explained that the prototype would be just a non-functional mock up of the real thing, with no programming or engineering behind it. However, it is made to look as real as possible for the user test the next day.

“It’s like the Taxes movies that used to come out in the 70s – everything looks real, but there is no real back to it.”
Come Thursday, the duo would bring in a group of five people from the target audience to test out this mock up of the product. Kalutantri explained that they would give the audience a scenario and make the interaction between them and the product as realistic as possible, going as far as to include mock up ads on Instagram, from which the users would be directed to app stores so they can download the prototype app.

Sticking to the laundry example, he stated that they would even have someone pick up the laundry from the test users just to make the interaction more realistic.

“When we do these user tests, what we are looking to validate is those moments of magic, even more than whether the product is usable. This is because apps or solutions don’t get picked up by customers just because it’s usable; it gets picked up or used because it’s engaging or insightful. So that’s the kind of things we look for.”

Involved every step of the way

Kalutantri explained that on their last day, Friday, they sit down with the client and explain what they saw during the user test, and what patterns the clients should focus on when it comes to the product. Finally during the iteration part of the two cycles, the duo runs through the design sprint again, but enhances those key qualities of the product.

“Usually, the feedback from the first user test for all products is pretty similar – they tell us that the product is interesting and gets the job done, but the truth is they won’t change their behaviour for just those reasons. By the second week, after we blow those key ‘magic’ moments up, we get a much better reaction through the user test.”

According to Kalutantri, VBW has currently worked with several industries including the likes of fitness, food, beauty, and healthcare. He stated that what they do is perfect for any company in any industry that wants a competitive advantage through the product or service they offer.

“The new way to build brand loyalty is through user experience; anyone who wants to do that best has a clear idea of their audience and who they want to talk to.”

Kalutantri stated that there are many other industries, such as banking, that are in dire need of disruption.

“If you are coming up with a version for a new banking app, there’s two ways to go about it. One is to conceptualise it, research it, design it, and then move it into development – this would easily take about eight to 10 months, and you finally get it out. In reality, any project manager will know it’ll all take around a year to complete. This happens because you assume things about the features and what the customers want, and when you finally get it rolling, you realise there are things you missed and you add them on. This is called the ‘waterfall’ approach.”

Kalutantri offers the solution of building a full-scope product that is completely validated by its target audience, rather than the option of spending a huge amount and resources on an invalidated idea.

“Big companies worry about doing innovative things because of the amount of risk that comes with it. But when you run a sprint and validate an idea in just four days, it is a big deal for them, as opposed to spending so much money and time on R&D,” said Peiries.

Their name – Very Bad Wizards – perfectly personifies what they do as a company, as it is derived from the Wizard of Oz musical, in which the wizard has no real power but helps its characters discover their own answers, and dubs himself a very bad wizard.

Kalutantri explained the reasoning behind what they do with their clients – why they do things like the user test and involve their clients in each step.

“We don’t work as a typical agency where we take a brief, come up with a design on our own, say this is the magical design we came up with, and convince you to believe us because we are the experts.

“Instead, we let the clients come sit with us during the process, so you can put your ideas in front of your target audience, so that you can learn from it.”

Photos Pradeep Dambarage