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Case study: How Alpha enabled a corporate-incubated startup to validate a product offering 3x faster

by Nis Frome
May 10, 2018

Insurance startup, MRLN, validated a unique value proposition, customer obstacles, and a high-impact feature set by leveraging Alpha and not investing in development prematurely.


MRLN, a startup incubated by D. E. Shaw & Co., L.P., a multinational investment management firm, is creating innovative solutions in the commercial insurance marketplace for agents and brokers.

In many ways, such marketplaces have long been relics of the past. Buyers, particularly younger and more digitally-savvy business owners, are demanding that multiple phone calls be replaced with clicks, and stacks of paper with interactive charts. And yet, brokers continue to facilitate almost all transactions themselves. Few technologies have had success penetrating small business (SMB) insurance markets, but MRLN has a great weapon.

CEO and Founder, Philip Charles-Pierre, used Alpha to efficiently and iteratively substantiate an offering without having to write a single line of code. According to Charles-Pierre, Alpha has enabled MRLN to validate a product offering 3x faster than usual.

Transforming chaos into comfort

As a recently incubated startup, MRLN’s success is linked to its ability to invest time and resources into a solution that users truly value. Core to this is the capability to rapidly validate dozens of assumptions, from solving the right pain points for the right customers to the individual features and user experience flows. To inform those decisions, MRLN needed to generate insights from both insurance brokers and SMB owners. In a market with quickly evolving customer expectations, that’s not easy.

“With Alpha, we were able to validate the problem set in a matter of days,” says Charles-Pierre. “It also helped us identify questions and concepts that we were able to dive deeper into. That gave us comfort.”

If not for Alpha, Charles-Pierre would have had to do the heavy lifting himself. “It would have taken a lot more time and effort if it was just me going out into the field. This helped accelerate that ‘discovery’ process.”

Only using traditional market research methods wouldn’t work either, because MRLN wasn’t certain on which customer segment to focus on. Unlike such methods where customer segments and precise focus has to be defined in advance, MRLN was able to leverage Alpha’s on-demand audience sourcing to broadly explore the market before zeroing in on core segments. “Frankly, we were not in a position to be that specific,” says Charles-Pierre. “What was helpful was that we were able to very quickly understand the problem and then use that to test hypotheses in a more targeted way.”

Rapidly validating the offering

Instead of spending weeks developing studies, MRLN simply submitted plain-English questions into Alpha’s smart test templates, which are designed to inform key decisions throughout the product lifecycle. After validating pain points with tests for User Discovery and Competitive Overview, MRLN moved to Product Concept and Feature Prioritization tests. With two-day iterations, MRLN had a continuous stream of actionable, and often surprising, insights.

“Our investors even talk about that fact that we were able to do this so quickly, because validating a product normally takes a lot more time.”
Philip Charles-Pierre, CEO, MRLN

Reflecting on past projects, Charles-Pierre notes how typical it is for product teams to get customer feedback for the first time only after engineering and shipping a product.

“If you’re lucky, you can make tweaks and you’re off and running. But often times you have to start over and scrap it because some of the assumptions were not as accurate or didn’t work as you expected,” he explains.

With Alpha’s on-demand designer network, Charles-Pierre iterated on prototypes and de-risked such assumptions without investing in engineering. “It gives you a sense of the little things that people like about the product that you might not have thought of because you’re so immersed in it. Or detail things that you’re missing that are seemingly innocuous but might increase stickiness.”

In just six months, Alpha powered more than 90 experiments on five prototypes, generating insights from 11,000+ insurance brokers and SMB owners. Without writing a single line of code, MRLN validated customer problems, a unique value proposition, and a high-impact feature set.

Key milestones throughout incubation

The Fortune 500 are actively incubating startups like MRLN with the potential to disrupt industries. Being transparent and demonstrating traction are crucial components of the relationship and incubation process.

“There was a lot of concern for making sure that our assumptions were valid,” says Charles-Pierre about D.E. Shaw’s decision to initially fund MRLN. “We wanted to be sure not to overstate that there’s a real problem, that the problem is specific to our user group, that there’s a solution that makes sense, and finally that the product is validated.”

MRLN seamlessly communicated actionable insights to stakeholders using Alpha’s interactive reporting suite. Rather than being distracted by spending countless hours building slide decks, Charles-Pierre highlighted key data and videos from experiments, and built a shareable narrative within Alpha in minutes. Transparency through reporting is instrumental to the company’s success.

“For our investors, progress is about validation,” explains Charles-Pierre. “Once they felt comfortable, they put in additional funding so we could build the product and get us to the point where we could raise a Series A. That’s the core of what Alpha enabled.”

Key results

MRLN leveraged Alpha’s on-demand insights and experimentation platform to validate customer problems, a unique value proposition, and a high-impact feature set, all without needing to allocate resources to engineering. According to their Founder and CEO, they validated a product 3x faster than usual and seamlessly demonstrated traction in order to raise more capital and scale.

MRLN is growing! They are looking for full-stack developers to be a part of their initial team. To apply, email philip [at] wmrln [dot] com.

Nis Frome

Nis Frome is the co-founder of Alpha, the platform that enables management teams to make data-driven decisions about users, products, and new markets.