First, some foundations: what is an MVP? No, you’re not the most valuable player. Popularized in The Lean Startup by Eric Ries, the minimum viable product (or MVP for short) is an initial version of a product that has only enough features to get early adopters of the product on board; essentially, it’s a product that is completely unprepared for the mainstream market, but functional enough that it can be tested and iterated on by a development team. Usually, the MVP is buggy, ugly, and sort of embarrassing: that’s because it’s not the final product, and that’s the point. As long as it works well enough for a small portion of people to start using it, then it’s a good minimum viable product.
Why would an unfinished, unpolished product be released at all? Shouldn’t it be done right the first time? In order to get the product right in the end, Eric Ries’ methodology calls for the build-measure-learn feedback loop, which starts by building an MVP. Instead of spending 18 months developing a finished product and then measuring its success at the end, the MVP allows teams to build for as little time as possible (only enough time to create a minimum viable product), and then measure whether or not their product is succeeding to do what it aimed to do in the early stages. From there, they can quickly learn what changes need to be made according to real feedback, not what changes they think should be made.
The more quickly that a startup can get to the “learn” portion of the build-measure-learn feedback loop, the better. The chances that they get the product right on the first try are slim, and even if the team does get lucky and develop a great product on the first try, they will still have to go through the cycle in order to improve the product and keep up with competition. Developing MVPs, or developing a larger product in small, testable chunks speeds up the cycle and creates more learning per minute spent engineering than any other method. We should apply the same development process to our own careers and endeavors, both personally and professionally.
At this point, considering you are probably aged 15–25, you and your career are nothing more than a startup. You have little experience, you probably haven’t built much, and therefore, haven’t measured a whole lot of success. Yet for students coming out of high school, the number one recommendation is to go to school for another four years so that you can continue to “build yourself” as a product. Just like a startup, yes, you do need to build your product: your skills, knowledge, and expertise that will allow you to get jobs in the future.
The problem with this traditional method of getting a career is that you won’t know if you are on the right path until the very end of your build phase, when you go out into the workplace and start measuring and learning.
You could spend the next four years of your life as a student in college, building yourself up and developing just like a new consumer product would. Constantly, you would add features to yourself in hopes that your future employers think that your skills are valuable and hire you. If you plan on working for yourself after you graduate from high school or college, you’ll spend your time in school learning about entrepreneurship and business. You are building knowledge and skills that others will hopefully find valuable enough to pay you for, though you have no idea if they actually do currently.
In your four-year path in and out of college, where is the measuring? Where is the validated learning? What assumptions about your career and your future have you tested? How do you know that any of your time is being well-spent?
What if at the end of your four years in college, some of the things you learned and worried about didn’t matter at all? What if the employers in your field wanted you to have a completely different set of skills altogether? You would only have learned this if you had measured and learned during the time that you were in school, but school is only designed to build your knowledge and skills. You’ve missed an enormous part of the picture, and now you’re at a crossroads of wasted time and wasted money.
How do we avoid this?
Let’s apply the MVP method to choosing a career path. Assuming that you have not yet started working and are still in school, you might have absolutely no idea what you want to do with the rest of your life. You need to measure and learn quickly to figure out what you actually want to do rather than spend four years in college only to discover that you actually hate dentistry, or kinesiology, or accounting, or… whatever.
How do we build, measure, and learn with a career?
Build: What skills, assets, or relationships do you currently have? Using dentistry as an example, you can’t go directly out into the field and work as a dentist for six months to try it out, but you can work at a dentist’s office, or visit one at the very least. You might know somebody who does work in the field who you can talk to. Leverage that relationship; hijack a mentor and ask to shadow them for a couple of days during the summer. Pay attention to what they do and ask lots of questions. You’ve built an environment to experience the career.
Measure: Do you enjoy being around that sort of work? Do you find it interesting? Are you as captivated by the idea of being a dentist as you were before you had this experience? Can you imagine yourself doing this for a long time to come?
Learn: Whether you respond positively or negatively, you should be excited: you’ve built and measured, and now you get to prove your validated learning. Continuing our example, let’s say that you shadow a dentist for a couple days and decided that this field of work isn’t for you. What now? Go back to the build phase again and build another experience in a different field.
Repeat: Maybe you decide that you want to pivot into being an author rather than a dentist. (What’s beautiful about this is that we are young enough that we have time to pivot and test as many things as possible. Get out there and experience more, and do it now before it starts getting late.) Build and measure again for this new career option to test it out.
Again, your attempt will not be a full fledged career at being an author, it will be a minimum viable product version of being an author. You might not go do book signings, but to be the noun, you must do the verb, so you might start by writing on a daily basis to see if you’re seriously excited about that path.
Like we did with the dentistry example, reach out to your favorite authors. Ask them questions about what they do outside of just writing books. Arguably, the most important thing to build in the early stages of your career are relationships, so I again advise you to hijack authors as mentors and use their experiences to guide you.
You can even apply the build-measure-learn feedback loop to writing a book. I’ll leave you with this example of using a minimum viable product to develop something in hopes that you deeply understand how this works in product design, creative work, and your own personal and professional development.
Build: You need to build some sort of minimum viable product to release and show others. If you’re writing a novel, this might come in the form of a single chapter that introduces the characters that you are going to have throughout your much longer novel. This chapter is not the finished product, of course, but you can already give this chapter to others and allow them to read it to give you feedback.
Measure: You might discover that your main character—let’s say, a male protagonist with few social skills but a knack for being the underdog—just isn’t likable enough. Your readers aren’t relating to the character like you wanted them to. You would figure this out by having your friends and family read the chapter and then asking them some interview questions about your main character.
Learn: Use this feedback to tweak your story. Change your description of the character. Give the character a different backstory to create more context around the character—whatever it takes to develop this character and make the reader relate to them as you want them to.
Repeat: Go back to the same people that read the chapter the first time and have them read the chapter again. Maybe even ask some new people to read it. Measure, for the second time, how they react, ask specific questions to see if your changes made the difference. Continue this cycle until you have a novel that’s undeniably great.
Sounds so simple, right? In which case, why isn’t everyone a New York Times bestselling author? It’s not that the concept of an MVP is complex to understand, but it is difficult to execute. It is a hell of a lot easier to spend two years working on a book with absolutely no feedback from the outside world, release the book with a big launch, and blame the rest of the world for the fact that it did not succeed. Much easier, but you’ll see worse results.
Would you rather figure out that your writing wasn’t hitting the mark when you’re 3,000 words into the book or 30,000 words into the book? The answer is obvious: if you’re wrong, you want to figure out as soon as possible so that you can change course and get it right.
It’s the same with your career. Treating yourself like a minimum viable product will reduce waste of your time to the minimum amount possible. Fail more quickly, measure deliberately, and apply your learning. You’ll be on a path to success in any career path that you choose.