Iridium, Steve McQueen, and Venture Design

lemansIridium. It was the ill-fated venture which placed 66 (out of a planned 77) communication satellites into orbit before finding out that the value proposition was fundamentally flawed. Millions of dollars were lost along the way. Could this fate have been avoided?

I think so. Had the Iridium venture been staged using a prototype-driven, do-and-learn go to market philosophy, its deep flaws would have surfaced well before the big bucks were spent. Much to the dismay of their users, Iridium handsets didn’t work under bridges or inside buildings – a showstopper? Imagine if Iridium had run a prototype service just in Australia; they would have learned all the killer handset lessons in time to correct course before running aground, and for less money.

You can prototype anything. Before filming his epic movie Le Mans, Steve McQueen actually took an entire film crew to the French race a year early, shot an entire movie, and then threw most of the exposed stock away. Why? Because he knew that they best way to learn how to shoot a great movie at Le Mans was to first shoot a crappy movie there. His camera people gleaned deep insights into camera placements, mounts, and techniques which put them in good stead when it came time to shoot the real movie. And the value of the tacit knowledge transfer involved cannot be underestimated: rather than try to explain to new camera people what he wanted, McQueen could point to actual film clips and say, “This is good.”

Prototypes aren’t just for physical products. Even ventures can be prototyped.