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