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.

At home in the Holiest of Holies

I’m reading archaeologist Gregory J. Wightman’s The Origins of Religion in the Paleolithic, and thinking hard about how we humans evolved over the past several million years with a “God-shaped hole” in our psyches. I haven’t found the answer yet, but Philosopher Alain de Botton suggested in a recent interview that it is culture that can serve to fill that genuine sense of void that many of us sometimes feel in our modern lives.

You only have to look at the architecture of libraries and theaters and universities that were built in the age of declining religion to understand that our ancestors sought to fill the gap by creating temples of art, temples of culture, temples of learning, where we would congregate as we had previously done in the temples of religion.

National Gallery & St. Martin-in-the-Fields

I have certainly sensed the numinous in the great museums of the world, among the graves of poets, composers, and scientists, and deep inside a Neolithic passage tomb.

Entrance stone at Newgrange

Culture and the knowledge that it’s built on — but, most importantly, the processes and methods that increase, transmit, and store that knowledge — represent all that is good and holy about our species. While museums that house our art and science are certainly worthy of reverence, for sheer density of knowledge it’s hard to find a better temple of culture than a library.

The Guardian recently published a gorgous photo essay (though I’m unable to re-share their photos) of the most beautiful libraries in America. I’m proud to say that two of these libraries are right here in Seattle. In fact, for the first three months after I started up my previous company’s new Engineering hub, my team and I met each Friday at the Seattle Central Library, designed by Rem Koolhaas and Joshua Prince-Ramus.

Seattle library main branch overhead

I haven’t yet visited the Suzzallo Library at the University of Washington, but its Gothic Revival architecture certainly evokes European cathedrals, proving Alain de Botton’s point about 19th-century architects of secular institutions.

MK03235 University of Washington Suzzallo Library

Since appending “5 more museums to visit before I die” to my list of favorite museums back in 2009, I’ve visited several of them (the Met in New York, the Prado) and it may be time for a new list that includes museums I hadn’t anticipated loving so much (MOMA, Museo Arqueológico Nacional in Madrid).

And the Guardian has provided a convenient list of new places for pilgrimage I hope to visit in my lifetime.

Traversing all 4 seasons in just 17 days

In two weeks, I’ll be traveling again to New Zealand for work. Though the contrast will not be nearly as stark — last time, it was snowing in Seattle when I left and I hit the beach on a bright summer day in Auckland the day I arrived — I’ll be in the Southern Hemisphere for the Spring Equinox on September 22. That means that in just 17 days, I’ll spend time in all four seasons.

I made an infographic illustrating this quirk of global travel caused by the tilt of the Earth’s axis.

4 Seasons in 17 Days

EDIT: Antipodean friends inform me that Spring begins on September 1st in both New Zealand and Australia. Frankly, I find that ridiculous. Spring begins at the equinox, and isn’t something you shuffle around at the national level as though it were Daylight Savings Time. I’m sticking to my guns on this one!

That one time I swam to Myanmar (and back)

One day twenty years ago or so, somebody at my religiously affiliated high school thought it would be an excellent idea to send our choir to a school in the Mae La camp in Thailand to aid in the construction of a new building for Karen refugees, presumably as a demonstration of American largesse and Christian charity.

I could tell you about how I bathed in a river for a week, how I rode a genuine working elephant (not some tourist pachyderm), how two thirds of us got food poisoning, or how the concrete never properly set. I could tell you that we left having accomplished nothing more than two parallel ditches in a patch of red dirt that the local people had already cleared before we arrived.

I could wax political about the sheer, indecent waste of spending thousands of dollars each to send a bunch of American teenagers to do work that could have been done better, faster, and with positive economic impact for the local community. As a missionary kid myself, I could rail against the sheer arrogance and imperialism — that somehow these American children were making a difference or “helping” the local community.

I could remind everyone that the safe, secure, and “free” Yangon that Anthony Bourdain enjoys today is thanks to a successful military campaign to suppress all the ethnic minorities (such as the Karen) fighting in the countryside for self-determination.

But none of that is especially interesting, so I’ll tell you about the time I swam to Myanmar.

One afternoon after the church service, starring a special choir of children flown in all the way from America, we were walking along a riverbank back to the little village that surrounded the school. Our Karen guide — a fellow teenager from the school — pointed across the river and told us the other side was Burma. Unsupervised by adults and newly invigorated from having survived salmonella poisoning in the middle of the jungle, several American children thought it would be an excellent idea to swim the hundred meters or so across the Moei River, just so they could tell their friends and relatives back home that they had been to Burma.

“Just don’t go past the rocks on the shore — there could be mines,” the Karen girl said. Good to know.

Back home, I was the head lifeguard at our school. I didn’t need to be an adult to suggest that this was not, in fact, an excellent idea. Unswayed, several boys and girls waded into the river wearing their cargo shorts, T-shirts, and brand-new Tevas from REI.

I decided I could at least sit on a rock and make sure nobody died in the water.

Halfway across the river, the current caught one of the younger boys.

I called out, “Do you need some help?”

He nodded sheepishly as he drifted north toward the Salween River, thence south on to the Andaman Sea, the Bay of Bengal, and the Indian Ocean.

I took off my own Tevas (they were really big back in the 90’s) and I waded into the brown water. Once I was clear of the mud sucking at my feet, I dove forward and swam toward the floundering boy. I threw my arm over his shoulder and shoved my hip up under his, pulling him up and nearly out of the water — a move designed simultaneously to control and to calm. It’s also a move that puts the lifeguard mostly underwater.

“Just lean back and relax,” I said as I bobbed up and exhaled. A breath, one stroke, up again. “I’ve got you.”

Damned if I was going to play flag football or join junior varsity basketball, I had taken lifeguard certification twice for P.E. credit. This would be my first real-world rescue. But if I could subdue an ex-Marine Gulf War vet who outweighed me by a hundred pounds in our pool, I knew hauling a fifteen-year-old to safety in real life would be quite possible.

I looked up and realized we were closer to the far bank. I changed course and hauled him with my right arm as I scissor-kicked us the rest of the way to Burma. My feet touched round river stones and I pulled the boy upright.

“Let’s rest for a minute, and then I’ll haul you back. I think that’ll be easier.”

We sat there in Myanmar for about 10 minutes, tossing stones into the river.

Our return trip was uneventful. He floated on his back and I hauled him back to Thailand by his collar. (I suppose my story’s boring ending proves that it’s true. The most dramatic part of a good, made-up story isn’t in the middle.)

We never told the adults about all this — the choir director and the chaperones, the parents and teachers. We suspected nothing good would come of telling everyone else of this latest adventure.

On the desk in my office, among the trilobites and bifaces, sits an unprepossessing green stone — a souvenir hastily picked up from the banks of the Moei River, a memento of the day I swam to Myanmar and back.

Moei River on Wikipedia

A fairly well-populated section of the Moei River, nothing like the middle of the jungle where I swam across, hauling an embarrassed fifteen-year-old kid