Why Pretotyping matters to your business, with Alberto Savoia

You’ve never heard about “pretotyping” – not prOtotyping… -?

Then you should definitely watch this interview with Alberto Savoia who developed the concept of pretotyping while working at Google, gave hundreds of seminars on innovation at Google (and also Stanford) and is now founder of PretotypeLabs and discover why it could matter to your business.


About Alberto Savoia:
Alberto Savoia is a successful practitioner, expert, coach, author and speaker on the topic of high-yield innovation through experimentation. His area of focus and expertise is in helping already successful and established companies innovate like startups. Most recently he was Innovation Agitator at Google where he was the most requested speaker on the topic on Innovation.  His prior responsibilities at Google included leading the development and launch of Google’s multi-billion-dollar AdWords product.

Currently, Alberto is the co-founder of PretotypeLabs which he started in 2012 to help disseminate the theory and practice of pretotype-driven innovation which he developed while he was at Google. He is also collaborating with Stanford University’s Graduate School of Business and continues to work with Google to creates and leads courses and workshops in pretotyping. Prior to Google and PretotypeLabs, Alberto was Director of Software Research at Sun Microsystem where he played a key role in the development of Java technology and tools, and co-founder of two very innovative and influential startups in the area of software development & testing tools.

One of the constants in Alberto’s career has been his drive and passion for fostering and creating innovation in all of his endeavors.  For this, he has won significant industry recognition and awards, including: The 2005 Wall Street Journal Technical Innovator Award, InfoWorld Top 25 CTOs Award, AlwaysOn Top Innovators Award (2004, 2005, 2006) and InfoWorld’s Technology of the Year Award (2005, 2006).

Alberto is a prolific author and speaker on the topic of innovation.  He has recently co-authored the article Entrepreneurial Innovation at Google for IEEE Computer magazine and he the author of  Pretotype It – Make sure you are building the right it before you build it right (PDF, Kindle).

Raw Transcription:

Marco: Hello everyone. Marco Montemagno here, Founder of the Tech Alchemist. Hello and today here with me Alberto Savoia from San Francisco. You there? Alberto, now.

Alberto: [Mount Aview].

Marco: Mount Aview. Right. Alberto, thank you so much for being here today and it’s always great to see some Italians doing great things all over the world and you’re one of those people that I really appreciate. I’ve been discovering your work recently. But I was really fascinated by your pretotyping, not prototyping but pretotyping work which is not now a need but I would say can or maybe is or will become a movement. So, I think it is very interesting for everyone doing business.

And, so, I want to understand a little bit more but first, I would like to understand your story because you’ve been working in Google really in the beginning and is always very intriguing for business understand what was Google in the beginning. So how do you start there?

Alberto: Well, I was born in Rome, Italy but when I visited California and Silicon Valley, I realized that just like there are men that say they were born in a women’s body or visa versa. I think I was a Silicon Valley person born in an Italian body. So, when I arrived in Silicon Valley, I thought this is the place for me and I went for a vacation and then I decided to stay.

So over the years, I was always interested in programming and technology and I have been very lucky, ended up at Sun Microsystems in the early days and had a good career there. Then, I left and did a startup that went very well. So after we sold that startup, I thought what am I doing to do. And some of my friends were at Google so I went there and had an interview there. Probably the toughest job interview of my life. Very technical, and they still do that.

I was fortunate enough after three months, they said there is this little idea we want to do called AdWords. They wanted what they said senior supervision or adult supervision and I never kind of saw myself as adult supervision. But, I kind of accepted the role and that happened to be at the time that AdWords was launching. So, even, of course, it’s a work of many, many more people and I was glad to be there at the crucial time in a product that now makes billions each quarter.

Marco: I’m just curious. Then, I want to talk about pretotyping. How was working on such an amazing, successful product which was in the end AdWords? One of the most interesting and is a huge business for Google but it was really an amazing invention and then everything started out of it. How is it been there from the beginning on this kind of product?

