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Sketches of new apparel styles for the next clothing season. Racks of sample garments scattered throughout the building. High-end workstations running apparel CAD. Rolls of multicolored fabric in the sample department. These were some of the sights that greeted customer development team members from Gerber Technology as they walked through the headquarters of a major apparel company in the heart of New York City.

Decision point

Gerber Technology is a 47-year-old company with a wide range of products, including a suite of hardware and software for companies involved in apparel design, development, and manufacturing. One might ask, with all that Gerber knows about its tens of thousands of customers, what new insights could it possibly gain from yet another customer visit? The answer: A great deal.

Gerber's apparel CAD business, AccuMark, has been around since 1988. The team knows a lot about how its customers use AccuMark 2D CAD to create patterns for garments. What it didn't know as it was launching a new initiative involving 3-D CAD was how its customers would react to a new product based on that technology.

Rather than just working with flat patterns on the screen, designers and pattern makers would now be able to preview the garments as a 3-D model before ordering physical samples. This innovation had the potential to dramatically speed up the product development process for apparel companies, saving them a lot of time and money.

While other industries have long embraced 3-D CAD for product design, the apparel industry was slow to adopt. The question was, would Gerber's customers embrace 3-D, or would they be confused?

Beating the Innovator's Dilemma 

This was a classic Innovator's Dilemma situation, where a disruptive idea threatens to damage an existing business and alienate customers. Gerber could have gotten stuck in this situation, but it didn't. Instead it embraced a methodology that has become known as Lean Startup.

With the help of Moves the Needle, a consulting firm that brings Lean Startup solutions to the enterprise, Gerber completely reframed how it thought about 3-D. Rather than focusing on the technology and feature set, the team asked three questions:

  • How does the apparel design and development process work today, and where are the key pain points?
  • Who are the key stakeholders who experience the most pain?
  • Will the proposed 3-D solution "treat" the pain?

Fieldwork time

To answer these questions, the team embarked on a multiweek research mission, interviewing customers in the field to build knowledge about their current workflows and pain points.

These interviews refreshed Gerber's knowledge about how the garment industry handles apparel design and development is handled today. Importantly, it showed that not all customers were experiencing the same level of pain. The sweet spot for the new product was customers in the fast fashion segment. These customers had the greatest time-to-market pressure and could benefit the most from early adoption of 3-D CAD.

Mary McFadden, executive director of CAD product management, says, "With coaching from Moves the Needle, we were able to leverage methodologies to validate our assumptions. We discovered new insights into our customers' daily challenges and were able to refine our solution to better meet our customers' needs."

The landing page test

It was now time to go to the next step: testing the minimum viable product (MVP) with customers who would gain the greatest benefit. Here again, the Innovator's Dilemma  loomed large.

According to Eric Ries, author of The Lean Startup, the MVP is "that version of a new product which allows a team to collect the maximum amount of validated learning about customers with the least effort." In the case of AccuMark 3D, it was not the polished, finished product customers had come to expect, but a scrappy engineering prototype without bells and whistles. How could the team test the market to see if customers liked the product.

With guidance from Moves the Needle, the team came up with a faster and easier MVP to test before taking the prototype on the road. The solution was a landing page test. The team launched a click-through landing page that described the proposed 3-D product, with a big call-to-action button encouraging customers to sign up for a webinar to learn more. If customers signed up, it would demonstated both their pain points and their receptiveness to the product.

The results started rolling in almost immediately after the test went live. People were signing up left and right. The elapsed time from starting to build the landing page to having results to review was less than four hours. The landing page passed its first test with flying colors. And now, the team was ready to take the next step.

Show and tell

It was time to show the engineering prototype to customers. The team set two goals for this process:

  • Get feedback on the solution and explore how it could improve existing customer workflows
  • Sign up beta testers to further validate interest

Although the prototype was fairly light in terms of features, it stimulated productive conversations with customers. The Gerber team received instant feedback on functionality and what customers considered must-haves versus nice-to-haves. Crucially, the team signed up a few customers for a beta trial on the spot.

Feedback loop

Between the landing page test, the show and tell, and the subsequent beta trials, Gerber collected deep insights about how customers worked and how their problems might be solved.

The team adjusted the solution according to the findings, and released the first version of AccuMark 3D in early 2015. The team continued to test and iterate with customers as it built out the product to meet customer needs.

Get out of the building

Gerber is a great example of how a company with a large base of existing customers can embrace a mentality to test and iterate an innovative initiative without getting stuck in the Innovator's Dilemma.

o drive innovation, you need insight into your customer's needs and the ability to respond quickly. Applying Lean Startup principles, we are driving the rapid development and launch of new features of AccuMark 3D to continue our history of transforming processes to support our customers.

Karsten Newbury VP & GM of Software, Gerber

The key is to set the right expectations with customers during customer development and MVP testing. It's also vital to manage Lean Startup initiatives as separate programs that run in parallel to engineering development for existing products.

Gerber Technology did both and was able to keep iterating like a startup until it arrived at product-market fit, while enjoying the scale and resources of an established business.


*This article was originally published on HPE's TechBeacon