Manual automation is one of my favorite little tricks. The fact that it’s an oxymoron makes it even better.
Some of the smartest startups I know use the trick of manual automation on a regular basis. So what is it?
In our context, manual automation is something which is automated from the customers point of view, but not from the entrepreneurs point of view.
Let me give you a couple of examples.
One of the companies I work with had a service that people were willing to pay for. But they hadn’t yet built out the billing infrastructure. It was on the priority list, but it was going to take about 4 months to get to it, given all the other stuff they had to do. The fear was that they were losing not just revenue, but the opportunity to sign up a paying customer for monthly recurring revenue at the time that customer wanted to and was willing to pay. So they built a quick secure web form which wrote the credit card information to a database, and simply pretended that the whole back end was done. Meanwhile, once a month, they manually billed each customer by hand using an internet terminal, and manually typed out an email receipt that appeared to be automated. Five months later (software is never on time), they automated the back end completely. The customers never knew the difference.
A second example is a company I’m working with that wants to do something cool with video. They don’t have the complex code in place that would be needed to do some manipulations of the video. But they also don’t have very many customers to deal with yet, and the most important thing is really to try the feature out and get feedback. Here again, they are thinking of the manual automation trick. They’ll actually manipulate the video by hand on the desktop, store the result manually in the database, and have the system send it out “when it’s ready.” To the customer, the whole process appears to be automated. In fact, it is automated from their perspective, as long as the oompa loompas get to it relatively quickly.
An added benefit of manual automation is that manual stuff is really annoying, so it tends to get fixed more quickly.
Some of the most agile startups out there don’t let the lack of technology get in their way of testing their theories. For those startups, manual automation is a common weapon in their bag of tricks.