American Idol: The World's Greatest Lean Startup?

Lopez Abdul Blank

What does American Idol have to do with startups. Nothing, right? Well, that's what I thought. Then I got hooked on the 2011 season. After a few weeks of watching Jennifer Lopez's startling transformation into Paula Abdul (I mean, come on - look at her!), it hit me: American Idol is the ultimate exercise in customer development. It's a dead simple, efficient, and downright genius system that utilizes customer feedback to find product-market-fit.


Let's think for a moment how this show actually works: Gather 100,000 potential products (in this case, singers), narrow it down to the 20 or 30 best-looking, slickest of the bunch, give them a voice coach (Minimum Viable Performer) and then invite your target market (tweens and, well...dudes like me) to try each one out and tell you exactly which one they'd most like to buy. Throughout this testing process, which I'll call a "beta," your users are falling in love with their favorite of the bunch and running to the web to evangelize on its behalf.
In the end, you give the winning product a record contract and hit the market with the closest thing to a sure bet since Adam Vinatieri in a blizzard because you have exactly the product the market selected for you. So, what have you accomplished? Well, you've taken as much risk out of your "startup" as possible: there's little guess-work when you have, oh, about fifty million people who've said "yea, this product kind of rocks. I'll take it!" 
As my man Charlie might quip at a time like this, "Winning!"  

Yea, so?

Let's say you build enterprise software for the insurance industry. What would you say if I told you there were a few hundred insurance executives sitting in a conference room eagerly waiting to look at all of your product ideas, try each one out, and then tell you exactly which one they'd most like to purchase? Oh and, by the way, they're providing lunch (Eric Ries' head just exploded). This is exactly what American Idol has done for the pop music industry and, specifically, 19 Entertainment - the talent agency founded by American Idol creator, Simon Fuller.
What does 19 Entertainment get out of the deal? You know, just six or seven years of exclusive business with the winner (at 15% of earnings). And, just in case you aren't buying it, no American Idol has earned less than $1 million in his or her first year after winning. With blowout stars like Carrie Underwood (12mm albums sold), Kelly Clarkson (10mm albums sold), and that old guy from season five, you can bet your assets 19 Entertainment is doing A-Oh-Kay. Now, someone get Simon Fuller a desk next to Steve Blank over at Haas [pictured above].   


So, the next time you catch yourself rocking out to "before he cheats," consider the fact that you're enjoying the product of perhaps the world's greatest implementation of customer development, and then turn off Z100 and get back to working on your startup.

p.s. That dude with the beard is totally going to win. 


--questions, comments?



twitter: @istanb4u



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