MVP: Getting There Without Writing a Line of Code

A flawed talk that I'm still fond of

Published on May 17, 2019

In 2017, I was fortunate enough to give a handful of talks at Ascender, a Pittsburgh-based incubator. The talks were part of their Starter Series, a monthly event geared toward first-time entrepreneurs.

After I transitioned to freelancing in 2016, the folks at Ascender were kind enough to offer me a desk, in exchange for providing technical guidance and consulting to their incubatees. In the two years I was there, I had the good fortune of chatting with dozens of folks about their businesses, helping them to determine when—and if—they should invest in technology, what technical approaches might make sense for their companies, and where to find reliable resources.

My Starter Series talks were borne of those conversations, and the common threads that ran between them. As Don Draper said, “Technology is a glittering lure,” and, at least in Pittsburgh, it’s what newer entreprenuers tend to get most excited about. But, the bridge between an idea and a product is vast. With product development typically representing the largest expense a new company might face, the margin for error is slim.

It became my role, as much as anything else, to help folks identify the distance between idea and product, and to help them span that distance with the least amount of technology possible.

That’s where the click-baity title of the talk comes from. My goal was to emphasize the importance of the work to be done before we ever start coding. Using basic tools like Mailchimp, Google Forms, and even platforms like Invision and Webflow, an entreprenuer can validate, shape, and hone their ideas—and prove they alleviate somebody’s pain—before they ever have to talk to somebody like me.

In the talk, I tried to re-define an MVP as an experiment (guided by the Scientific Method, no less) that an entrepreneur could undergo to validate a single assumption about their business idea. Looking back on it now, that framing doesn’t entirely hold up: the experiments I advocated for aren’t MVPs, but rather the homework leading up to the MVP. But, an MVP is exciting, and homework is not, and so I tried to stretch the definition to cover the entire process.

And yet, I still stand by the sentiment of the talk: there are assumptions buried within every idea that we have, and it’s the entreprenuer’s job to root them out. That process requires empathy, humility, and a willingness to be profoundly incorrect. It’s an extremely difficult task, but it’s also one that’s far easier before spending tens of thousands on technology.

Here are the slides, in all their flawed glory, for that talk.

I also want to extend a special things to the Ascender team for putting up with me for all that time: Stephan Mueller, Bobby Zappala, Nadyli Nuñez, Jenny Sharpe, and Beth Klebacha. I miss y’all daily.

Currently Listening: Jamila Woods, "ZORA"

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