How Zappos Built a Product By Faking It

Lean Dec 09, 2019

OK, it wasn’t really faking it because there was a lot of work involved.

It all started in 1999 when Nick Swinmurn, a software engineer from California, couldn’t buy a pair of Airwalks in his local store. This gave him an idea for selling shoes online. But he didn’t want to buy a large inventory of shoes. Buying inventory for an online shoe store is extremely expensive — there are a lot of sizes, and you have to know which ones are in high demand and which aren’t. And then you have to deal with leftovers of sizes that nobody wants. So he decided to validate his idea first.

The business model Nick was using was very similar to dropshipping, where people sell products directly from warehouses and use the warehouse’s product photos. But his plan was even simpler — he was going to go to local stores and take pictures and post them on the website. When someone bought a pair of shoes, he would go to the store to buy them and send them to the customer. Of course, this model wasn’t scalable and profitable, but it was a great way to test demand without investing a lot of money.

What Is a Concierge MVP?

While the approach that Nick used is great for testing ecommerce product ideas, it’s not applicable as is for software startups. In Lean Startup, Eric Ries introduces a similar approach called the concierge MVP. He lists several examples of products that used this approach, for example, Aardvark (a product created by Max Ventilla and Damon Horowitz) and Food on the Table (created by Manuel Rosso).

The concept of concierge MVP is extremely simple — just replace as much as possible with manual work. It can be you doing the work or a hired assistant that helps you. The ideal situation will be to avoid any coding at all and provide valuable service to customers by doing things 100% manually or by using very little automation. Of course, you should be able to automate things later, or you won’t have a viable business.

It’s important to note here that you can’t lie about the inner workings of your startup. While it’s OK to do things that can be automated later or something that is simply not profitable in the beginning, you can’t claim that you use AI and then just do things manually, or you’ll end up being sued like Engineer.ai, a startup that claimed they could replace developers by using AI to write software, but were still using humans to write software.

Basically, a concierge MVP is like a lemonade stand. All you have to do is to create a stand and shout as much as you can to attract people to buy from you. The lemonade you are selling is made using your own time and resources — lemons that your parents bought you. This isn’t the real business, but it’s a great way for you to test things out.

I think one of the best examples of concierge MVP I recently stumbled upon is LinkedIn’s outreach services. Have you used any of them? What they do is they find you prospects on LinkedIn based on the criteria you define, and then connect with them and set up appointments. While I’m not sure if that’s the best approach to find new business opportunities in an ethical way, it surely works for some people and industries. And given the amount of companies providing the service, it feels like there is some demand.

Now, the way a service like that operates is pretty straightforward — they go to the LinkedIn Sales Navigator, find the people that are a good fit for them, and message them to make an appointment. The process of finding people and messaging them could probably be automated (although as far as I know, LinkedIn still doesn’t allow that). But for an MVP, it’s absolutely possible to do it manually first and hire VAs to help you later.

This Approach Isn’t for Everyone

I must admit, building MVPs isn’t for everyone. You have to be OK with creating something that isn’t perfect and turns some people away. It’s a long-term strategy, a way of gradual improvement. For example, this article is an MVP. I’m not a great writer, I know it — I started writing just a year ago. But I can either wait forever for some magic to happen to become a better writer, or I can write every day, and in several years I’ll be better. Every article that is published is a little launch for me — I know it’s not perfect, even though Steph, my editor, tries to make it as good as possible. (Thanks, Steph!)

Sometimes you have one shot only to make a first impression. If you’re a celebrity, an industry expert or a big company and you’re releasing a product, there are certain expectations to be met. But it still doesn’t mean that the product should be perfect. It just has to be a bit better than the other products your target audience will be using.

But if you are small and no one knows you, you have the advantage of being able to try things out. And if you don’t have the resources or the expertise, betting your success on just one shot would be a sure way to failure. Instead, you can take the evolutionary path that Lean Startup offers: Start small and accept the fact that you have constraints. Instead of pretending to be a big startup, you can embrace the fact that you’re just starting out. You will be amazed by how many people will support your efforts.


One thing I want to add is that there’s a lot of debate and misunderstanding about the quality of MVPs. The thing is, the only people who can tell if something is good enough or not are your customers. You have only assumptions if something is of good quality or not, but these are your assumptions. Thus, you can spend a lot of time improving the “quality” that only you can see — this is something developers and designers are prone to.


Originally published on Medium

Alex Ponomarev

Passionate about software development and building great products