In my experience as a Labs manager, social tech consultant and charity bid writer, few charities I’ve worked with have seemed comfortable with the uncertainty involved in building an app or online service.
Their most common approach is to begin by specifying in detail what the product will look like and do, and then only deviate from the plan in small degrees, even when evidence is to the contrary.
Marketing the product then usually follows the traditional route of distributing as much promo material as possible, as widely as possible and then hoping people will use it.
When it comes to business models I’ve seen very few well thought through approaches to sustaining the product or service. When the money runs out charities usually revert to the default of seeking more grant funding as a means to continue provision.
The Alternative Approach
But there are other ways of dealing with the uncertainty, embracing it’s hidden opportunities and turning it into an advantage. The Labs tried to show how it can be done.
Three projects were led by social enterprises and four by medium sized charities with a combined age of 78. As part of their support team we helped them deal with uncertainty by challenging their approach and introducing lean and agile methods into their product development processes.
Along the way we shared what we learnt about charity innovation in the tech world.
Using their successes, failures and examples from the wider social tech sector over we produced 70 best practice blog articles and an ebook guide to funding and delivering social tech for charities. The guide revolves around how to take best practice principles from the tech startup sector apply them to a social context. It shows how to manage that uncertainty, harness it to your advantage and build a better product that more people want to use. It also gives advice on how to build an effective business model that reduces reliance on grant funding.
Harness the Power
Here’s the Labs top three tips on how to transform that uncertainty into something amazing.
1. Let go of what you think you know
Let go of expectations about what the product will be, do or look like. You might be right about the problem, the solution and how it will work but until you’ve challenged your assumptions and validated your idea’s concept you risk building the wrong thing, in the wrong way, or worse still, trying to solve the wrong problem.
This may sound obvious but more often than not projects don’t do it. Then they fail.
To avoid this happening there are some clear stages to follow:
- Discovery – where you make sure you fully understand the problem through research, interviews and learning about the life of the people you hope your product will help.
- Design – through storyboarding, customer journey mapping and prototyping, testing more assumptions, validating hypotheses and refining solutions in order to arrive at a very simple alpha version of your product
- Development. Use a clear development process. Agile methods are currently most popular because they are usually the most effective.
- Start a roadmap. Unlike an in-depth plan your roadmap only tries to predict a month or two ahead, increasing in length as uncertainty reduces and you can more accurately predict what you’ll be building. It’s much lighter, more agile and easier to iterate than a project plan. Incredibly useful.
2. Treat your project as a business
Chances are that the grant you have is all you’re going to get. So you’ve got to make the best of this one chance to get your product on the road to sustainability.
Or not. Maybe your product isn’t meant to be sustainable or you’ll absorb its continued development into your core costs. That’s fine.
The important thing is to start with a business model and then to develop it. At the same time as your product.
Just like your product roadmap your business model will be hard to predict. However, by giving it regular attention it will grow with you, becoming more solid and evolved as your product does the same.
You can develop and iterate your model using tools like the Business Model Canvas. These tools will improve your product decision making because you’ll have a model to test options against. Doing this will significantly reduce the chances of ending up with an unsustainable product.
3. Think product adoption before marketing
Product adoption is a bit of an unusual concept to charities, and a lot more than just a kind of marketing.
It could be defined as the whole experience you create around your product and the relationships that people build with it. It’s particularly about the relationships that your product’s first fans build with it and how they become part of its story.
Product adoption begins while you’re doing your customer discovery. The people you meet and attract to your idea, before it’s even become a product, are the people you’ll be relying on to be the foundation of its success. They’ll help you design it and then they’ll use it. If you nurture these relationships they will generate stories and discussion that will attract others.
Keep in touch with everyone you meet, offer them chances to sign up for newsletters and be testers. Blog and write to them regularly. Be kind and treat them with respect. In return they’ll become your product’s greatest asset, turning other users on to your product.
The Full Labs Guide – Free Download
These three tips are just a few of the eighteen pieces of advice contained in the Labs ebook: ‘Learning from the Labs: how to fund and deliver social tech for charities and social enterprises’. The guide also includes help for charitable trusts who want to fund more digital initiatives. You can get a free copy here.