Alberto: What, at the time, you never realize it, right? Because at the time, Google was still in just one building. There were two senior managers, myself and the VP of Engineering and we knew it was going to be big. I don’t think even the biggest optimist saw that it was going to be this big and last this long. I think the credit goes to the people that have actually taken this initial product which was the first product and actually have grown to the scale that it has now. But, at the time, you don’t realize it. I just remember a lot of work, just being busy. You don’t even think about 10 years in the future. You just trying to make sure that the whole system is launched and it doesn’t crash.

Marco: So, Alberto, let’s talk about pretotyping. I was preparing the chat we do interview with you and I was talking with a friend. And, I say I’m going to do an interview with this man. He’s writing and talking about pretotyping and my friend say oh, prototyping. Of course, I say no. Pretotyping. And it’s something different. So first of all, can you explain to our Tech Alchemist people, what is pretotyping all about?

Alberto: So, when you think everybody knows prototyping, right, and the example I use is when the inventor of the Palm Pilot, Jeff Hawkins, had the first idea of the Palm Pilot. He didn’t jump immediately and start building something with wires and batteries and displays. Why? Because his previous company, a startup company called GRiD Computers, spent years and millions of dollars, tens of millions of dollars, to develop a product that then when they launched it, nobody actually bought it. It was the form fact. They built the prototypes.

So, what Jeff Hawkins did, he actually took and if you see the book or the video, actually, have images of that, took a block of wood. Put a paper sleeve on it with a user interface for the, what become the Palm Pilot. And he pretended to use it. Let’s assume that you want to schedule a meeting, I’d say Marco, you want to meet next week? You say yes and then I pull out this block of wood and I kind of pretend that it’s working. Then if it does work, after awhile I realize, if this was more than a block of wood, if this actually worked, I would use it all of the time. So, that was the problem with his other product. He built it with all the functionality but he wasn’t using it.

So, the word pretotyping initially started as pretend prototype. You pretend to have built something to see if you would actually use it because, as you know, most new products fail. Most new products fail, not because they’re not build right. Very few startups fail because they cannot build the product. They fail because they didn’t build a product that the market is interested in. Even the people who built it for themselves, they wouldn’t use it. So, it’s very hard for the people [inaudible 00:06:27].

Marco: Is it right to say that with prototyping I actually have to build some sort. If I want to do a prototype of a mobile phone, I basically have to try to build at least a basic mobile phone and then say okay, this is the prototype of my mobile phone. With pretotyping, I can maybe start with something very simple, a piece of wood or piece of metal and pretend that this is the mobile phone and I explain the features that it should have.

Alberto: I’ll give you an example. So we will do the phone. Clearly, pretotyping only makes sense when you don’t know if there’s an interest. By now, we know that people will buy phones. We know they’ll buy tablets. So, right now, you don’t need to pretotype a phone anymore. But maybe of a new idea for a mobile app. So what you need to do in that case, you could spend weeks or months building the perfect app. Let’s say one of my favorite was called. We do this at Google in these workshops called ParkJerk. Sometimes you find people that take two parking spots. So, you want to build an application, you take the photos and then you publicly humiliate them on a forum. Look at how this idiot parks. Well, and actually, this was developed.

One thing is I can start writing the application, taking the photos, creating the backend of the database, upload, download. Do all the sign ups and all this stuff. Or, and then maybe I figure out, I’m not going to bother with it. Or, maybe you just pretended. Maybe you draw the user interface on a piece of paper. You take a photo with the phone and then as you walk around, you pretend that you actually have this application and the thing that you need to test the most is would I actually use this. Because if you don’t use it, then it’s unlikely that other people will use it. And, if you look most of the apps in the app store, 95% don’t make any money. They have just a few downloads.

Marco: Can you do pretotyping only with, you suggested to do pretotyping only with, let’s say, analog tool? Or there are also digital tools that you can use to create something to prototype your idea?

Alberto: No, there are some digitals. By the way, pretotyping, the slogan, is make sure you’re building the right it before you build the try-it. And, again, the right it could even be a restaurant. I want to do. In fact, I have an idea for a restaurant called Tapasta. Hey, why not have a place were you can buy these Spanish.

Marco: Tell me again. Tapasta?

Alberto: Tapasta.

