How train platform noodle shops can teach us about product & service differentiation

In response to my recent article about how product managers can learn from the way Starbucks opens its stores while still under construction, several colleagues rightly pointed out that not all companies have the brand recognition and loyal customer base that Starbucks has when launching a new product or service. While I still think it’s true that the “coffee and cash register” approach that Dave Pickett summarized so well represents the “core revenue-generating loop” for a minimally viable product (MVP), basic functionality is not always enough to ensure success.

In addition to defining a well-constrained MVP that will enable you to get into the market and begin earning revenue, learning, and iterating to further improve the product, startups facing entrenched competition must fundamentally differentiate themselves rather than merely shipping a product with a subset of the competitors’ or alternatives’ features.

Now, bear with me as I stick to food & beverage analogies for a quick bowl of noodles…

I was born and raised in Japan, and I recently returned to visit friends and family there. Traveling from Tokyo to Matsumoto via Nagano, I had about 30 minutes between the bullet train from Tokyo and the express to Matsumoto, right around lunch time. As I stepped off the bullet train, the first thing that caught my eye was a small shop built on the train platform announcing “soba” (buckwheat noodles) on its blue curtains. Mountainous Nagano, where the Winter Olympics were held in 1998, is famous all over Japan for its soba, so I wasn’t about to pass up the opportunity.

An automated kiosk took my order for a 500-yen (less than USD 5.00) bowl of sansai or mountain vegetable soba, served cold in the mid-June heat. The kiosk issued a voucher, which I simply handed to the lone attendant inside the shop. She cooked up the fresh soba, chilled the noodles briefly in ice water, and then grabbed plastic containers full of mountain vegetables — such as fiddlehead fern shoots and other edible plants foraged from the nearby woodlands. Garnished with green onions, I had my meal within about three minutes and, standing at the counter, I’d slurped it down in another five, leaving plenty of time to do some gift shopping before my next train.

There are undoubtedly much nicer traditional Japanese restaurants right outside the train station in Nagano, with wonderful hospitality, a larger menu (including drinks), and a comfortable ambiance — perfect for spending a liesurely lunch or an evening with friends or colleagues. But these train platform noodle shops all over Japan differentiate themselves from their competition through important attributes like location, convenience, and speciality. And by automating order-taking while creating a compact, highly optimized work station for the attendant, the business is also able to keep costs incredibly low without sacrificing quality — aside from 7-Eleven onigiri (rice balls), this was by far the least expensive meal I had in Japan, and yet it was also one of the tastiest bowls of noodles I had during my two-week trip.

I could also argue that this noodle shop meets the definition of a good MVP — core features that generate revenue without unnecessary frills — while also successfully differentiating from restaurants that serve similar noodles. With a location primed to serve rushed travelers, this train station platform noodle shop provides a unique local delicacy at very low cost. And with the revenue and loyalty of frequent diners at a small shop like this, a wise business owner could potentially expand to other locations and even take over that upscale soba restaurant across the street from the train station.

It’s far too easy for product managers to fall into a comfortable trap of focusing merely on a feature set (or worse, interesting or “fun” technology), losing sight of the bigger picture that includes the fundamental problem you’re trying to solve, the competitive landscape, industry focus, user segmentation, and so on. For those of us who’ve survived failed startups, I know we’ve learned these lessons and that all of this feels very basic. But, so often rushed to deliver something functional for investors or stakeholders, I believe failure to differentiate is one reason why so many V1 products defined as overly narrow MVPs fail — they lack the differentiation necessary to make the product attractive or desirable. In an age when many users can quietly use SaaS alternatives to corporate-mandated systems (how many enterprise-wide instances of Slack start from the quiet frustrations of a handful of employees?), I believe this is true for internal corporate IT projects as much as it is for the hottest new app. I’m certainly not advocating the polar opposite of a narrowly focused MVP or V1 product — merely suggesting that MVPs can be too small as well as much too large.

