When the non-profit was nearly acquired by a for-profit company several years ago, the time came to take a step back and re-evaluate what they were doing. “We decided that if we were not going to sell, we were going to really up our game,” says Abbie Moore, chief product officer. The result was a reframing of how they understood their mission. Instead of running a non-profit that happened to be a web site, they reconceived Adopt-a-Pet as a technology company that happened to be a non-profit.
Like many new organizations that experience huge growth, Adopt-a-Pet needed to figure out how to manage it effectively. The company had no real process in place for developing its product, even as the product was doing well. “We were a mess,” says Moore. “We still found a lot of success, but really in spite of our knowledge (or lack thereof) and not because of it.” In the areas where the organization was successful, there was no real understanding as to why.
Around this time Moore was introduced to lean principles through The Lean Startup and urged CEO David Meyer to consider them as well. “We were excited about that methodology,” recalls Meyer. Within a short time, Moore instituted a biweekly, mandatory “Lean Startup” meeting, where the entire organization was required to meet for an hour-long discussion of specific principles. “I would ask everyone to bring examples of how the principles would affect their department or the work they were doing,” says Moore. Everyone from engineers and designers to customer service and support staff was included.
There was some skepticism at first, but Moore kept asking more (and different) questions of her colleagues, a practice she continues. “I still constantly challenge everyone to list out and prioritize their assumptions, and to use MVPs to validate those assumptions,” she says. “One of our drumbeats is, ‘How can we make a year happen in a month?’ If it’s true that we’re going to be better at anything in a year, what can we do to compress that time so we don’t have to wait a year?”
One way the organization began testing its new ways of working was through a peer-to- peer adoption project launched in 2016. The project enabled pet adoption between individuals rather than through traditional animal shelters. It started with an MVP landing page, with Moore acting as the person behind the interaction, personally screening adoption applications and reviewing them with pet owners. By going to meetings with potential owners and adopters, she learned more about what the company needed to offer and what might be missing.
For Meyer, the most important piece of understanding how Adopt-a-Pet could and should reinvent itself involved the value the company was providing to its customer. “It was the realization that users can and should guide us; we don’t have to guess at what they want. The whole concept of getting an MVP in front of people as quickly as possible in any form is about being brave and knowing that people will forgive us if it’s not perfect. They want us to succeed.”
For Moore, the two most important changes are the ability to launch a product quickly and to learn from iterations. A few years ago Adopt-a-Pet had metrics that included visitors to the site and how many emails were being sent to users. It was fairly basic information that didn’t offer the organization much insight into how the site was being used. Now the site is about engagements and activity and can measure the ways in which visitors are putting the site to use. Moore also assembled a growth and optimization team that launches test after test to learn how people use Adopt-a-Pet.com and the ways in which improvements can be made. And as the site has evolved, so has the technology that allows potential pet owners to connect with Adopt-a-Pet, more than half of whom now access the site through a mobile device.
“I think a lot of nonprofits are run by super passionate people who have ideas about how to change the world for the segment they serve,” says Moore. “And I think a lot of them do what we did, which was a come up with a program that seems like a good idea, toil away to launch it, and then say, ‘That’s done,’ and move onto the next thing. Nonprofits should really start from the beginning and recognize that their ideas about their constituencies and programs are just assumptions that need to be examined, then start from a place of learning, and prioritize that learning above everything else.” That’s where new growth (and in this case, new pets) comes from.