I recently read The Lean Startup by Eric Ries for the first time.
I’d heard about a lot of the main points in the book, especially about the Minimum Viable Product (MVP) and pivoting. I find that there is some subtlety and nuance behind these terms that don’t seem to come out in the popular understanding.
Some of these differences are natural, as even the author’s ideas will continue to evolve after writing a book. Some of it comes from the real-world version of the telephone game. It’s often worth going back to the source material rather than relying on second- and third-hand information.
Here are some of the interesting things I learned from the book.
Minimum Viable Product (MVP)
I usually encounter the MVP term in two contexts. One is when a team is building a product and want to strip the product down to its core essence to get a first version out in the marketplace. The other is when someone puts up a landing page with a signup form to see if anyone is interested in a product that hasn’t been built yet.
While both of these are instances of MVP’s, what often seems to be lost is the real focus: learning. The MVP is supposed to be a way to validate hypotheses in the fastest way possible. From the book (p. 93):
A minimum viable product (MVP) helps entrepreneurs start the process of learning as quickly as possible. It is not necessarily the smallest product imaginable, though; it is simply the fastest way to get through the Build-Measure-Learn feedback loop with the minimum amount of effort.
So, absolutely build that landing page or small, simple version. But stay focused on the learning part of it, not the “minimum” part of it.
These days, the term “pivot” has almost become something of a joke. It’s used to describe almost any random change of direction in any context. But the book talks about something more thoughtful, defining pivot as (p. 149):
a structured course correction designed to test a new fundamental hypothesis about the product, strategy, and engine of growth.
The part about “structured” and “designed” seems to get lost in translation. And again, there is an emphasis on learning - we’re testing a new hypothesis.
The “structured” part of this comes through a few pages later (p. 154):
A pivot requires that we keep one foot rooted in what we’ve learned so far, while making a fundamental change in strategy in order to seek even greater validated learning.
A pivot isn’t just a random leap to a new thing; rather it’s an evolution from the old thing to a new thing. We don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater.
For all that The Lean Startup concepts have permeated modern software, I had never once heard the term Innovation Accounting before reading the book. I think this idea is one of the keys to the approach, but it is almost never talked about.
To be fair, I’m not sure I fully grasp the idea from a single reading of the book, but I think having a different way to gauge progress than traditional accounting measures is very important.
I think the most telling quote in the book comes in the epilogue (p. 279):
Throughout our celebration of the success of the Lean Startup movement, a note of caution is essential. We cannot afford to have our success breed a new pseudoscience around pivots, MVPs, and the like.
And yet, that seems to be what has happened.
I’ll have more to say about this phenomenon in a future post.
All in all, the book is well worth reading. As I mentioned above, going back to the original source material is a good way to dispel some of the baggage and mythology that builds up around ideas like this.