Why Most Start Ups Should Slow Down

MVP.  Minimum Viable Product.  The now almost universal, venture bible thumping quick-as-a-bunny destination for every startup.  The underlying theory:  don’t over-engineer, don’t over-think, create something as fast as you can that is just good enough to get your customer to want to explore and maybe even use.  And from that get the feedback you need to refine the idea to a place where it can be maximally viable, aka really successful.  In my current role and past life I’ve had the pleasure to observe many a development of the “MVP”.  And I’ve come to believe that there is an inherent flaw in the philosophy and the process.  And the flaw lies with the fact that we’re dealing with humans.  Allow me to explain via way of an odd metaphor. 

Imagine the task of finding the MAXIMUM VIABLE PRODUCT as akin to circling the drain.  You’re way out in orbit with your theory, spinning around in a circular pattern, with the aspiration of getting to the center, the drain hole, the Maximum Viable Product.  As you learn more and more, the radius of your orbit gets shorter, you are getting closer! 

And at some point on that circular descent you decide that you’re close enough, that your idea has achieved MINIMUM VIABLE PRODUCT status.  But let’s check the source of your decision.  What exactly constitutes minimum viability?  What’s the math that says you’ve achieved “good enough”?  Is it investor interest?  Is it getting a certain number of customers to nod their heads?   Is it your ability to explain what you’ve built to your mother?  I’ve never actually seen a formula.  I don’t believe there is a formula.  If there were a formula the startup survival statistics would look a whole lot different.  In fact, I believe the underlying source of what constitutes MVP is a rush to judgment.  I believe that we declare MVP when we get really tired of trying to figure the hard stuff out and when we succumb to the need to declare something.  And when we declare MVP that frees us up to do stuff that is not so hard.  Incorporate, work on our website, find office space, hire people. 

A friend of mine just decided to shut his tech startup down.  He was not the founder but came in early, raised a couple of million in funding, hired a bunch of people, rented offices, etcetera, etcetera.  And when I asked him what happened he said, “We were a nice-to-have but not a must-have, and a nice-to-have is not a saleable thing. What we thought was an MVP wasn’t even close.”   Which is my point.  In retrospect, he should have kept circling the drain.  He should have slowed down on creating a company while he turned up the heat on challenging his logic, questioning his findings, pushing harder for the breakthrough insight that would actually, truly, really turn a “maybe a good idea” into a viable, great business.    And that is my fundamental point.  If you want to increase your chance of startup success, slow down.