The Parable of the Stick
A man was walking through the woods with friend when his
friend fell and twisted his knee. Seeking some way to continue to their
destination, their eyes fell upon the coppice of hazel alongside the path.
The man realised that a market need had been created, in
which at least one person has an urgent requirement for something that can be
supplied, and the features can be specified: it must enable one to walk, be
portable, help reduce pain and be available immediately.
While his friend sat and cursed, the man took his penknife
and cut a 2m length of hazel, roughly chipping the ends and snapping the wood
to about his own height.
The man knew that this was only a prototype. It roughly met
the user criteria, but was unfinished in many areas. The main advantage that it
had was that it was available to be tested by the user there and then.
Taking the stick to his friend, and helping his friend to
his feet, they laughed, shared some jokes about how fortunate they had been not
to have this accident befall them beside a manure heap, and then, using the
stick, his friend started to limp forwards: step, drag, stick. Step, drag,
stick. And on they went for a few metres.
“This stick is too long for me, as I am only 1m78 tall”,
said the friend. “This stick has rough ends, and chaffs at my hand”, the friend
said. “This stick is a little thin, and bends when I put my weight fully on it”
complained the friend.
The man smiled. He smiled because he knew that immediate
user feedback was pure gold, and that all friends were customers, and all
customers were friends. He was already having ideas. So he rested his friend
again, marked a height on the stick where his friends hand naturally fell, and
walked off into an oak Coppice.
The man knew that the prototype could become an alpha
product if he listened to user feedback and applied his own common sense.
He took his knife, and cut a shorter, stronger, thicker, oak
stick. This time he carefully bevelled and rounded the ends with his
pocketknife. It took a little longer than before, but the result was a sturdy
and comfortable walking pole.
They were able to walk on for nearly a kilometre this time.
At the end of that, home was in sight. “You know,” said the friend, “this is a
good stick, and I would like to keep it, and always have it with me, in case I
should fall when I am alone. You won’t always be there to make me a stick.” The
man smiled more. He had found a product and made it fit the market need. His friend
went on “it would, however, be so much better if the handle fitted my hand, as
I now have a blister there, and if it had my name carved in it, so all will
know it is mine.” This, the man did.
He now had a beta product, and he happily rewarded the early
adopter and market tester with free gifts and services, as he knew the friend
would soon tell others.
At home, he told his family the story, and they all wanted
Back in the woods the next day, the man, and his friend
together cut several sticks, and fashioned them with smooth handles, round
ends, and in various lengths and thicknesses. He explained to his friend:
“while we have a good idea that sticks help people walk, and people like them,
we don’t know exactly who will want sticks, or why, so we are going to test the
market with lots of similar, but slightly different sticks, and see what
happens. I call this ‘testing alternatives’ or ‘comparative testing’ ”
Back at home, he got his family, and his friends family, to
chose sticks and come for a walk. His son chose a thinner stick, better to whip
down nettles with (as he had no need of a stick to walk). His wife chose a
stick with nicely coloured bark and the best carved handle. Others came, and
each was given a stick to suit, but only in exchange for a conversation about
why they chose that particular one, and a promise to come back after the walk
and say what it was like.
The following day, armed with feedback from many people, the
man and his friend set to work on just three types of stick. “I can’t satisfy
the whole world,” said the man, but I can make a lot of sticks that people
Twenty years later the man and his friend were reminiscing
in a nice hotel bar. “Who would have guessed,” said the friend, “that in just
20 years, the invention of the stick would have led to all this! We have
forests of hazel and oak being coppiced by foresters. The knife and toolmakers
are placing strain on the mines for fine ores to make better blades. There are
stick vendors near every path. There is even a cult of metal badge makers, and
leather handle wrappers, for goodness sake!”
“Ah,” said the man, “I did guess.” And he smiled. “I knew
that if we got the first product design right, under pressure, and in
association with real users, then we would have a great product. I knew others
would differentiate the stick to suit other purposes, (even dibbing holes in
the ground and acting as a horse whip). I knew how the ecosystem of business
works, and how others grow up to service and enhance a good product. Most of all,
I knew that if I could make my friend happy when he was in pain, then what I
made was good, and would thrive and prosper.”
Finishing their drinks, they took up their sticks, now too
old men, and limped off down the rough track home.