Marco: Tapasta. It’s great, isn’t it? This is genius, Alberto.

Alberto: Right. So what. But you know most restaurants fail. They fail within a year. So, I thought the thing maybe I want to do is to, how can I test if there is an interest for it. I’m getting at least two years in a restaurant. Maybe I can advertise. I can pretend this restaurant exist. Maybe I can have one of those food trucks. There are many ways that are, before you go for the whole product, there are many tests that you can do.

One example, you could buy AdWords. Let’s assume that I want to write a book as I use in my book example in, for people who like to watch squirrels. We know that there is a market for bird watchers. But, maybe there are people who like to watch squirrels. How do I know these people are around there? I can do some online research. But perhaps I can go to Google AdWords. I buy the keyword squirrels and when people type squirrel, I can show an ad for my book. You know the Complete Squirrel Watchers. Even though maybe I have not written the book yet. This is a technique called a fake door. So, you don’t actually have to have built the product.

Now, clearly you need to be careful with the ethical considerations because you want people to click and tell them I’m thinking of writing this book. If you’re interested, give me your e-mail and I will actually send you a free copy when it’s out. I’m doing a market test. Now, so, what happens is. If you happen to write a book, it would take months. And most books, like most apps, like most businesses, like most startups, like most restaurants, like most movies, are not successful. Not because they’re not well done in most case but because there isn’t a market for that. So, if you do this, a small number of people pay a very small penalty. Let’s say through the fake door by clicking on it. But, the public, at large, gets the reward if people do not spend time building products or applications that are wasted.

Marco: And the price of failure and the cost of failure for you is anyway very low and you can fail very fast and change. So, it is very smart.

Alberto: Absolutely, and that’s what I’ve done with my book Pretotyping. I gave hundreds of talks on pretotyping. At Google, people loved it and said Alberto, write a book. And I thought, “Oh my God. Write a book. That’s going to take months and you have to sit down alone at a keyboard. Not my idea of fun.” So, the first thing I did, I bought some AdWords to see if people will be interested in the book. And then when they click on the book the Complete Guide of Pretotyping, I would say just give me your e-mail, I will send you a free copy. So, I learned from the fan mail how many people click on the ad. How many people give me their e-mail. So, I have an idea there is a market that people like the idea.

Then, the next step I did. I wrote a minimum viable booklet if want. A pretobook. That I wrote in one week and I put it on Amazon and download to see if people would actually download it. All of this are steps that go in one after another to validate the idea. For a product to be successful, so many things have to go right. It has to be the right product. The right price. The marketing. The right audience. The competition must not be doing the right things. So, the goal is to find how of this many things each of which has to be right can I test. And some of them are very easy to test. Imagine you write the book and you plan to sell it via AdWords or Amazon. Well, maybe you don’t have to write the full book and put it on Amazon. Write a 72 page book and to see if people download it which shows me there is an interest.

Marco: Why you were speaking, Alberto. It’s funny because I was thinking that when I launched my company. A few years ago, I launched a company called Blogosfere. It was a network of blogs then I sold when it was three and half million unique visitors a month. The funny thing is that when I launched it, basically, I had nothing. I had no company. I had no blogs. I had no bloggers. But I remember I wrote a post where I say guys, I will do this and I will launch [inaudible 00:13:13] 100 bloggers if you want to, if you’re interested just write to me. But, the people thought that behind was something. But it was really nothing. It was just a landing page basically. Then I got doing tons of e-mails. But I agree with you that ethic is very important to then, to match exactly what’s the expectation and be very transparent.

Alberto: That’s right and of course, you’ve cannot use this fake door approach. But, by the way, this is only one of the many, many pretotyping techniques to try. But it’s a very nice, quick and easy one. You cannot use it in all situations.

Another favorite story of mine, another pretotyping technique is called the Mechanical Turk. And the best the way to explain is an example that IBM did many years ago. They wanted to do speech to text. Because they figured, 30 years ago, most people did not type on computers. So, they thought well we cannot sell personal computers if people cannot speak into them. That would have taken many, many years and tens of millions in development. The technology wasn’t there yet. One could argue even today it’s not working very well.