So, the next time I’m defining a minimally viable product, I won’t just be thinking about my latest morning coffee here in Seattle, I’ll be thinking back to that wonderful bowl of buckwheat noodles in Nagano, considering how to differentiate my product rather than meet minimum functionality.

How Starbucks helps Product Managers define what a true Minimally Viable Product (MVP) is

As a Seattleite, I’ve supported my “local coffee company” when visiting New York, Tokyo, London, and Madrid (and yes, I support independent coffee shops as well). Starbucks receives universal acclaim for its excellent customer experience, whether you take advantage of the mobile ordering system, gamified loyalty program, convenient drive-throughs, or just walk up to the counter at any store around the world. For example, I recently noticed that the partners (as the company calls its staff) had stopped asking for my name when I paid using the mobile app. Observing them in action, I saw that each station, from the espresso machine to baked goods, now printed the order stickers that had previously only appeared on mobile orders. With no more handwritten misspellings of customer names on coffee cups, late night comedians will have to find new material!

But it’s not just a well-integrated customer experience that can provide lessons for Product Management and User Experience professionals in the technology industry. One of the two Starbucks stores on my commute to work (yes, they’re across the street from each other) has been under renovation for a few weeks, and yesterday the store opened for business, even though construction was not yet complete.

Every product development team defines differently what a “minimally viable product” (MVP) looks like for them, ranging from what other companies might consider a mere Beta release to a full v1.0 product that supports a broad range of customer and user needs. Debates about MVP scope can often get rancorous between business and engineering stakeholders as scope and schedule come into conflict, even in an iterative model like Scrum.

There’s a very simple lesson in how Starbucks chose to open this particular store. Even though all of the CX details — the comfortable seating area, trendy music, or reliable WiFi — are part of the full customer experience, and even as Starbucks continues to extend that experience with its high-end Roastery stores, the fundamental “MVP” for a Starbucks store isn’t all that, it’s the coffee. So when the espresso machine and register were ready, Starbucks promptly opened the store. The next day, parts of the store still remained cordoned off, and by the look of things construction may continue for some time. (I’ve even seen Starbucks counters in shipping crates while the store next door got rebuilt from the ground up.)

Some project manager at Starbucks headquarters in the industrial district of south Seattle (SoDo) is probably getting impatiant, and for all I know this phased reopening of the store was not according to plan, but from a product development standpoint, this was exactly how a new product or service launch should take place. A smart leader understood that the core experience — the true minimally viable product — is about meeting the caffeine and muffin or bagel needs of the store’s customer base, and that the core business goal is to begin generating revenue again from this location.

So, the next time you’re debating how to define your product’s MVP, consider this Starbucks store rather than the well-worn skateboard analogy (can you really even build a car on top of a skateboard anyway?) — consider what the core customer experience needs to be, and how you can begin generating business value sooner.


As a final note on customer experience, I can’t help but share the adorable cartoon that a barista in Tokyo drew on my Starbucks cup, putting a huge grin on my jetlagged face. Starbucks in Japan takes an amazing customer experience to new heights. I’m not sure what this character is, but it’s wearing a bowtie and that makes it awesome. “Have a nice day!” indeed.

Forever a Princess – for me, the Japanese Imperial Family will remain Empress Michiko

It’s April 30 in Tokyo as I write this, and just a few hours from now, Emperor Akihito at age 85 will abdicate and bring to an end the Heisei era, with the new Reiwa era beginning on May 1st as his son Naruhito ascends the throne. I left Japan in 1989, just months after Emperor Hirohito had died, ending the tumultuous Showa era.

Emperor Akihito’s Enthronement Ceremony in 1989. (Imperial Household Agency)

In the middle of the June rains, just as the first coins marked 平成元年 (Heisei Year One) had begun entering circulation, I bought my last cucumber rolls at the Narita Airport sushi restaurant and boarded a 747 for America. I have not returned in 30 years.

