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

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
, 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.