Category Archives: Grateful Dead

What is a Minimum Viable Product, Anyway? My Favorite MVP Analogy.

The concept of minimum viable product (MVP) has been popularized in the past decade thanks to the success of the wonderful book, The Lean Startup.  It’s thrown around so casually, and you hear it so often, that sometimes you wonder how — or even if — people define it.

In this post, I’ll describe how I think about MVPs, first using one real-life example and then using my favorite MVP analogy.

The concept of a minimum viable product is simple:

  • Every startup is basically a hypothesis (e.g., we think people will buy an X).
  • Instead of doing a big build-up during a lengthy stealth phase concluding in a triumphant (if often ill-fated) product unveiling, let’s build and ship something basic quickly — and start iterating.
  • By taking this lean approach we can test our hypothesis, learn, and iterate more quickly — and avoid tons of work and waste in the process.

The trick is, of course, those two pesky words, minimum and viable.  In my worldview:

  • Minimum means the least you can do to test your hypothesis.
  • Viable means the product actually does the thing it’s supposed to do, even in some very basic way.

I’ll use an old, but concrete, example of an MVP from my career at Business Objects.  It’s the late 1990s.  The Internet is transforming computing.  We sell a high-functionality query & reporting tool, capable of everything from ad hoc query to complex, highly-formatted reports to interactive multidimensional analysis.  That tool is a client/server Windows application and we need to figure out our web strategy.  We are highly constrained technologically, because it’s still the early days of the web browser (e.g., browsers had no print functionality) [1].

After much controversy, John Ball and the WebIntelligence team agreed on (what we’d now call) the following MVP:

  • A catalog of reports that users can open/browse
  • End-user ad hoc query
  • Production of very basic tabular reports
  • Semi-compatibility with our existing product [2]

But it would work in a browser without any plug-ins, web native.  No multi-block reports.  No pages.  No printing.  No interactive analysis.  No multidimensional analysis.  No charting.  No cross-tabs.  No headers, no footers.  Effectively, the world’s most basic reporting tool — but it let users run an ad hoc query over the web and produce a simple report.  That was the MVP.  That was the hypothesis — that people would want to buy that and evolve with us over time.

Because of that tightly focused MVP we were able to build the product quickly, position it clearly within the product line [3], and eventually use it as the basis for an entirely new line of business [4].

Now, let’s do the analogy.  Pretend for a moment we’re in a world where there are no four-wheel drive cars.  We have invented the four-wheel drive car.  We imagine numerous use-cases [5] and a big total available market (TAM).

What should be our MVP?  Meet the 1947 Jeep Willys [6] [7].

No roof.  No back seat.  In some cases, no windscreen.  No doors.  No air conditioning.  No entertainment system.  No navigation.  No cup holders.  No leather.  No cruise control.  No rearview camera.  No ABS.  No seatbelts.  No airbags.

No <all that shit that too many product managers say are requirements because they don’t understand what MVP means>.

Just the core:  a seat, a steering wheel, an engine, a transmission, a clutch, and four traction tires.

  • Is it missing all kinds of functionality?  Yes
  • In this case, would it even be legal to sell?  No.  Well, maybe off-road, but we’re in analogy-mode here.
  • But can it get you across a muddy field or down a muddy road?  YES.

And that’s the point.  It’s minimum because it’s missing all kinds of things we can easily imagine people wanting, later.  It’s viable because it does the one thing that no other car does.  So if you need to cross a muddy field or go down a muddy road, you’ll buy one.

As Steve Blank says:  “You’re selling the vision and delivering the minimum feature set to visionaries, not everyone” [8]. 

So next time you think someone is focused on jamming common but non-core attributes into an MVP, tell them they’re counting cupholders in a Willys and point them here.

# # #


[1] And printing is a pretty core requirement for a reporting application!

[2] This was key.  WebIntelligence could not even open a BusinessObjects report.  Instead, we opted for compatibility one layer deeper, at the semantic layer (that defined data objects and security) not the reporting layer.

[3] If you want all that power, use BusinessObjects.  If you want web native, use WebIntelligence.  And you can share semantic layer definitions and security.

[4] BI extranets.

[5] From military off-road applications to emergency off-road and/or slippery conditions to sand recreational to family vehicles on snow and many  more.

[6] Which in some ways literally was the MVP for Jeeps.

[7] Popularized by the Grateful Dead in Sugar Magnolia (“… jump like a Willys in four-wheel drive.”)

[8] Where I’ll define visionary as someone who has the problem we’re trying to solve and willing to use a new technology to solve it.  It’s a little easier to think of someone trying a next-generation database system as a “technology visionary” than the Army buying a Jeep, but it’s the same characteristic.  They need a currently unsolvable problem solved, and are willing to try unconventional solutions to do it.

