The Wizard of Oz MVP: All Style, No Substance

Getting to market quickly is key when launching a new startup. The eternal problem is that development takes time, so getting from idea to product can take ages if you’re doing it properly.

So, how do we fix this? We cheat!

There’s always a desire to push something out the door that’s perfect, but in the rapidly changing startup world ‘perfect’ means too late. There’s more value in having something imperfect in front of a user ready to learn from than something polished but delivered too late.

If you’re waiting to push out a perfect product you’ve waited too long


One way of doing all this is using the Wizard of Oz technique. If you’re familiar with the film you’ll understand the thinking behind the name. It describes a product that looks super impressive from the outside but behind the curtain is far less polished, just like the wizard when he’s revealed.


How does it work?

Fully developed products have automated processes in place to deal with all manner of customer interactions. These are the things that take time to build, test and launch. An easy way to bypass this is to adapt a more manual workflow, substituting human time and effort for what the system will eventually have to do by itself.

Take a hypothetical cookery website, we’ll call it CookSmart. A user signs up giving their personal details, their favourite ingredients and the things in their cupboards they want to use up. The site then promises to send them weekly emails with ideas for new recipes based on their settings.

The full product would write all of this to a database which also contains a bunch of recipes and ingredients. Every week it would then go through matching users to pre-defined recipes making sure that they get results that are tailored to what’s in their profile.

The tech required for this isn’t the most complex thing ever but it would take some time to put together.

The Wizard of Oz version of this simply takes the information the user enters and sends it to an email address. That info will be processed (added to a spreadsheet, put in a CRM or whatever) and each week it’ll be the job of someone to go through and send out some tailored emails to everyone who has signed up.

There’s nothing smart going on (no offense to whoever’s doing the grunt work), it’s a simple case of building a manual, or semi-manual, workflow in the background that allows the end product to be sent out each week.

The tech required for this is nothing more than a web form which can be coded in a few minutes.

Users will never know

A common worry is that the user would be able to tell that this is in some way an imperfect product. It’s a legitimate concern but the beauty of it is that the user would be completely unaware of this.

The back end system may be held together with string but that doesn’t mean that the front end has to be. Effort can, and should, be put into making a great visual design and creating a pleasurable user experience. Once the user has clicked send on the signup form they have no real way of knowing what’s really going on behind the scenes.

As long as the user gets what the site promises they’ll be happy and assume that this is a more advanced application than it actually is

The obvious downside

The time saved on development is great but it should be clear that this approach will be a drain on your resources. While you’re not investing in coding there will certainly be a healthy investment in sending emails, communicating with people and generally running a tech business in a non-tech way.

The benefits

While handling things manually will take a lot of your time it provides you with some key benefits.

The first is that you’ll be in direct contact with your early adopters. These are real customers who have signed up for your product because they liked the sound of it. They are the people who you need to be speaking with to find out what they think about your product and how you should be changing it. Their emails are now in your inbox, go talk to them!

The next benefit is that you’ll be doing your learning before building anything complex. The worst that could happen when coding a product is putting it out there and finding that you’ve built the wrong thing. With this approach you have no product yet so can be 100% certain that you’ve not made this mistake.

Perhaps the feedback you get from your users is that everything is A-OK and that they love your prototype. That’s great, time to go ahead and put together the tech. What’s more likely to happen is that they’ll tell you they like the idea but it’s not exactly what they were after. Even better! Now you’re in the enviable position of having a clear vision for what your customers want and the drive to start building it.

Having no complex tech in place means you can rapidly adapt and change based on all this feedback you’re receiving. This could be small iterative changes to the offering you’ve put out or you could also find that you’ve misjudged the market and a drastic change is required.

A short term solution

This solution generally only works in the early days of your startup. Once you get any decent level of engagement then this will soon become too time consuming to handle. The CookSmart team above might be able to send out a handful of customised emails every week manually but would soon buckle under the pressure as more and more people sign up.

If you go down this route it’s important to have development on your roadmap with resource ready to go. As a tool to get you straight to your customer and on the path to building the right thing it can be a very smart move.

Need a hand putting together something to put in front of customers and get feedback? Talk to us