LAX, 1984

Despite spending my formative years in Japan from birth to the age of 15 (I’ve written before about the sense of displacement and alienation I felt visiting American military bases, and how I identified with Japanese sumo wrestler Chiyonofuji as my childhood hero), the names and personalities of all those men in stiff suits mean nothing to me compared to the beauty, grace, and kindness of one woman.

Crown Prince Akihito and Crown Princess Michiko after their wedding in 1959

Miss Michiko Shoda, a commoner, met her future husband on the tennis court in the resort town of Karuizawa in 1957. Thirty years later, the Crown Princess and Crown Prince Akihito continued to spend part of each summer there, traveling by motorcade from the Imperial Palace in Tokyo. They also sometimes spent time at the Hayama Imperial Villa near Kamakura, traveling southwest from Tokyo through Yokohama, right past our house.

When we heard on the news that the Imperial Family would be traveling through Yokohama, we would wait for traffic to begin backing up on our street as the police escort stopped all traffic on the roads for kilometers on either side of the motorcade. My brother, the neighbor kids, and I would all walk down to the sidewalk next to the Hodogaya Bypass and stand in a row to wave at the black cars as they whizzed past.

But the year after our first in Yokohama, the second time we watched the police escort roar by on their motorcycles, we noticed that one of the great big black cars was slowing down. As it approached where we stood by the side of the road, a heavily tinted window began to roll down. Just as the car drove past us, a single, white-gloved hand extended from the window and waved. Behind that hand, we glimpsed the Crown Princess beneath a pillbox hat.

Each year thereafter, we lined up next to the bypass whenever the Royal Family traveled between Hayama and Tokyo. Without fail, the Crown Princess made it a point to acknowledge this strange assemblage of American and Japanese children furiously waving handmade flags by the side of the road.

In the years since, Emperor Akihito has forged a path of peace for himself, visiting former enemies and expressing profound regret and sadness for the horrors of war inflicted in the name of his father upon countless millions around the Pacific rim — a far cry from modern Japanese politicians like Prime Minister Abe, hellbent on erasing the lessons learned from the past and re-militarizing the Japanese nation-state. Unlike far too many of my fellow Americans who seem to long for kingship, I’ve never been particularly interested in royal-watching — I never shared my mother’s obsession with Princess Diana, for example. I deeply object to the cost of maintaining an aristocracy at the expense of everyday people, no matter how bound to national identity or tradition royalty may be.

And yet, there’s something to be said for the example set by symbolic, apolitical heads of state like Emperor Akihito and Empress Michiko. Despite my objections to the very idea of royalty, I have profound respect for both Emperor Akihito and Empress Michiko as fellow human beings. One can hope that Crown Prince Naruhito will follow a similar, modernizing path as he ascends the Chrysanthemum Throne on May 1st.

Empress Michiko with Emperor Akihito and President Barack Obama in Tokyo in 2014, with PM Abe in the background

As I write this, I’m one month away from my first trip home to Japan in 30 years — the exact span of the Heisei era. Japan will always remain my true homeland, no matter what I look like on the outside and no matter how long I spend away from the country of my birth and childhood. I’m incredibly excited, but also somewhat fearful of the change I’ll find. As I sit at sushi and ramen counters here in the US and chat with sushi chefs and noodle cooks, I hear about how so much Tokyo in particular has changed since they’ve come to the US themselves, often in just a few years compared to my three decades. What will Harajuku and Meiji Shrine look like nearly 45 years after my first visit?

Meiji Shrine, Tokyo, 1975

Perhaps there is indeed something beautiful in the existence of royalty in modern democracies like Japan, Sweden, and Great Britain where their powers have been constitutionally circumscribed by elected representatives of their erstwhile subjects: Royal households provide cultural continuity that no term-limited politician can, while retaining enough respect and moral authority to influence positive change in their countries and abroad.

I wish their Imperial Majesties a long and happy retirement. And if I can’t wish for the abolition of the Imperial institution, I can certainly wish for a peaceful and prosperous Reiwa era led by good, kind people like their predecessors.

