Lean Startup and the local maximum problem
Why “failing fast” is a shortsighted strategy
Ev Williams - “Any big idea is going to take a while to get there… by definition if it’s big and no one has done it before it’s not going to be 1, 2, 3 - we got it. There is going to be a dark period in there because you don’t know what the key to get in there is”. - (Foundation 31)
Product development can be seen as an optimization problem. We search for a set of product features that will deliver the most value to customers. Viewed as a chart we are aiming for the highest value point in the product space.
With Lean Startup products are rapidly iterated based on decisions validated using customer metrics. Using the chart metaphor the minimal viable product is typically a low-lying value point but it allows the terrain to surveyed. Iterations allow us to move across the chart in an upwards direction but they may lead us quickly to a local-maximum.
The local-maximum product is one that delivers more value than previous iterations of the product but is not the best product in the space (the global maximum). A local-maximum product is also not able to be rapidly iterated into something better - instead more fundamental changes are required.
Lean startups often rapidly reach a local-maximum product which does not deliver product/market fit. They give up on their original idea and pivot - missing out on a massive opportunity. Pivoting will allow the startup to explore a different space, but they’re just as likely to produce a local-maximum product there and repeat the process.
If we believe in our ideas we should be prepared to properly explore the spaces they inhabit before giving up on them.