The Unusual Truth About Why an MVP Won’t Make You Successful.

How to unlock your potential by focusing on your fundamentals.

In the startup world, “failing fast” is the holy grail. “Pivoting” is the only way to reach success.

But damn, I see so many startups fail and pivot in such dumb ways. It’s true that you have to fail often to get to your success, but you have to fail smart. In particular you need to fail FORWARD.

What that looks like visually? This is how most startups pivot:

High-skill paint skills!

Failure is the only thing that follows from failing without making progress.

Why does this happen?

Because they’re drinking the startup kool-aid.

They’re stuck with the MVP-idea. They’re stuck in the Build-Measure-Learn loop.

“The most important thing to test your assumptions and pivot.” — Nearly everyone into startups.

There are two fundamental flaws with that though:

  1. Innovator’s Bias: Most of us come up with problems around our brilliant ideas, and then try to find just enough evidence to convince ourselves we’re on the correct path. This is known as the Innovator’s Bias. If you start with testing, you need to guess at the actual problems. Because of the Innovator’s Bias, this is really hard, as we’re wired to fake problems around our solution. This thus increases the odds we’ll convince ourselves we’re on the right track — exactly the thing you want to avoid.
  2. Lack of flexibility: If you start with a problem that doesn’t exist, it’s really hard to recover from a test that invalidated your assumption. Not exploring the whole problem context at the start ruins your flexibility, and makes it terribly difficult to extract actionable problems from an interview.

When starting out, you want to maximize your learning and minimize the time to get to the right product-market fit. Instead of building your MVP as soon as possible, start with a Minimum Viable Understanding.

Each new idea should start with MVU

“The most common mistake startups make is to solve problems no one has.”- Paul Graham

Have you ever seen very successful entrepreneurs talk about their vision? They’re able to sketch a picture of the future that almost seems inevitable.

Most entrepreneurs know a vision is an inspirational picture of the future. Successful entrepreneurs realize that a good vision is a combination of current trends and changes in customer needs.

In order to do that, you need a minimum viable understanding of:

  1. Trends: Which trends make it extra important for you to work on this vision now? These could be technological trends (cloud computing), consumer trends (importance of UX), legal trends (GDPR), economic trends (economic crisis in 2008), etc.
  2. Customer: Who is your customer?
  3. Customer’s job: What are customers trying to get done? e.g. Building a startup (accelerator), going from point A to point B (Uber), or scaling up a team (Angel.co)
  4. Process: What is your customers’ current workflow?
  5. Problem: What’s the #1 problem about the current process?
  6. Alternatives: Which alternatives do customers have?
  7. Complaints: What isn’t ideal about current solutions?

You can then turn this into a statement:

For ___[customer], it’s crucial to ___[customer’s job]. The way they currently do that is ___[process], but that’s challenging because of ___[problem]. Currently, they address this with ___[alternatives]. However, ___[complaints].
Because of ___[trends], it will become similarly crucial and possible to address this problem.

Once you have this statement, you can put it in front of experts and customers to see whether you’re onto something. Once you’ve got this, you can improve your clarity about the actual needs and trends. You can see whether you’re closer to innovation or to illusion.

Having difficulty filling this in? I wrote about interviewing customers here.

Boost discovery

Starting from a Minimum Viable Understanding is key to maximizing learning and will help you uncover the biggest opportunity. It eliminates the desire to build a product before you’re ready. You no longer need to worry about design or code.

With Minimum Viable Understanding you switch your center of attention towards learning. It’s the foundation you need to start building.

However, doing so is hard. You need to be truly honest and rigorous about getting to the right Minimum Viable Understanding. But when you do move from building your MVP as soon as possible to starting with your Minimum Viable Understanding, it will save you a lot of pain.


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