The Emperor and Empress with children and grandchildren in 2013

My first book is on store shelves now: And it’s a Star Wars book!

I tend to keep my LEGO hobby fairly compartmentalized — with a handful of exceptions, I don’t write much about little plastic bricks here on Andrew-Becraft.com. Topics here on my personal/professional website tend more toward science (archaeology in particular), poetry, software design methodology, and occasionally the convergence of multiple interests after I have some kind of late-night epiphany.

But writing and LEGO have converged today with the release of my first book, Ultimate LEGO Star Wars. Written together with Chris Malloy, one of my team members from The Brothers Brick, Ultimate LEGO Star Wars is a coffee table reference book from British publisher Dorling Kindersley (DK). You can read more about the book itself and our experience writing it in an interview over on The Brothers Brick, but I thought I’d reflect here on my personal experience today as the book begins hitting store shelves.

Andrew at Third Place Books

First off, and this really does deserve all-caps, I WROTE A STAR WARS BOOK! As someone who still holds to some modicum of hope that I’ll get published again someday as a “serious poet,” I tend to minimize this achievement quite a bit. I tell myself things like, “It’s really just a LEGO book — nothing serious or artistic. And it’s only a reference book, the result of a collaboration among co-authors, the DK editorial team, and their designers.” But then I slap myself and realize again, it’s A FRICKIN’ STAR WARS BOOK! Put another way, Chris and I literally wrote the book on LEGO Star Wars, the most popular line from the best-selling toy company in the world. That’s some hardcore geek cred. But it’s not High Art.

Ultimate LEGO Star Wars book from DK

Despite those self-deprecations about the pop-culture subject matter, the book represents a huge accomplishment for the whole team who worked on it, and I’m humbled to have been asked to write some of the book’s text. And there’s something intensely satisfying about going to my closest bookstore and seeing a book I wrote on the shelf, available for anybody to buy. Of course, the book is also available online, and it’s been fascinating to watch it climb Amazon.com’s rankings in a variety of categories, based on pre-orders. As of the day of release, it’s moving through the mid 2,000s for all books on Amazon.com, and already the #1 new release in Collectible Toys and Product Design.

I stopped by a big box book store while I was in downtown Seattle earlier today, but that particular location hadn’t received their shipment yet. After I got home, I called Third Place Books in Lake Forest Park to ask if they had the book in stock. The guy who answered the phone asked if I’d like him to set aside a copy for me, and I explained that I was one of the authors and just wanted to see it “in the wild” for myself. He laughed and asked if I’d like to come in and sign their copies for them, so I was there in under 15 minutes — would’ve been 5 but for rush hour traffic on Bothell Way.

The team at Third Place Books was very kind with this overly excited new author, and after I’d signed the store’s copies and they put “Autographed” stickers on their covers, they even offered to take a picture with the book on a neatly rearranged shelf, alongside my friend Rod Gillie’s own LEGO book. We talked about doing an event with both authors, and I told them that DK’s marketing team would be in touch to make the arrangements. My people would call their people. It was all rather surreal — certainly not something I would have expected to be experiencing a year ago, before we started working on the book.

Now, I’m off to hit Refresh on the Amazon.com page like the insecure, self-obsessed writer I’ve apparently become…

Four discoveries that redefined human history in just one summer

Growing up in a more literarily and theologically inclined family, much of my paleoanthropological education came from back issues of National Geographic and outdated editions of Encyclopædia Britannica. I read Mary Leakey’s article about her discovery of the footprints at Laetoli in the April 1979 issue, and pored through earlier issues to find articles about her work at Olduvai Gorge — articles like one from October 1961 by her husband Louis S. B. Leakey titled “Exploring 1,750,000 Years into Man’s Past: A Noted British Archaeologist Tells of Dramatic Discoveries at Olduvai Gorge.” I desperately wanted to be a young Leakey boy like (future paleoanthropologist) Richard or (future statesman) Philip, seen with his parents in this photo from that article. Frankly, I’d have settled for being one of Mary Leakey’s ever-present dalmatians.