Strategic Focus: I’m Just Trying to Get My Space Together

As a long-time Grateful Dead fan, I have to say that I was advantaged in understanding how the Blown to Bits problem would affect digital media businesses.  You see, for years, the Dead had changed the business model of the music industry, choosing to use albums as a loss leader and to make money on live concerts, playing some 2,300 concerts together, not to mention those done individually by band members (e.g., Jerry Garcia at the Keystone Berkeley).

steal your face

The Dead even had a tapers section at most concerts and sometimes could be heard literally stopping the show to allow someone to reposition their microphones.  The Dead have a valid claim to “we did Freemium 30 years before Freemium was cool.”

While I won’t go as far to say that Everything I Learned about Business, I Learned from the Grateful Dead (a good book that takes top ten lessons from “the long, strange trip”), I do believe the Dead were both musical and business model innovators.

Improvisation as strategy was profiled in Competing On The Edge:  Strategy as Structured Chaos, published by Harvard Business School press.  Excerpt:

The Grateful Dead met this challenge through improvisation […] as distinguished by two key properties:  first, performers intensely communicate with each other in real time […] second, they rely on a few very specific rules, such as who plays first, what are the permitted chords, and who follows whom.

While I’m riffing on the Dead, I should probably also mention Marketing Lessons from the Grateful Dead, a great book on topics including community, branding, customer centricity, teamwork, category creation, technological innovation, disruptive business models, disintermediation, and giving back.  The Dead were innovators in all these areas and the book is well worth reading.

My favorite Dead-related quote, however, comes not from that book but from The Grateful Dead Movie, in a famous scene where a completely zonked head is ambling around outside the concert and tells a security guard the inimitable:

“I’m just trying to get my space together, so that I can go into the show.”

I always think of this guy whenever I talk to a startup about strategy.  Why?  Because startups are very much about trying to get your space together.

  • What space do you want to be in?
  • Against whom do you want to compete?
  • Where do you draw the boundaries on your space?
  • What adjacent spaces, if any, do you want to incorporate into your space?
  • In what adjacent spaces do you want to partner?
  • How do you see the boundaries on your space evolving over time?

My meta-answer to these questions is “the world is a very large place.”  How does that relate?  In two ways.  It means first that you better define your space in such a way that you are truly world-class within it — and not using world-class as a nice sounding compound adjective, but really grokking its meaning:  what can you truly be best in the world at doing?  Second, it means that because the world is a big place that you can turn what might appear to be a small niche into a  very big business if you are truly the best in the world.  So don’t be afraid to focus.

Most startups forget focus too early and delude themselves into thinking they can be world-class in across a number of areas.  Take enterprise performance management (EPM) — the space in which Host Analytics competes –for example.  EPM is a $4B market for financial analytic applications that is adjacent to the broader $13B business intelligence (BI) market.  Some of our competitors consider themselves addressing the (incorrectly calculated) “$33B BI market” and are either building or acquiring products in the broader BI space?  It sounds good from a total available market (TAM) perspective.  Wow!  You’ve tripled your TAM.

But think for a minute — what are the odds that  your cheaply-acquired or hastily built BI tools are world-class?  None.  So all you’ve really done is dilute your focus on EPM by complementing it with some third-tier BI.  A far better solution (and the one we follow at Host Analytics) is to partner with someone else who is spending all their energy focused on being world-class in the adjacent space.  In our case, that partner is Birst who is focused on being world-class at cloud BI.

So if you’re thinking of starting a company, ask yourself:  what can we really be world-class at doing?

Answering that question is the only way to get your space together, before you go into the show.

A Few of My Favorite Quotes

For a change of pace, I thought I’d do a quick post with some of my favorite quotes.

  • “In preparing for battle, I have always found that plans are useless but planning is indispensable.” — Dwight Eisenhower
  • “Management is doing things right; leadership is doing the right things.” — Peter Drucker
  • “The single best question for testing an organization’s character is:  what happens when people make mistakes?” — Bob Sutton
  • “The only place success comes before work is the dictionary.” — Vince Lombardi
  • “Maybe I’m a complete idiot, but I have no idea what anyone is talking about.  This [cloud computing thing] is complete gibberish.”  — Larry Ellison
  • “Common sense is not so common.” — Voltaire
  • “It ain’t what you don’t know that gets you into trouble; it’s what you know for sure that just ain’t so.” — Mark Twain
  • “We always overestimate the change that will occur in the next two years and underestimate the change that will occur in the next ten.”  — Bill Gates
  • “Be careful what you pretend to be because you are what you pretend to be.” — Kurt Vonnegut
  • “All companies go out of business for the same reason.  They run out of money.” — Don Valentine
  • “Man sacrifices his health in order to make money. Then he sacrifices money to recuperate his health. Then he is so anxious about the future that he doesn’t enjoy the present:  the result being that he does not live in the present or the future; he lives as if he is never going to die, and then dies having never really lived.”  — The Dalai Lama
  • “They never missed an opportunity to miss an opportunity.” — Abba Eban
  • “If I had asked my customers what they wanted, they would have said a faster horse.”  — Henry Ford
  • “Opportunity is missed by most people because it is dressed in overalls and looks like work.” — Thomas Edison
  • “The nine scariest words in the English language are:  we’re here from corporate and we’re here to help.”  — Adapted from Ronald Reagan

Note:  if you enjoy tracing quote attributions (and their correctness), then check out this site where I found the rather unlikely dual attribution to Yogi Berra and Niels Bohr.

