Quick and dirty is good right? Because real artists ship and if you don’t move fast and break things someone else will get there before you. And if you run out of time, because there’s never enough time, you can simply release an MVP and iterate from there, right?
Most startups fail because they don’t really know what they’re doing. And I’m not talking about sloppy code or non-existing HR policies, problematic as that may be. I’m talking about being confused about your own core. Because being true to what you are and really understanding your place in the universe, happens to be just as important for a company as it is for an individual.
And just as an infant needs to be swimming in love in order to become a solid grown-up, your first product launch will forever set the tone of your company. So make sure it’s good.
Here’s the thing: Viable doesn’t mean passable, it means that a product does exactly what it was intended to do. No more, no less. The fact that it’s minimally viable, means it gets that job done for at least one person out there, and that person is going to become your first true fan and so it would make more sense really, to talk about minimally lovable products.
Once in a blue moon a startup team might come around that has so much talent and fortunate timing that they can hit the market fast with this type of product, but for most of us it takes a lot of trial and error in order to figure out what exactly we need to build. The journey towards that point is filled with setting up hypothesises and proving them right or wrong.
So what exactly is the difference between a proof of concept, a minimally viable product, and the real thing? I recently went to the movies and found a brilliant example.
In Ford vs. Ferrari, Christian Bale plays the role of legendary mechanic and race car driver Ken Miles, while Matt Damon is designer, inventor and racing entrepreneur Carol Shelby. These two renegades are hired by Ford motor company to beat Ferrari at the worlds toughest race, in Lemans.
It’s real world mission: impossible. There’s simply no way in hell Shelby & Miles will be able to pull it off, and yet they do. How?
First they prove a concept, then they build MVP’s!
The primary challenge Shelby & Miles are facing, as did any entrepreneur before and after them, is the status quo. There are certain ways things are done and that’s what you should stick to unless you want to get bruised. Ford is a giant bureaucracy, a machine that can’t stop itself from making life difficult for the two innovators, even though it has written a blank check to help win what will turn out to be the most important PR triumph in the history of the automotive industry.
When Ford fail to win the 1965 race the project is nearly shut down. The prototype car has fallen to pieces on the tracks, in Shelby’s words: “just about the only thing that didn’t break were the breaks”. Still however, a concept has been proven, because during the lapses that the Ford GT 40 lasted, it was faster than any other car had ever been.
Losing the race might have been seen as a failure. But the most central concept had been proved; Ford could build a faster car than Ferrari. That was the one important thing.
The rest was history. Shelby & Miles iterated intensely on their first prototype, building a minimally viable product that went on to beat Ferrari into submission by winning Lemans four years in a row.
For all its success, the GT 40 of the winning years 66, 67, 68 and 69 was still nothing more than minimally viable products. It was the fastest sports car in the world but it wasn’t a viable product in any kind of general terms. It was hand built by elite engineers and could never have made it on the consumer market. It was viable for the single purpose of winning the 24 hour non-stop Lemans race. Only after its winning streak was over, and long after Shelby & Miles were out of the picture, did the GT 40 transition into a consumer product. As such it was a failure, but that didn’t matter. The value was all in the POC and the MVP.
So how does a fifty years old example from car racing tell us anything about running a startup? I think it’s informative on so many levels. It says a lot about how success over time can make a company forget its core mission, and how it then takes a radical dose of craziness to kick-start innovation. It’s also a great illustration of how important it is to keep your eyes on the prize. It’s a truism that you need to ‘do the right thing’ but it bears repeating, because in the midst of a seemingly impossible challenge, what’s most difficult is often to navigate in the sea of absolute priorities. You have to clearly see what the next most important thing is and keep a single minded focus on achieving exactly that thing. As hard as that may be – and it is damn hard – that is the art of innovation.
So in conclusion: Just because it’s minimal doesn’t mean it’s easily achievable. Properly scoping and successfully launching an MVP is going to be a major milestone for any venture, one which typically consists of a bundle of proofs of concept, each of which required considerable effort.
And I’m also saying this: it’s dangerous to get confused about what’s a proof of concept (POC) and and MVP. Because a POC can easily be torn down and you can quickly learn from it, but once you go ahead and launch an MVP, it tends to become the actual blueprint for generations to come of your product.
This does’t mean that your MVP should be perfect. In fact if you’re not somewhat shamed by what you ship, you probably over-engineered it. But more important than getting the level of finish exactly right, is the fact that your MVP needs to have a distinctly recognisable personality. If you accomplish that you will find your first hardcore fans, the ones that are willing to see past shortcomings and blemished because they see what you see and they buy into that vision.
Once you get to that point, the rest will be easy.