Photo: National Geographic

It seemed like every issue in the 60’s and 70’s highlighted some amazing discovery that reshaped our understanding of how our species emerged in Africa. As I’ve re-engaged with archaeology and human evolution over the last few years, at no time has there been such a rapid sequence of major announcements from across a spectrum of disciplines, based on work happening all over the world, as there seems to be right at this very moment.

With stacks of books about Neanderthals representing decades of perspectives as a lens into the historiography of paleoanthropology, I’ve most enjoyed learning about how our understanding of human evolution has itself evolved over the past century and a half. Erik Trinkaus and Pat Shipman’s The Neanderthals: Changing the Image of Mankind from 1992 provides a solid overview of that history, beginning with rivalries between French scientists like Georges Cuvier and Jean-Baptiste-Pierre-Antoine de Monet, Chevalier de Lamarck. (Your automatic response is likely to take the side of a regular-sounding guy named Georges over someone with four hyphenated first names and two de‘s, but you would be on the wrong side of scientific history.) Trinkaus and Shipman fail to arrive at the current scientific consensus that Chris Stringer and Clive Gamble elucidate in In Search of the Neanderthals just a year later, while somehow missing entirely the decades-long rivalry between François Bordes and Lewis Binford. Nevetheless, The Neanderthals is still the most comprehensive history of the subject I’ve read, superseded recently by Dimitra Papagianni and Michael A. Morse’s excellent (but much briefer) The Neanderthals Rediscovered: How Modern Science is Rewriting Their Story (2015).

Armed with a vaguely monomaniacal overview of the chronology of discoveries in paleoanthropology from Engis (the first, then-unrecognized Neanderthal skull) to Rising Star (Homo naledi), I’ll reiterate my assertion above that the last few weeks have seen a series of major discoveries at a previously unprecedented pace.

In May, Lee Berger and his team at Rising Star in South Africa finally announced direct dates for their Homo naledi fossils, placing them between 335,000 and 236,000 years ago, just short of the 195,000-year age for the oldest-known Homo sapiens fossils from Omo Kibish in Ethiopia. This raises the likelihood that small-brained H. naledi and our big-brained Homo sapiens could have co-existed as part of a diverse range of related hominin species in Africa during the Middle Stone Age.

Photo of Homo naledi reconstruction and skeleton (links to National Geographic video)

(I can also heartily recommend Berger’s up-to-the-minute new book Almost Human: The Astonishing Tale of Homo naledi and the Discovery That Changed Our Human Story published alongside the journal article in May.)

Less than a month later, a team including Jean-Jacques Hublin upped the ante with new dates based on thermoluminescence tests of fire-heated stone tools associated with the Jebel Irhoud Homo sapiens fossils excavated in the 1960s. Dates ranging between 315,000 and 286,000 years ago place anatomically modern humans more than 5,200 km across the continent from Omo Kibish, a hundred thousand years earlier. These new dates fundamentally change our understanding of when, and potentially where, anatomically modern humans may have evolved within Africa. Much debate remains, of course, on anatomical modernity vs. behavioral modernity, but the new dates have fascinating implications.

Homo sapiens jaw from Jebel Irhoud
Homo sapiens jaw from Jebel Irhoud (photo credit: Jean-Jacques Hublin)

Africa may be the cradle of both our genus and species, but discoveries that shed light on our species’ evolution and dispersal aren’t limited to Africa itself. Last week, Chris Clarkson and his team at the Madjedbebe rock shelter in northern Australia presented dates of 65,000 years or more (with even deeper layers containing artifacts potentially as old as 80,000 years) for tools used by early Aboriginal inhabitants.