So, what did they do? They pretended. They built a pretotype. They put somebody in the room with a screen and a microphone and no keyboard and they told them, we’ve built a prototype of a speech to text translation. So, speak into it. And it worked. People spoke and the words appear on the screen as if it was perfect speech to text. But they didn’t build anything. Another person in the room, you know, a stenographer, a typist was listening through headphones would just type for them. So, they pretended to have build this device to see if and how people would use it.

What they learned was very interesting, is that people thought that everybody would have though. Of course, we want to speak to computers. Who wants to type? But, in reality, if you try speaking to a computer for several hours a day, your throat gets sore. The room gets very loud. Imagine everybody at Starbuck’s talking. So, what they’ve learned without building anything with a pretotype, is that the demand and the idea of speech to text being great, actually when tried in practice, is not that great.

Marco: Could you elaborate more on how their pretotyping techniques sold minimum viable product. First that reminds me of Eric Ries Lean Startup. He’s always talking about only this technique. Mechanical Turk that second one, what else?

Alberto: So, we have the fake door. By the way, another [inaudible 00:15:49] named [Jessie Helms], I think. Invented that term and we like the fake door. It’s some sounds so real. See if people knock if you actually build something behind that door.

NVP, we have to actually build something. But an NVP has to viable and a product. So you would agree the Palm Pilot. The piece of wood pretotype is not viable, not a product. Also what IBM built. Unless they plan to put little typist into boxes was not really a viable product. It was more of a test.

Another favorite example of mine is Tesla. I don’t know if Tesla is as famous as in Europe, you know the electric car company, as it is here. But, Elon, he’s a great guy. I mean. So what they did is. Well, how do we start a car company? How do we know that people would even buy it? The first car was a sportster. Right? The two-seater that cost $109,000. What do most car companies do? They go to a car show. They build a car and ask people if they will buy it and then people say yes. And then they build 10,000 of them. Then, failures like, I don’t know, I’m not going to name names. Every time I mention a car. Somebody says, I had one of those. I loved it.

Well what did Elon Musk do? He took an existing body, a Lotus Elise. He took off the shell. He took off the engine and he replaced it with an electric engine with his own body on it. And then he didn’t go and ask people would you buy this. He actually asked people, if you like this, you give me a $5,000 deposit. And, I will put you on a waiting list. Now, do you see the difference between this two?

Most people who do the asking is good market research. No and that’s how you end up with products that pass all the market research test but nobody then buys. Imagine going to the back and saying hey, people like this car. 98% versus going to the bank or the investors with a sheet of 700 people who gave me a $5,000 deposit. $5,000 to get on the waiting list for the car. That is very strong evidence.

Marco: Also for investors which is very important because you show traction, you show there is a very market there. So, it’s easier to get investing. And also it’s a kick starter in the end. He’s having big success because he’s engaging immediately the user sort of potential. Buyers from the day one. So that’s very interesting.

Alberto: Kick start is a great way to pretotype a, to pretotype an idea. That’s real evident that somebody wants what you are building.

Marco: In Europe, I think they will launch now. They didn’t start yet. Because car funding is still big problem in Europe. But, in U.S. is going really strong.

I would just would like you to elaborate more on this pretotyping technique. Because I think they very, very useful for everyone doing business and so many times as you say, we lose money. We lose time and we get a lot of failures. And we can avoid that with the right pretotyping approach. So, what else? Other techniques?

Alberto: I think since we’re both Italian, this is my favorite example. McSpaghetti. We all famous for burgers. At some point, the idea for McSpaghetti. Now, I will not go into what actually happened there but we actually work with McDonald’s. We did some pretotypes with them and they, I thought they were going to be offended by, but they actually loved the example.

So, let’s assume you’re a McDonald’s and you want to offer McSpaghetti. What are your pretotyping techniques? We do this actually in our workshops. What’s the simplest thing that you can do? Well, you don’t have to cook any pasta. You put it on the menu and then when people come in the store, they look at it and say I would like McSpaghetti. That tells you if there is a level of interest right. If nobody asks for it, you don’t even bother cooking it. So when people ask you, I would like to order McSpaghetti. First you would say Are you crazy? No. You’d say, okay. I’m sorry. This is just a market test but here’s a coupon. Please order anything else. We’re just trying to see if there’s an interest. This is the first pretotyping technique. A fake door.

