A Tent Will Never Be a House

How our means of learning changes the ends of our product

Nov 14 • 7 min read — Follow us on Medium at Medium/bldr | Subcribe to our newsletter

Creating new products is scary, risky, and expensive; inspiring both the best and worst in us. Our favorite coping mechanism for these feelings in tech is building the most minimal, disposable, barely viable product. We hope that putting something, anything into users hands will take the edge off of our anxiety ever so slightly. It’s a right of passage, and honestly, who doesn’t love the thrill of having something real to show for all their hard work?

Our favorite coping mechanism in tech is building the most minimal, disposable, barely viable product.

A walk in the woods

Though romantic, the MVP is a lot like buying a tent before building a house. Imagine venturing into the woods, looking for just the right spot to build your dream home. Rolling hills abound, brooks babble along, and you’ve got to pick a spot, one spot, to dig a whole and pour concrete. So you play it smart and buy a tent before renting a backhoe. Fairly quickly, you’ll learn the spot you set it up on is ok, but there’s a better one nearby. You’ll learn that the tent is way too small, but also that you like that it keeps the rain, wind, and bugs at bay.

You’re not going to live in the tent for long, and you’ll get rid of it as soon as you’re ready to build…aren’t you?

Our own worst enemy

This is unfortunately a decision that we’re all actually pretty terrible at making, adding a second edge to our MVP sword, compliments of something called the “sunk cost fallacy.” See, the moment you pulled out your wallet to purchase your tent, spent the time to put it together, and created the list of everything you liked and didn’t, you inherently changed the tent from a tool to learn about what you wanted to an investment with durable value

Have you ever waited in line for a long time at the grocery store, gotten close to the front, and when a line opened up next to you, thought “I’ve already waited so long here, I may as well just stay…” It’s irrational, and I’ve done it a hundred times before.

Have you ever gotten half-way through a book, realized that you weren’t enjoying it, but then thought “I may as well just finish it…” Well that’s not so smart either and I’ve only done it probably once, but I’ve done it. Regardless, you’re probably more acquainted with the perils of a sunk cost than you thought.

Sunk Cost Fallacy | Don’t waste your money Sunk Cost Fallacy | Don’t waste your money

Here’s how it’ll play out with your tent almost every time. While you stand outside the tent thinking through everything you learned from your experience, your perspective will slowly shrink away from why you came to this piece of land in the first place (to build a home) and you’ll begin to affix your attention on something much more tangible: the tent you already own and the dark night ahead. The real power of this fallacy is this: it both changes the decision you’re making and makes you bad at making it.

A fight we never should have started

The original choice you thought you’d be making was a choice of future outcomes: would you rather build a house where you are or a little further away? Now you’re making a decision that you never anticipated, one of investment and loss: do you leverage what you’ve already invested in the tent and invest a little more in fixing the big problems, or do you throw it all away? What makes it even worse is that one path feels like you are making progress, and the other feels like you’re going backwards.

Here’s the fact of the matter: a tent will never be a house, and the more you invest in it, the less money, time, and energy you’ll have to build a house. And at least from what I’ve seen, an MVP that grows out of being minimal never really turns into something viable for this very same reason.

Comfortable in chaos

The truth is, risk will never go away, we can just move it around. It’s a little bit like cleaning a room in your house by just throwing everything in the closet. You didn’t actually clean, you just relocated the mess. When building products, we will always have to rearrange our risk around losing what we invested and losing why we invested it in the first place. It’s the name of the game, it’s scary, and we have to get comfortable there.

So how do we navigate the chaos of risk and uncertainty with wisdom rather than fear? For now, let’s trying to dig into how we learn, and when we commit.

Wayfinding

How we learn

In the tent scenario, the thorn in our side will always be the cost of our learning. The more we put into to reducing the risk of losing what we’ve invested (buying a tent so you don’t build a house in the wrong place), the more at-risk the original reason why we invested in the first place becomes.

The lessons here are fairly obvious but they are worth mentioning. First, learn the things you have to know at the lowest possible cost. This is easier said than done as it takes a lot of creativity and focus, but it’s essential. This is kind of like the first of the “three R’s of sustainability”, Reduce, meaning the most important place to start is to just reduce the amount of waste that you are creating. The second lesson is the last two R’s, Reuse and Recycle, meaning if you have to invest in something, do your best to make it something reusable later on, like a micro-service. In the tent example, it’d be like buying a chair that you’ll know will go on your front porch and hauling it out into the woods. Take a seat and see how you like view from your future front porch. I’ll leave it at that.

Learn the things you have to know at the lowest possible cost.

When we commit

This second part is a little more nuanced so bear with me. What often feels most productive and efficient is to learn and launch at the same time. What you only really find out after making this mistake a few times is that by doing both, we do neither. We short change our learning by flooding it with our obsession with just getting to a point where we can launch. On the other hand, we never really take our best swing at a launch because we only tiptoe forward as we learn. We have to start looking at learning and launching as two completely separate things with two separate goals.

Learning
Our goal for learning is honest risk mitigation. We all have vastly different risk tolerances as well a different things to lose. There’s no cookie-cutter solution for this, we just have to be honest with ourselves about what we need to know and what we are willing to lose to know it. But the most important thing is that we have to be brave in the face of our march towards uncertainty and, at a certain point, just go for it.

Launching
Launching has a totally different role and importance in the process. Launching is about activation energy. Launching is about full commitment because you only do it once. Launching deserves every ounce that you have because what you are doing is not, and will never be, easy. No one hits a home run by swinging at half speed. If you never really try, you can’t really fail, but I assure that you also will never hem and haw your way to success either.

We have to start looking at learning and launching as two completely separate things with two separate goals.

If I’ve learned anything through epic failures and the occasional pat on the back, it’s be to appreciate the magnitude of the challenge at hand. Launching a product or starting a company has always felt like such a “smart” challenge…account for all factors spinning around your head, discern through them with wisdom, and proceed with caution. Confusing and opposing factors lay ahead, so compromise and optimize the outcome. You know, smart stuff.

But the more I learn, the more it feels like these are challenges for the truly deliberate and decisive. They require commitment, not compromise. We neither learn nor launch by doing both at the same time. We learn, we decide, and we launch. Or we don’t do it all.

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