Meanwhile, Aboriginal rock art in Kimberley, Western Australia has been dated to over 60,000 years ago, predating the great Aurignacian art of Chauvet by thousands of years. Both these dates challenge the generally accepted exodus from Africa a mere 50,000 years ago — the first Australians may have needed boats to get from Sundaland (the Malay peninsula, Sumatra, Borneo, and Java) to Sahul (New Guinea and Australia), but they certainly didn’t have airplanes to travel from Africa straight to Australia quite so quickly. (The picture of random individuals floated across 90 km distances accidentally clinging to palm tree logs is frankly just racist…)

Finally, for the moment, research on a new mitochondrial DNA sequence (only the eighteenth Neanderthal individual sequenced so far) place the date for Neanderthal-Homo sapiens interbreeding far deeper in time, as early as 270,000 years ago. Like the new dates for the Jebel Irhoud fossils announced in June, it pushes back the timeline for the very existence of Homo sapiens as a species, as well as our potential dispersal from Africa and interaction with Eurasian Neanderthal populations.

From “Deeply divergent archaic mitochondrial genome provides lower time boundary for African gene flow into Neanderthals” (Posth, et al 2017)

Now, I’m no Clive Gamble, one of the greatest minds working in paleoanthropology today. In Settling the Earth: The Archaeology of Deep Human History, Gamble takes all of the data then available (2013), from nearly two centuries of archaeology and paleontology across the world, throws it in a blender, and presents a work of academic molecular gastronomy. Gamble is nothing if not an iconoclast — one of the first traditional concepts he dispatches is the very concept of prehistory. As the title of the book itself articulates, there is deep human history beneath the shallow, post-Neolithic veneer of the past five to ten thousand years through which we see the world of even older pre-sapiens hominins.

Gamble also takes a global view to the question of how hominins and humans dispersed across the world, eliminating regional and continental boundaries to create five “Terrae” that defined the limits of hominin expansion at various stages over the last 2 million years, from the first emergence of the Homo genus in Africa to our first steps away from our home planet today. For example, lower sea levels during multiple cooler periods (not just the last Ice Age that ended 12,000 years ago) exposed huge expanses of land that enabled dispersal — Sunda in modern Southeast Asia, Doggerland in the North Sea, and of course Beringia familiar to American school children as the “land bridge” between Siberia and Alaska. These were not simply “land bridges” to get between modern geopolitical entities, but expansive, ecologically rich biomes in their own right. Gambles ideas challenged my preconceived notions about population dispersal as well as the intellectual and cultural capabilities of our ancestors, both archaic and modern.

Even without Gamble’s genius, it’s tempting to formulate hypotheses and what-if scenarios that synthesize the discoveries of the last few weeks. If humans were in Australia by 65,000 years ago, the first broadly successful dispersal could not have happened as late as 60,000 years ago. Might the “unsuccessful” population of modern humans excavated in the caves at Qafzeh and Skhul in Isreal who left Africa as much as 120,000 years ago and allegedly died out by 80,000 years ago (replaced by a Neanderthal population from the north, only to be joined by more modern humans from Africa again later) have been partially successful after all? Since modern humans were perfectly capable of building boats to colonize Australia, might the humans of Jebel Irhoud have also built boats to cross to Gibralter, thus providing the basis for the interbreeding evidenced by the German Neanderthal woman from 270,000 years ago? I’ll await the next Grand Theory of Paleoanthropology from the likes of Clive Gamble, Chris Stringer, Ian Tattersall, or Robin Dunbar.

This much we do know: We are a much older species than we thought we were a month ago, by as much as a hundred thousand years. We also ranged farther, earlier than we thought we had barely a week ago — farther across Africa, much earlier to Australia, and maybe even into Neanderthal Europe (at least with people carrying our genes).

What discoveries remain to be shared with the world throughout the rest of 2017 — or even just the rest of this summer?


I’ve linked above mostly to primary sources in journals, but as a lay reader I’m indebted to the excellent science reporting in the Guardian as my starting point. “Via” links follow: