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We’re often asked to participate in talks or publications about Startup Studios. The common question is about the money. The tone is generally “Startup Studios are all well and good, but are they just a bunch of agency folk messing around?”
At Mint we started developing our own products for a number of reasons, only one of which was financial. Also we wanted to:
1. Scratch an intellectual or creative itch;
2. Make cool things;
3. Improve our working environment;
4. Show the world what we can do;
5. Put ourselves in the same shoes as our clients.
But as 2015 is drawing to a close I decided to investigate the financial returns on Mint’s various ventures. Here is my methodology:
Since WhiteAlbum was shuttered a few people have asked me about the decision, and what led to it. There's no denying the product had what looked like a very successful launch, with lots of publicity and some glowing reviews. I can appreciate that, viewed from outside the Mint bubble, there might appear to be a disconnect between that launch and the product’s subsequent closure mere months down the line.
I talked to the founders about the notion of publishing a ‘post-mortem’ of sorts, which is something we tend not to do very much - not because we don’t want to, but if we pondered over every product we shut down (of which there have been over fifty) we’d never get any work done. However, I thought the case of WhiteAlbum provided an interesting opportunity to share the thinking behind closing down a product, and the kinds of things we try to learn in the aftermath.
I’ve been fortunate to have been invited to speak a bit about employee engagement recently, particularly in relation to the way we’ve enabled employees to pursue ventures at Mint Digital.
In April I presented at the Employee Engagement Summit, which was an event aimed at HR professionals. My presentation was called ‘Why we deliberately plan to lose some of our best people’ (you have to give your presentations provocative titles, or nobody shows up).
I also took part in a breakfast panel on employee engagement with Purple Cubed in September, and was recently interviewed by the Institute of Leadership & Management on the topic of keeping small teams happy.
Throughout these conversations, there was a genuine curiosity about whether enabling internal ventures could be used as a way to empower people at other, typically larger, companies. Does Mint’s small size lend itself more to this approach? Could firms in other spheres use a similar method? Do internal ventures by definition make staff happy, or is it more nuanced than that?
I’ve had plenty of opportunities to think about what we’ve done at Mint, and why the way we’ve empowered staff via product ventures may/may not be a fit for other companies. By which I mean I’ve pondered and cogitated and come up with exactly zero solid conclusions.
Nevertheless, I’ve been persuaded that my thoughts around some of the questions I’ve been asked might be useful to some people, so here are five things you may want to consider if you’re thinking of enabling your workforce to pursue ventures aside from your core business.
It begins with a knock at the door.
Or perhaps a telephone call, a letter, even a newspaper headline. There may be a body. There will certainly be something hidden and unexplained. A mystery, a secret, a problem to be solved.
There follows a process of observation and investigation — clues, facts, witnesses. Hypotheses will be proposed and interrogated, answers will prove false. Eventually — preferably in a dazzling dénouement — the facts will reveal an explanation that satisfies, a solution to the problem.
If, like me, you are a fan of detective stories, this structure will be familiar. But twist it just a little — we rarely have to deal with bodies — and I think it looks rather like the way we make products at Mint. The cycle of observe > test > analyse is at the heart of our approach to product development and is, in essence, detective work.
Of course, this approach is firmly rooted in the principles of Agile development: fast, iterative, user-focused. But the detective story parallel throws up some interesting corollaries when you consider the work of the Agile agency.
We’re waiting for that knock on the door; a client with a problem, a question. That problem will throw us into an unfamiliar world. There will be interviews and evidence to be collected. We’ll probably come up with a few red herrings before arriving, eventually, at what we believe is the ‘right’ product, the right solution for that problem. All for twenty five dollars a day plus expenses. Or thereabouts.
There are two things in the world for which there is no shortage:
1. People trying to build things on the internet;
2. People giving advice on how to build things on the internet.
The internet is the modern equivalent of shipping in Victorian times or the Wild West in the 1870s. There are a lot of people speculating and a lot of people earning a living out of people speculating. There are two risks to this:
1. You get ripped off. At Mint we are very often approached by people that have gone down a track with an agency (or collection of freelancers) only to realise later on that aforementioned agency does not in fact know what it is doing. This is an easy trap to fall into. You could set up an agency on a Monday, read a bunch of stuff off the internet and be selling your expertise by Thursday afternoon;
2. You get paralysed by opinion and tasks. Many startup founders use information they find on the internet as a kind of ‘to-do’ list. Write blog post check, gather customer feedback check, do marketing experiment check. They don’t play to their own strengths. They don’t focus on the things that will determine their success, they do a bit of everything.
Before you take someone’s advice on such matters, ask them what they’ve done and assess their credibility. Let their work and people's reaction to it in the real world do the talking.
Photo by Simon Archer Hurlstone.