Jan Bosch is a research center director, professor, consultant and angel investor in start-ups. You can contact him at jan@janbosch.com.

Opinion

Are you building a minimal viable elephant?

Reading time: 4 minutes

As part of the research in Software Center, I work with dozens of companies in the software-intensive embedded systems space on a variety of topics. One of these topics is the development of new products. Having worked with online companies, as well as startups, I’ve become indoctrinated with Steve Blank’s ideas and the “lean startup” concepts. One of the key tenets is that you validate with customers every step of the way. In fact, you seek to minimize the amount of R&D investment between customer proof points. The second tenet is to only rely on what customers say when you absolutely need to, but whenever possible rely on measuring their behavior.

In the embedded systems industry, for some reason, companies are extremely reticent to validate with customers before the entire product has been built. Over the years, I’ve heard a great variety of reasons as to why this is. The main ones include: “We can’t show customers anything but a complete product”, “We’ll damage the company brand if we show an early prototype”, “This idea is so good that they’ll buy it if we only build it”, “Experimentation with customers makes us look like idiots because it looks like we don’t know”, “This stuff is secret and we don’t want to tip off the competition”, “It’s so hard to organize this across the company as I need to coordinate with everyone.”

The consequence of this is that companies tend to build, as one of my colleagues quipped, minimal viable elephants (MVEs) instead of minimal viable products (MVPs). When I confront people with this and we get past the ‘excuses’, it seems to me that there are at least three fundamental causes to this phenomenon.

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