Precision, Confidence, and When The Dead Peaked

The other day I found this New York Times story, Bring Out Your Dead, about The Dead’s “resurrection” tour this Spring, and it both cracked me up and got me thinking.


I asked [a guy I’d met] when he thought the Dead reached its peak, game to try out a half-formed argument for 1975 or thereabouts.

“Well, I agree with the people who say it was May 8, 1977,” he said.

Take a minute to think of the different levels at which one could answer the question, when did The Grateful Dead peak?

  • By album (e.g., Workingman’s Dead)
  • By decade (e.g., the 1980s)
  • By song (e.g., Touch of Grey)
  • By era (e.g., the Pigpen era)
  • By keyboardist (e.g., the TC period)
  • By year (e.g., 1987)
  • By date (e.g., May 8, 1977)

Clearly the specificity with which you answer a question is some implicit sign of knowledge. Ask a layman the height of Mount Everest and you might get “about six miles.” Ask a mountaineer and you’ll get “29,029 feet.”

Sometimes other factors drive specificity. Ask my friend Jon Temple how long he worked at Business Objects and he’ll say “36 quarters.” I say “9 years.” The difference? Jon was in sales and I was in marketing. So specificity can also reflect mentality. (By the way, it’s my 20th quarter at Mark Logic.)

But I loved the Deadhead’s answer because it wasn’t just a precise date — which itself would have been astounding given the band’s 30 years of touring — it was a whole level beyond that:

  • Awareness of the existence of
  • A group of people who believe it was May 8, 1977
  • And concurrence with their opinion


The article goes on to discuss the Grateful Dead’s taping culture and its consequences, which I’ve long believed provides a forgotten roadmap for media companies in dealing with digitization.

Correlations between Grateful Dead Fan Concert and Online Behavior

First Monday, a peer-reviewed Internet journal run by the University of Illinois at Chicago recently published an article entitled A Grateful Dead Analysis: The Relationship Between Concert and Listening Behavior which I found interesting.

Frequent readers will know that I’ve always believed the Grateful Dead provided a roadmap — twenty years in advance — for how the music industry should respond to the digitization of media, by changing business model emphasis from album sales to road touring, community building, and branded concessions. In fact, you could easily argue that the roadmap goes beyond music into publishing and information industries in general.

You might remember this post (Krugman on the Grateful Dead as a Business Model) where I reported with delight that Princeton’s Paul Krugman thought the same thing.

The First Monday article, however, isn’t about business models. Instead, it’s more of a study in community, comparing live concert vs. online listening behavior. Specifically, they took data from 1,590 live set lets across as 23 year period and compared it to 2.6M listening events from 2005 to 2007 on


The extreme upper right of this plot is important as “Trucking” and “Sugar Magnolia” represent not only the most popular songs in terms of times played in concert, but in terms of times listened to on “Trucking” is on 25 of the 90 released Grateful Dead albums and “Sugar Magnolia” is on 32 of those albums. Both “Trucking” and “Sugar Magnolia” were also well received publicly. “Trucking” reached position 64 in 1971 and “Sugar Magnolia” reached position 91 in 1973 on the Billboard pop singles charts. Also in this area is “Touch of Grey”. “Touch of Grey” was the only Grateful Dead song with an accompanying music video and in 1987, reached the top 10 Billboard single’s chart.

A fun excerpt from the middle:

It is interesting to note the songs “Saint of Circumstance”, “Victim or the Crime”, “Lost Sailor”, and “Greatest Story” in the bottom left of polygon B. All of these songs were created by the song writing duo of Barlow and Weir and sung in concert often by Bob Weir. While these songs were played extensively in concert, they received relatively little attention from users.

This is no surprise to Dead fans. I think many of Bobby’s songs — particularly the testosterone-filled ones — were viewed as a chance to give Jerry’s voice a break. I like when the data draws easily supported empirical conclusions.

Excerpt from the conclusion:

This article presented an analysis comparing the popularity of Grateful Dead songs as identified by both how many times they were played in concert and how many times they were listened to by members of the online music service. The results presented here indicate a strong, but not perfect, correlation between concert plays and fan listens. These results suggest that the music choices of its online community of listeners reflect very well the live concert tradition of the Grateful Dead phenomenon, even after their dissolution.

The complete article is here.

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