Neil Kandalgaonkar

hacker, maker of things


I’ve been thinking about the idea of the Minimum Viable Product a lot over the past six months. Particularly the notion of validation.

It’s rapidly become the new dogma for people doing technology startups. And yet, I’ve been privileged to know the founders of a lot of successful startups, or people who’ve created similarly impressive things. None of them did anything like the MVP, and it doesn’t seem to be the philosophy that guides their actions.

There are some things which look similar, like quick iterations in front of real users or customers. But they completely violated the model in other ways. Particularly the admonition not to code before validating the market. Often, their code created new markets.

I’m working on a solo project, and I cowork with a lot of startup people. I hate having to explain my project to them. The entire concept is both deeply geeky and quixotically romantic, and I don’t really know if it can make money. Startup people are competitors, and I can feel them sizing me up as someone who doesn’t have what it takes to succeed. So, in conversation, sometimes I distance myself from my own project, shrugging about how it’s really more of an extended hack, and one day soon I’ll do something “real”.

Normals tend to find my project more interesting. They sense the same things I do, that it would feel different to have a product like what I’m talking about.

Lascaux (Thot 12/15) by christophe brocas

But the Minimum Viable Product people aren’t wrong, either. After my six months in a coworking space dominated by startups, I’ve watched entire products rise and fall. Despite their best efforts, sometimes they create a product which it turns out nobody wants. Or worse, people do want it, but not quite enough people to pay the bills. The pain and sacrifice, all for nothing. Having experienced that, who wouldn’t resolve to never again work on a project that didn’t have a proven market?

And yet… the thing about doing difficult new things with technology - startups or otherwise - is that the failure rate is so high it’s just not a rational course of action. Over time, it can be a sustainable way to make a living. But even so, months of your life are routinely wasted on ideas that never go anywhere. Even successful projects are usually dead and buried in less than five years, or have given way to barely recognizable new versions. You can’t point to some bridge spanning a river, and say you did that.

Often, the only real thing of value you have, after it’s all over, is the story. And the stories that other people tell about what it was.

A good metric for a life is to test whether one is continually acquiring stories worth telling.

The ideal Minimum Viable Product is a fully de-risked and market-validated product, that solves some lucrative problem with well-understood technology. The MVP people often seem to be suggesting that you should be a kind of fully rational profit-seeking missile. Never sticking with an idea that can’t be validated; never having a preference for what you want to do in the world; just zeroing in on underserved, profitable niches through rapid iteration.

But if you did that, would it make a good story?

I hesitate to say the above sentence, even if it feels right. Am I saying the MVP people are soulless? Am I arguing that lack of knowledge is better than knowledge? Should you, like Christopher McCandless in Into the Wild, enter into well-mapped territory without a map, just to challenge yourself?

No. I think what I’m saying is that being a fully rational profit-seeking missile makes for a boring story. You need some of that cold-eyed business wisdom to sustain you. But what will make the story interesting will be where and how you choose to deviate from that path.

Maybe it will be doing things in a field where you have no initial competence, and you have to learn quickly. Maybe it will be in your aesthetics. But I would argue it goes deeper.

Kellan Elliot-McCrea and Paul Bison have blogged a bit about the Maximum Viable Product, which has more flourishes than can be rationally justified. And yet, people love products like this, because they do something that A/B testing can’t ever reveal; they embody values.

Yeah, I’m one of those ex-Flickr people who can’t shut up about it, but bear with me for a minute. One of the things that people loved about Flickr was a sense of serendipity, that life could be a beautiful adventure. Openness to experience was not just indulged, but demanded. The search interface at Flickr was deliberately less “efficient”, because each photo could send you careening to a new group, or a tag, or even a location, interacting with people you’d never met. Now, it is possible that these values only ever worked for a small cabal of early adopters, in the early days of the social web. Maybe “new Flickr” is right to move away from those values. But the point is, the values make the product. And values are what inspires loyalty.

It’s tempting to therefore argue that such values are indeed, a rational thing to have. And then you have the absurdity of mercenaries deciding, two or three years in, that they need a mission statement or BHAG or other corporate simulacrum of values. I doubt this can ever work. To delight others you have to go beyond what is necessary, even when the necessity of delighting others is taken into consideration. It must be a kind of gift without the surety of returns. And hopefully this will inspire others to share in your story.

But nothing is certain. The most important story is the story of what you did with the precious few hours you have to accomplish anything in this world.

Values cause you to deviate from the way of pure rationality, and to make a story worth telling.