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Minimum Viable or Insanely Great? We’ll Miss You, Steve Jobs

Posted by Bob Warfield on October 6, 2011

We live in a world that has learned to embrace and even worship the notion of a “minimum viable product,”  not products that are the best that we can do.  This is done for risk mitigation reasons.  We are concerned that we may not know what’s best, we need to get feedback, and we need to move cautiously rather than boldly. It’s born of a desire to conserve capital and to raise capital.  Capital, in many ways, has trumped Vision, Passion, and Products.  Venture capital is hard to come by for Vision.  They’ve been burned too many times, and it is too hard to identify Visionaries.  It’s easier to fund traction.  Let the markets decide.  Let the people decide.  It’s democratic.  It’s safer.  But it will never produce Insanely Great the way Steve Jobs has.

In a world that so embraces this “new approach”, it’s sad to see the passing of Steve Jobs.

Steve had no interest in the minimum viable.  He had no concerns for getting feedback before creating what he did best:  Insanely Great Products.  In reflecting on his passing, I wonder about our future in the world of Technology.

Will we ever get back to building Insanely Great Products?

Is there really no future in having Vision and an uncompromising passion to make it into Insanely Great Products?

What is the role of excellence, aesthetics, and beauty?

What about hope, promise, and dreams?

What about changing the world with technology?

Must we build everything with checklists, committees, and focus groups?

The first Dot Com Bubble did us a great disservice by introducing the notion that all that matters is getting there first with the right idea, riding the bubble, and having a big enough portfolio to weather the bad ideas.  It did us a disservice by conditioning us that Insanely Great is so rare as to be not worth pursuing.  It made us entirely too dependent on catching the next Bubble instead of Creating the next Great Product.  Steve Jobs worked hard to show us we were wrong.  First with the iPod, then the iPhone, and finally the iPad.  Clearly, there is plenty of life in Insanely Great.  Given Apple’s financial performance relative to those who played it safe or depend on a monopoly that steadily wears out with the pace of technology change, it may be the only enduring way to build an Insanely Great Company.

Steve, your legacy will live on.  Let’s hope others will have the courage to try to follow in your footsteps.  Let’s hope Apple can keep the Passion for Insanely Great burning.

6 Responses to “Minimum Viable or Insanely Great? We’ll Miss You, Steve Jobs”

  1. I don’t think MVP and Insanely Great are mutually exclusive. A MVP is used to test assumptions about the customer and find the right mix of features. Once this is done, hell yes, make it insanely great. And that idea we do owe to Steve Jobs.

    • pfreet, they are actually mutually exclusive, even by your example. Steve Jobs never shipped an MVP in his life. That would mean launching a product before it became Insanely Great. He also didn’t rely on customer opinions or focus groups as the arbiters of what Insanely Great is. He had his own compass.

      You can’t minimum viable and focus group your way to insanely great. Insanely Great is not reductionist. It isn’t mediocre with the rough edges smoothed. It’s a quantum leap into new territory.

  2. Lee Wenger said

    Whats maybe missed in this is just how difficult “insanely great” is to achieve. I think that it’s not that other companies haven’t tried to produce insanely great products, it was just that on arrival they just didn’t seem all that insanely great. The reality of the marketplace is that the customer determines what’s insanely great – not the creator. So hidden in the movement towards minimally viable is a hidden reconciliation by lots of execs and funders that they may not be able to achieve insanely great – or at least not in a way that is monetizable – that was the genius of Jobs to me – the frequency with which he could get his teams to deliver things that were really insanely great as defined by his customers and was able to find an audience to buy these products.

    Not meaning to leave a long message here but its also worth pointing out what a phenomenal job he (or Apple in general) did of taking new concepts and moving them along a product life cycle towards real revenue generation. Think of the many great companies that have failed to execute this cycle for the most part: sun (never really did monetize java or anything for that matter other than solaris boxes), msft (still surviving mostly off of windows and office – gaming/xbox could be argued as a solid new product line), orcl (basically gave up and decided to achieve their growth through acquiring already viable technology), goog (really search is STILL their only true revenue stream), and the list goes on – apple was a computer company 10 years ago and now gets about 20% of their revenue from computers and not just from one “lucky” new product but a whole lineage… In one of your other blog articles you talk about the death of innovation – It appears to me that there is plenty of innovation – in fact maybe too much – Ultimately for most of these companies the failure has been in executives failing to find ways to get new innovations to find their own place in the world and find revenue streams that would go with them.

    • Lee, I think you may have missed my point and added an assumption that we shouldn’t let pass without discussion.

      The assumption is that “minimum viable” is a less risky strategy, and therefore more certain of success, than “insanely great.” I don’t know why there is any evidence for that at all. Sure, lots of companies can’t create insanely great. Lots of companies fail too. Most companies do in fact. Does that mean they failed because they mistakenly tried to do insanely great when they should have done minimum viable? Once upon a time you could have at least argued it, but today that’s a very hard thing to argue because you can’t get funded to build insanely great. You have to settle for minimum viable and “ramen profitability.” Do we think failure rates are way down as a consequence? I sure haven’t seen any evidence at all of it.

      The point that may have been missed is tied to that. When we think we’re greatly reducing risk by focusing on minimum viable, it isn’t the company or entrepreneur’s risk that has been reduced. It is the VC or investor’s risk. They’re pursuing a Darwinian selection strategy. Make a lot of little bets and double down on the ones that win. It’s actually not a bad strategy. But lest you forget, they have a portfolio to minimize there risk and you’re just part of the Darwinian experiment. Also, where it falls short is you will never ever place some bets because you have not offered enough capital to even try to play, and you have to play to have a shot at winning.

      Jobs successes have all involved some extraordinary investing in advance of their being any “traction.” Extraordinary more for the commitment ahead of traction than the amounts. Apple spends a pitance on R&D, for example. We’ve moved away from even trying to do that. At the same time we complain when there are so many “me-too” companies. So many companies building features instead of products. So few companies that try to really get out of the box and innovate. We’ve changed the rules on capitalization to encourage those things. We shouldn’t be surprised at what we have gotten in exchange.

      Any new venture is a risk. But given a choice, I’d much rather risk an honest swing at the fence then be told I’m to bunt and be the sacrifice play.

      If you plan to minimum-viable, focus-group, survey, and product manage your way to huge success, you’d better hope you get huge fast and secure a monopoly through contracts to create the OS for the PC, network effects, or other formidable non-product advantages. If you have to actually go in and create a new market, all by yourself, or take an existing market away from formidable competitors, you had better figure out how to be insanely great.

      BTW, if you expect your Entreprise to last longer than the inevitable decline of any monopoly, you’d also better learn to do insanely great. It doesn’t take long to see the lesson by comparing Microsoft and Apple.

  3. […] on “When minimum viable product doesn’t work.”  I had also recently written a similar post on how minimum viable is largely a capital conservation strategy that benefits the investors more […]

  4. […] because of those rules.  I did notice that there is a small but growing backlash against the whole capital-efficient-minimum-viable-product thesis.  Even Scoble had a rant on about it and he likes every shiny new thing.  Even shiny has a much […]

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