CTO SmackChat: Minimalism

First published 02/11/14 on MACH37.com

By now, most entrepreneurs have adopted the lean startup principles advocated by Eric Ries in his book The Lean Startup. A key concept is the Minimum Viable Product, the mechanism used to convey your core product ideas to potential early users, and test key market assumptions in an iterative process to ensure that what you finally deliver both solves a problem and can generate enough paying customers to build a business. Of course the hard nut with this concept is figuring out “minimal” and “viable” in a world where your startup may be created based on a good idea and not much else.

I have experienced first-hand a number of the traps that technologists tend to trip over with this concept. The classic one of course is building products that are never quite ready to ship because they need just one more feature. Early in my career I developed a number of highly optimized protocols for satellite-based networks; it turns out that only satellite builders determine the protocols that fly, and the best technology is often not the winner. Complexity is another dangerous siren song – after a few meetings where it takes half an hour for even the friendliest, most perceptive customer to go “aha!” you begin to wonder about the guy who made millions selling those plastic electric outlet covers to prevent toddlers from sticking their tongues in the outlet.

One of my startups embodied all of these traps in a single great idea. Well before iTunes perfected the concept, we built and tested a very efficient delivery system for selling individual movies, songs and other content onto end user devices. At the time, transmission costs were high and credit card transaction costs were also high. We conceived a closed loop where content was aggregated at a central point, shipped over satellite to every TV station in the country, and streamed over the unused bandwidth in HDTV to a small receiver gizmo connected to end user devices that would decode the signal and securely aggregate single transactions into a monthly billing. The actual system was tested in New York, Trenton, NJ, Baltimore and Washington DC, and overnight we could stream enough content to make the top 100 movies, 1000 songs, and other content instantly available to millions of users. Even the back end worked, but in the end I believe I was the only person ever to complete an actual purchase and pay for it on my credit card.

So how do you figure out the Minimum Viable Product? Especially when a company is just starting, the key notion is to get your idea in front of potential customers and see if it solves a problem they care about. At this stage it doesn’t take a lot of development, but just enough to be able to describe the problem and how you address it, the value proposition for the user, and enough of an indication of what a user would see and do to make it feel real. The acid test at this stage is finding a potential customer who indicates that if you can build it, they will try it and eventually buy it. That establishes the “viable”. Beyond that, the “minimal” is driven almost more by schedule than by features. How long will that first customer wait before they forget about you? How much do you have to demonstrate in terms of solving the core problem to entice your customer to take those next steps down the development path with you? In the end, both “minimal” and “viable” are defined by your early customers, not by you. Your job is to make a guess that is close enough to keep those early customers engaged until you are actually in a position to deliver something.

David Ihrie is CTO of MACH37 and has been the lead technical person for six startup companies. He has a BS in EE/CS and an MS in Management specializing in the Management of Technological Innovation, both from MIT.

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