MVPs and Outsourcing Critical Thinking

UCL Letter #1 - February 16, 2020

Welcome to the first letter of Undirected Cyclic Thoughts. Goal is to bang out one letter each week. I’ll pick out 2-3 key ideas I’ve come across or thoughts I’ve had and elaborate on them a bit. I’ll also include a few pieces of content that I enjoyed. No guarantees that this will be worth your time.

Minimum Viable Products

Everyone knows what an MVP stands for, but it seems that what an MVP is - specifically the purpose and attributes of an MVP - is not clear. I think many people “disprove” hypotheses or have “failed” experiments not because their idea is necessarily bad but because their MVP is garbage. This is often due to the effective brainwashing of the Lean Startup philosophy, shoved down every entrepreneur’s throat by Eric Ries and his padawans. Practically, this takes the form of an over-focus on minimal, a lack of thought to viable, and no consideration for how the MVP is being launched.

The goal of an MVP is to test a hypothesis. To sniff out market demand. The market trumps all - bad teams can succeed in a good market and good teams will fail in a bad market.

The minimal is meant to remind product owners that they don’t want to over-invest before getting feedback. Their idea may not align with what the market needs, and it’s best to minimize fixed costs in a high risk investment. They can always invest more once they prove out demand. People tend to really focus on minimal. It’s easy - whenever you’re faced with a decision, choose the quickest and dirtiest way to ship: say no to the extra feature; skimp on high fidelity designs; don’t worry about performance.

The viable is meant to remind product owners that the MVP needs to have a chance of succeeding. It needs to viably have a chance at satisfying a market need. People completely fumble it when it comes to this component of an MVP. They don’t put enough thought into the user journey. They don’t put enough emphasis on a clean and intuitive UI. They don’t build something that anyone could possibly want - in the pursuit of “lean” and “agile” and all those other terribly misleading buzzwords.

In the real world, this theoretic, misapplied concept takes the form of completely wasting time, launching tests that would never succeed, and likely missing out on potential wins.

When building an MVP, really think about viable. I think it’s better to slightly over-invest than to sign away your fate before you even launch.

The last thing I’ll comment on here is the form of the launch. Paid avertising is one area where a fucked MVP will compound and lead to wasting not only time and resources but also a lot of money. When you’re using paid advertising, your potential customers are going to have a lot less context and a lot less patience than early adopters or beta testers. That means that the bar for what “minimally viable” means is high. Much higher than if you’re using early adopters or beta testers.

It’s always better to use a small group of early adopters or beta testers when gathering feedback on an MVP. It lets you establish a line of communication, gather richer feedback, etc. If, for whatever reason, you choose not to take this approach but instead to run paid ads against an MVP, you really need to make sure that the product is viable, intuitive, and works.

Update: After writing this, I came across a great graphic that illustrates some of the thoughts above.

The Great Outsourcing of Critical Thinking

This is probably the most dangerous and widespread thing that I’ve noticed. Someone tweeted about an adjacent idea yesterday which brought it to top of mind:

Shane is correct in that inputs matter. If you’re consuming garbage content then your views and thoughts will be garbage. But I think what’s even more dangerous is how much critical thinking is being outsourced to thought leaders and social media platforms. The inputs may not necessarily be garbage, but they’re all the same. The result is a modern, highly effective version of group-think. Individual thought is at an all-time low.

I think this epidemic is particularly prevalent and caustic in the Silicon Valley and Wall Street. Two industries that are supposed to drive the nation and world forward. Go to a happy hour for techies or a bar in Midtown and you’ll find yourself in conversations where everyone wants to share their “novel” thoughts or take on an issue, only to end up saying the exact same point that everyone read in Matt Levine’s latest issue of Money Stuff.

There’s no easy fix for this. It’s simply a matter of being aware of the issue and having a reasonable level of personal discipline and intellectual honesty. There are two exercises that I’ve found are somewhat helpful:

  1. Take notes

    Whenever I consume content, I always throw notes about the article or podcast into Notion. I separate out interesting facts or statistics from someone’s commentary. But more importantly, I find that writing something down makes it easier to question and reason about.

  2. Focus on facts

    Read more governmental reports. Read more 10Ks. Read more survey results. Read more history. By lessening the amount of commentary you consume, the more you force yourself to come to your own conclusions.

Notable Content

Favorite video of the week —

Worth a read —