To Survive Disruption, Encourage MVPs
How we replaced “wouldn’t it be great…” ideas with a Minimum Viable Products mentality to overcome the lockdown.
I quit my job 8 months ago. I worked for a big tech company where politics and bureaucracy hampered innovation. (Not uncommon — I know.) We spent lots of money, but progress was slow and rare.
As fun as it was to enjoy the well-funded tech company life, I wanted to bypass bureaucracy. I wanted to be an innovator.
After plenty of research, I left my big tech job for a startup with real potential. My new gig was a recruiting firm-turned-community platform and tech consultancy by our endlessly inventive founder and CEO, Tim Winkler.
I was the startup’s first marketing hire. Over the next eight months, my team would grow to four people. Then the coronavirus pandemic put recruiting firms and marketing agencies across the world on hold.
But not us. We added marketing services. Our marketing team had built a community engagement platform. It was so popular with local developers that it was well-worth other startups’ money to get featured there. The pandemic had put many marketing agencies on hold, and here we were getting paid to become a marketing firm.
We were able to make this pivot so quickly and successfully because we encouraged something that many other companies didn’t. We encouraged Minimum Viable Products. We had started working on “hatchpad” long before the first reports of Coronavirus, just because it was cool idea.
At my previous big tech job, I used to sit in marketing meetings for hours, listening as my coworkers generated idea after idea. Nearly all the ideas fell into the same category:
“Wouldn’t it be great if our customers all posted glowing reviews on social media and tagged us?”
“We should send out gift boxes or something!”
“It would be awesome if our marketing emails didn’t keep going to spam.”
Management would nod their heads and agree, so we generated hundreds of these ideas.
None of these ideas ever seemed to go anywhere. Being an ideas person was great, but if you tried to execute on an idea, you’d step on someone’s toes or the idea would drown in a sea of critiques and power-plays.
I’ve made a personal rule on my new team. When I lead marketing meetings, I want to encourage MVPs. It’s incredibly valuable to have someone on your team who will just get started. In my experience, it’s always easier to repair, improve, or build on a foundation than it is to start something. If you think a rewards program would be a great idea, then create one — even a bad one. Then we can build on that.
If I hear “Wouldn’t it be great if …?”
I ask, “Maybe. How can we make that happen? What would that look like? Can you get started?”
We always aim to encourage Minimum Viable Products. Any idea that we can’t turn into an MVP is wishful thinking. Ideas that turn into MVPs turn into real innovations.
MVPs are often pretty bad. Sometimes they look nothing like the final, finished product. But an MVP gives you something to go on. It’s a foundation that you can build on or a blueprint you can edit. When you encourage MVPs over “wouldn’t it be great” ideas, you discourage time-wasting. You get the ball rolling. You innovate.
At many companies, employees are nervous to create a bad first draft or risk presenting an MVP that flops. They have ideas, but they want someone else to do the initial legwork — to shield them from criticism. They know that first drafts don’t always look the best. When you make an MVP for a good idea, you’re pretty much guaranteed to see it criticized, critiqued, tweaked, and sometimes rebuilt altogether.
Worst of all the MVP, like a house’s foundation, is the hardest part of building anything. But, like a house’s foundation, most people don’t see the MVP. When you create an MVP at most companies, you expose yourself to criticism, and you put in a lot of work, but you get very little credit. That’s why no one wants to do it. Companies stagnate. They don’t innovate because they discourage MVPs.
For MVPs to happen, leaders have to encourage and reward them. To create a culture of innovation, look for the people who start difficult things. Find the people who get the ball rolling or who figure out how to make things work. Those innovators can be far more valuable than the people who sit around endless fine-tuning other people’s work.
I’ll admit I’ve experienced some setbacks. I’ve unfairly critiqued MVPs in the past. I’ve created ideas that took a lot of work to get off the ground, only to see someone else get credit for fine-tuning them. MVPs aren’t easy.
No matter how difficult they are, MVPs are central to innovation. A bad first draft can become a prize-winning article. A YouTube channel that starts with few viewers can go viral. A clunky product can evolve. As our world changes in response to the coronavirus pandemic, companies that evolve with it will be those that encourage MVPs.