Have you ever had an idea that you just keep thinking about? Something that should exist in the world? Ever since living in Thailand, one of those ideas for me is a Bangkok street food experience created as a Thai restaurant.
Whatever your idea is, knowing how to move forward can be tricky. Prototyping is the best way to get started. But many people, including myself, often end up choosing to do nothing.
Prototyping is a real way to move forward. Building a prototype and testing it with users is the pinnacle of the Design Sprint experience. But how do you prototype an idea? Especially one that isn’t just some digital app you can get a designer to whip up?
12 years ago I lived in Thailand for 2 years as a missionary. I lived with Thai people, learned to speak Thai, and ate lots of yummy Thai food. I also learned how to cook a few Thai dishes.
Once I was back in the states, I made Thai food every few months as a fun experience to share with family and friends. And I had the first seed of an idea for a Thai restaurant that would be fun and unique.
Fast forward a few years and I rarely made Thai food. We realized while I loved cooking and eating Thai food, we didn’t make it often because it took some unique ingredients, and was always hard to remember the details of how to cook the dishes since it was so infrequent.
My wife and I wanted to change that. We decided to start making Thai food every Sunday as a family. 5 years later, I have cooked hundreds of Thai meals. This tradition creates opportunities to help my children experience a different culture and share something that’s important to me.
*Our favorites are Thai fried pork, massaman curry, cashew chicken, pad thai, pad mamas, pad gra praw, waterfall beef, and(my favorite desert in the world) mango and sticky rice. Always with Jasmine rice and sticky rice.
I noodled on the concept of a Thai restaurant for years. I shared it with some family members. Adjusted it a bit as I saw new inspiration. But always knew this was a some-day idea. And, like any parent, I’ve projected my desires onto my children. My oldest daughter, Kamryn, loves Thai food just like me.
I had a theory that Bangkok street food would do very well as a restaurant in the US. Similar to Cafe Rio (popular local favorite in Utah), but Thai. Fresh ingredients, cooked in front of you, into a stir fry dish, for an experience that mimics the magic of a Thai market.
My daughter was thinking about what to sell at the upcoming Children’s Entrepreneurship Market. I suggested people might enjoy Thai food. The past markets had little or no real food. And in Utah, kids don’t need food permits (thank you Libertas). This became the perfect prototype for a Thai Restaurant.
KamThai was born.
Prototyping is all about creating enough to test.
A prototype is powerful when you watch users interact with it. It just take 5 users to get solid feedback. A prototype can help you check and question assumptions, get a feel for real user willingness to pay, and give you confidence that something will work.
It also worked perfectly for this Thai restaurant concept, since I don’t want a restaurant to be my main income (for that, I’ve co-founded Sprintwell, design sprints as a service). But I’ve thought about this concept for years. And I finally got a chance to test the concept out.
I wasn’t in charge of the execution since it was Kamryn’s Children’s Entrepreneurship Market shop. This was actually perfect since, given no constraints, I probably would have taken far more time worrying about unimportant details. We had a deadline and that pushed us to make decisions.
This worked as a great prototype because we didn’t have to worry about some larger pieces (getting a food truck or restaurant space, getting through the legal requirements to actually set up a restaurant, big marketing pushes, a website). It let us see how people would react to Thai food being cooked in front of them. Would they actually pay? What questions would they ask?
We decided on a name (KamThai — Kamryn + Thai). We decided on a menu (massaman curry with jasmine rice, Thai fried pork with sticky rice). We got a list of ingredients and other supplies.
The day before we did a lot of prep work. We decided on pricing ($5 for a bowl of massaman curry and $5 for 3 pork skewers and a bag of sticky rice). We also bought the ingredients and borrowed supplies.
Then we stayed up until midnight the night before getting the pork cut for marinating. We were really excited to see how it would go. I kept telling my daughter that I could finish cutting the pork and she could go to sleep, but she kept saying “No, I want to finish this!”
Working on real things brings excitement.
The results were fantastic.
My daughter grossed $260 from 3 hours of selling (with $90 of supplies). She sold out of Thai pork and sticky rice about halfway through and we had a line of 12 more people wanting to buy (if you want to make people angry, just tell them the meat on a stick is sold out). We had just a bit of massaman curry left at the end.
Some of our favorite questions/comments:
- Do you have a restaurant?
- This would make for an awesome restaurant?
- Wait, you made this?
- Ooh. This smells so good.
- I love seeing you cook!
- Can we get 7 more?
- This is amazing!?
Some comments we’re going to adjust for next time:
- If you had chicken skewers, I would buy 10.
- The massaman curry veggies aren’t cooked enough.
- Can you cook this pork a little more.
- Is there a vegetarian option?
- You’re all out?
Cooking food in front of people brought attention and excitement. And, of course, people love meat on a stick.
While this was a success for us, a good principle to remember is that it’s ok (and common) for prototypes to fail. A prototype is meant to learn from, not succeed from. It’s a small test so that you can take the failure.
For my daughter, I told her that if the idea tanked, I would cover her costs, helping her handle the risk. Always good to get cover from your leaders so that failure isn’t devastating. Learning from failure is a key part of psychological safety that is so key to high performing teams.
For the next test, we’re changing some things based on customer feedback and parts we found cumbersome.
- In addition to pork skewers, we’re going to cook chicken and veggie skewers
- We’re going to use a propane griddle instead of an electric one
- We’re not going to serve massaman curry (which means we don’t need electricity and we only need sticky rice).
- We’re going to have a better system to timing how long skewers need to cook and then use a part of the griddle just for warming.
What can you do to prototype your next idea, especially if you aren’t a designer by trade or the concept isn’t digital?
- Just move forward. Doing something is better than nothing. I’d talked about the concept of a Thai restaurant for a long time. This was a concrete way to do something.
- Build a small piece. Think about how you could do something small that would give users a taste of the real experience. A 3-hour market is much smaller than buying a food truck. We originally wanted to make more dishes but settled on just two.
- Think about the job to be done and use a prototype to check. Clayton Christensen’s jobs to be done model is one of my favorites. Make sure you write down what you think the job is that customers will hire your product for. Create a prototype to test that thought. We thought meat on a stick and Thai curry was perfect for what people wanted at dinner time. We also thought that seeing food cooked in front of you would attract interest (something else people are looking for at a market).
- Don‘t worry about being perfect. Done is better than perfect. We did some things we weren’t sure would work. We’d never used an electric generator before. But we researched what we could, then pressed forward.
- Seek mentors and experts. My daughter leaned on me throughout the process. So many successful entrepreneurs talk about how others helped them through parts of their journey. Also use articles, videos, and books to tap into experts you couldn’t normally talk to. Kamryn and I found a youtube video about authentic Thai Pork to check if we’d been making it right. It helped us make some small adjustments to the recipe.
- Have fun. One of the best indicators about your ability to continue forward with a concept is excitement. You’ll need some excitement to get through the hard parts. Every idea will have some grind when it comes to real execution. Most jobs aren’t as glamorous as they seem. Seeing if you maintain excitement at times during your prototype is key to checking if this could become something you put even more time into. This is a lesson I’ve written about before from Jason Alexander and the audition for George Costanza — just having fun is a great way to actually perform at your best.
I’m excited to see KamThai launch as a full food truck and/or casual dining restaurant in the future. In the meantime, we’re going to run our next test in about a month and continue to enjoy the making journey.