The other thing a lot of companies, even, especially large companies do. They have an idea and they launch it. Say in all the stores and for a long time. So, one of the pretotyping techniques we recommend is the One Night Stand. See, I have an idea like McSpaghetti. First you test if there is any interest. Then, you want to see if people would come back. So, you try it in a small number of stores. And this time, every time somebody orders it, you make a note and you see how many people asked it, have you ordered it before. Because you want to find out if people will order it more than once. You can be really misled by a great marketing campaign. I can do a great marketing campaign. People are going to try my products but then what if they don’t come back?

So we break things into initial level of interest, ILI, and ongoing level of interest. You can test the initial level of interest with a fake door. Just put it on the menu and see if people order it. For the ongoing level of interest, you must actually cook some pasta. Hopefully, you don’t overcook it. You want it al dente. And you run the experiment for say, two months but just do it in a few stores. And, the mistake a lot of people do is they think they’re big. They think they’re right. So, they do this big launches and then have big failures.

Marco: So, start small and then scale it if it works and if you have the evidence already that it will work.

Alberto: That’s right. Because all representation start with the law of failure. And the truth is that most new products fail. And the more innovative they are, the greater the chances of failure are. Goes from 85% to 95% chance of failure, depending on how new and different it is. So, I always go on the assumption. When I do a test, my goal is not to prove that my idea is right is to prove that it’s wrong. And this sounds strange. But it’s like if you do in a court of law you have to prove that you’re innocent until proven guilty, but because most products fail, you have to start with the assumption that this product will fail but let me see by any chance it’s the right product. It’s a very different mindset. But I believe its the right one to take.

Marco: Alberto, a couple of questions more then I let you go. The first one is do you have any tools, digital tools, that you suggest or recommend for pretotyping, I mean prototyping? Everyone suggest wire-framing platforms, like Balasmic or this kind of platform where you can create a mock up or something like that. For pretotyping do you see anything that can be useful?

Alberto: Because you can pretotype anything from a book to a new car. I think people usually find out their imagination. But what typically happens, I tell them what’s your product. Then ask them how would you pretotype and they give me an idea. Typically, when we work them in caution, we come back with something simpler.

So for example with the McSpaghetti example. The first thing people would say is Oh, we just do it in two stores. And I tell them, well can you do it without cooking any pasta? Then they think for awhile and they say oh yeah. We just put it on the menu. Because right, there isn’t that initial level of interest, the ongoing level of interest is also not going to be there. So, there are tools and in the book, we discuss several of them. There are definitely tools for metric but every case we find is a little unique and there’s a very beautiful pretotype. In every large product, inside there is a very clever pretotype. Well, almost all the time.

Marco: So, Alberto, to get pretotyping is possible to download it from the web side, PDF which is in English and other translations that I know are coming. Other ways to connect with the pretotyping movement?

Alberto: So, first good news. I wrote the book in English and then much to my surprise, people started to do translation. Some of them didn’t ask me. Hey, I have a Spanish translation and now a Japanese and French translation are in the work. Leonardo [inaudible 00:24:26] in Italy did an Italian translation which, I speak Italian well, but I’ve been in the U.S. long enough, I cannot write it well. Which is fine because I read it and actually like it. I could have written it with the same language myself.

So, for all the material, including some videos where explains all of this ideas, just go to pretotyping or type pretotype or pretotyping into Google. And my official website is pretotypelabs.com. And then there’s tons of free material and much more to come, especially in Europe now that we have a lot of people getting busy there.

Marco: Excellent. Alberto Savoia, thank you so much. Pretotyping, guys, go there have a look. Really tons of useful tips and interesting stuff to read and to absorb. Alberto, thanks so much and good luck.

Alberto: Thank you. It’s been a lot of fun. Ciao, Marco. Grazie. May you find the right it.