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Is your product an Ice Cream Glove or a Snuggie?

At each of the lean startup master classes, we’ve turned to a special expert on entrepreneurship to provide us with
special insight;  Ali G teaches us
about two enduring kinds of failed products: the Ice Cream Glove and the
Hoverboard.

A segment of his show is below (warning: brief uses of strong language):

For those that haven’t watched it, I’ll give a brief recap.
Ali G meets with business leaders and investors on Wall Street to learn how to
create a new company around a new product idea. After some general lessons, he
then proposes his first product idea, complete with flip charts, business plan,
and marketing plan. His idea? The Ice Cream Glove, a special glove you can
carry around with you so that, if you happen to eat ice cream, you can prevent
your hands from getting sticky. After failing to persuade most of the investors
to back him in that venture, he then tries to sell a second idea: a Hoverboard,
“like from Back to the Future.” After all, they must have made at least one of
them for the movie, right?

Both of these ideas for companies are terrible, and the show
is funny because he manages to keep on selling them with a straight face. But
there are also important lessons baked into the humor. Take the example of the Hoverboard.
If you look at the typical startup, you will see the vast majority of their
energy and time invested in building new technology. We act as if the biggest
risk to startup success is that the technology won’t work. But in reality, most
products fail because they are the Ice Cream Glove, that is, because there are
no customers who will buy them.

Why is the Ice Cream Glove a bad idea? After all, it does
solve a real problem. As Ali G says, the target market is people who like ice
cream combined with people who have hands. It’s a terrible idea because it
doesn’t solve a very important problem. Startups make this mistake all the
time, sometimes inventing dramatic new technology that can’t find early
adopters, because it doesn’t really make anyone’s life better.

And yet, before we leave the subject of products that don’t
solve a very important problem, let’s
consider one last video:

The Snuggie is another common type of product. When I first
saw this infomercial, I was convinced it was another joke. Yet the Snuggie is
no joke: it’s a product that has sold millions of units. So why
is the Snuggie any different from the Ice Cream Glove? It sounds like yet
another product that doesn’t solve a very important problem. Aren’t blankets
good enough for keeping warm on the couch? I believe if you had pitched both
ideas to me as an investor, I would have found both equally laughable. Yet only
one is actually a joke.

So how can you tell the difference between an Ice Cream
Glove and a Snuggie? You can’t.  Only your customers can. There is literally no exercise at the
whiteboard you can use to find this out ahead of time. A lot of startups – and
a lot of technologists – make this mistake. You cannot figure out what products
create value for customers at the whiteboard, where all you have to draw on are
opinions. To operate with facts is the essence of something called Customer
Development
, one of the core lean startup tenets. It is a methodology for getting
“out of the building” and testing ideas against reality, to find out what
creates value for customers before
spending all of our resources building it. Since the biggest source of waste in
product development is building something that nobody wants, customer
development can help us make better use of all the human energy we pour into
new products.

The Snuggie and the Ice Cream Glove may not sound like a
very important products in the grand scheme of things.  But I hope you’ll remember them as cautionary
tales. Most entrepreneurs, when they are pitching their products to investors,
to potential partners, and even to future employees, sound just like Ali G
pitching the Ice Cream Glove: in love with their own thinking, the amazing
product features they are going to build – and utterly out of touch with
reality. Don’t let that happen to you.

  • http://bobtuse.blogspot.com/ Bob MacNeal

    Chindōgu is the act – some would say art – of creating a product whose usefulness is precluded by its absurdity.

    The video of the ice cream glove is hilarious. Its charm is reminding us all how silly we appear when we’re disproportionately excited by our own cleverness.

    An ice cream glove has that all-too-common quality of “unuselessness” – that is, it’s not useless in an absolute sense since it does actually solve a problem (sticky hands), but in practical terms, it’s not positively useful either. Its utility is over-shadowed by its silliness.

  • http://www.emotionai.com Ian Wilson

    As an example this looks somewhat dubious? How did the Snuggie company develop their million selling product? It seems like they may have just produced them (in quantity) *before* they knew it would sell (as you mention if you whiteboarded the idea it would look problematic, although I find myself want to order two after this post..). This particular example seems to dilute the effectiveness of your point does it not?

    The methodology is sound, but the example maybe not so?

  • Mary Treseler

    Another great post. Ali G. has the data to back up his idea, but it leads me back to a fundamental question: Can good judgment be taught? We can all find data to support any argument we want – where do judgment/instinct and common sense come into play? Mary

  • http://www.stubbleblog.com Tony Stubblebine

    Ian,

    I have the slightly more upscale Slanket, and love it for cold days when I’m on my laptop. You might appreciate this review, which compares the Snuggie, Slanket, Blankoat, and robe-worn-backwards.
    http://community.cbs47.tv/blogs/techtracker/archive/2009/03/31/3796903.aspx

  • http://lmframework.com/blog David Semeria

    Ian Wilson nailed it.

    You’re arguing that even if the ice cream glove sounds stupid, you never know if people might actually buy it – hence the Snuggie counterpoint.

    But how do you know if people will actually buy ice cream gloves without actually making them?

    If anything, this argues in favour of building software prototypes because the cost (and risk) of scaling is much less than in manufacturing.

  • http://www.mantrainteractive.com Anton

    I graduated with a degree in Industrial Design but currently work as a front end developer and user interface designer.

    One of the best classes I took focused on research methodologies for product development. From my perspective user research is far more developed in the field of product development. My hunch is that this is so because if you are designing a item such as a chainsaw or power drill you had better do the research to figure out how people will actually use your product so that you can design the proper safety mechanism so that they do not literally kill themselves while using your product.

    I fond software developers are generally far to lazy and elitist to do the proper research, or just clueless as to why it might be important to do user research.

  • http://startuplessonslearned.blogspot.com/ Eric Ries

    David, there are a lot of ways to find out if someone will want something before it’s fully built: minimum viable product, rapid prototypes, customer validation, etc. The specific technique depends on the type of market and type of product. However, what’s common to all techniques is they require getting information from “outside the building.” It’s not about better analysis, it’s about going through a feedback loop that tests vision against reality.

  • http://www.benderblog.com Bender

    Actually, people buy Snuggie just to get the free book flashlight.

    Anyway, Snuggie, as the other similar products, is a clear alternative to the low tech solution of simply wearing a coat backside.

  • Shanti

    So, what kind of user research did twitter do before it launched ? They could never have foreseen the myriad ways people use this platform.
    Yeah – I know, For every twitter, there are thousands of failed ventures.

  • Andy

    Shanti,

    I wouldn’t exactly use twitter as an example of a “successful” product.

    The idea of a product is to make profit. That means building a product that people are willing to PAY for, not a product that people don’t mind using for free.

    In its more than 3 years of existence Twitter has not made a single cent of REVENUE, never mind profit. Not exactly a success.

  • http://www.alexandertolley.com Alex Tolley

    I’m not sure that the lesson is “customer development” at all. What are focus groups for if not to test product ideas before they are built? And the result – they cannot work for truly inventive or very innovative products, because people have no real experience of them to understand how they might be useful.

    The ice-cream glove sound facile on it’s face, yet the problem is solved already by using a napkin or tissue. The next step might be to use one of those thin polythene gloves, perhaps with tissue attached to the surface.

    The hoverboard is interesting too. It represents a product that the investors cannot understand. Does the VC really know that it cannot be built? How about other devices which appear to have technology “indistinguishable form magic” (to use Arthur C. Clarke’s phrase? How many advanced products have been pitched where the investors cannot understand whether the technology is real or achievable?

    Conversely, look at the vast number of failures for even the most mundane consumer goods. Lots of consumer marketing studies for development, lots of marketing spend and they still fail. Remember the “clear” fad back in teh 90′s? Clear sodas, even a clear beer. Total flops that most likely had lots of careful studies done before development and launch.

    Perhaps a better model is to think of new product successes as much more random than we like to think (a la Taleb’s “Fooled by Randomness” but applied to cultural artifacts rather than executive success).

    As for those Snuggies. $14.95 is a good buy for a coat and book reader, especially if other examples really are much more expensive. Aren’t they just selling into an established market? And wasn’t that market already extant with teh “house coat” or robe?

  • http://twitter.com/sbraford Shanti B

    I’m not sure if the company behind Snuggie did this, but it’s common practice in Infomercial-land to sell a product that hasn’t even been mass produced yet.

    If you ever see “Allow 4-6 weeks for delivery”, chances are they are having your item in China produced only *after* receiving your order. e.g. they may not necessarily have shipping containers loaded with them just waiting for you to order one.

  • http://www.rentoid.com Steve Sammartino

    I thought the Snuggie was a joke too – I’m perplexed at how successful it has been.

  • http://www.richardsona.com Adam Richardson

    The Ali G is example is great.

    I like to use the line from Spinal Tap to describe this situation: “It’s such a fine line between stupid and clever.” Often it’s just a matter of context and timing that makes the difference between an idea, the very same idea, succeeding or failing.

    As someone who works in product development this issue is endlessly interesting to me. I did a post about it a bit earlier this year: http://www.richardsona.com/main/2009/5/11/when-to-be-visionary-when-to-adjust.html

  • http://www.whitneyhoffman.com Whitney Hoffman

    Th reason why the Snuggie would win over the Ice Cream Glove is because even its name tells a story that has emotional resonance- buy this blanket with sleeves, spend more time with your family, feel comforted and feel taken care of, for the incredible price of $14.99!

    Let’s not forget that the product needs to have perceived relevance to the consumer- the Ice Cream Glove might seem great if placed in high end ice cream shops in tourist towns- placement would work because it resonates at the time of potential purchase- but it probably would not be as ubiquitously successful as the Snuggie, which has a bigger emotional impact for people.

    Whenever designing a product or service, that relevance and emotional impact are important things to remember.

  • bowerbird

    did anyone notice that donald trump was
    the only v.c. who had no time for this fool?

    -bowerbird

  • http://www.forexqs.blogspot.com forexqs.blogspot.com

    I graduated with a degree in Industrial Design but currently work as a front end developer and user interface designer.

    One of the best classes I took focused on research methodologies for product development. From my perspective user research is far more developed in the field of product development. My hunch is that this is so because if you are designing a item such as a chainsaw or power drill you had better do the research to figure out how people will actually use your product so that you can design the proper safety mechanism so that they do not literally kill themselves while using your product.

    I fond software developers are generally far to lazy and elitist to do the proper research, or just clueless as to why it might be important to do user research.

  • What a stupid example

    Your article sucks, Eric Ries.

    The ice cream glove sucks for a quantity of reasons, and not just because it “doesn’t solve a very important problem”.

    For starters, it would make you look like a retard. You could argue the snuggie does too, but it does so in the privacy of your own home, while the ice cream glove does so in public.

    The snuggie is made to be left at home. But you would need to carry your ice cream glove with you at all times when you go out, just in case you happen to be buying ice cream. This, of course, is cumbersome as hell.

    What are you doing comparing a product that is a little silly (the snuggie) to a product that is completely stupid (the ice cream glove)? What a bad example, dude.