There is a saying that goes back to Milo of Croton: lift a calf everyday and when you grow up, you can lift a cow. The story goes that Milo, a famous wrestler in ancient Greece, gained his immense strength by lifting a newborn calf one day when he was a boy, and then lifting it every day as it grew. In a few years, he was able to lift the grown cow. The calf grew into a cow at about the rate that Milo grew into a man. A rather freakish man apparently, since grown cows can weigh over 1000 lb. The point is, the calf grew old along with the boy.
I have been pondering this story for a couple of years, and it has led me to a very fertile idea about product design and entrepreneurship.
I call it the Milo Criterion: products must mature no faster than the rate at which users can adapt. Call that ideal maximum rate the Milo rate.
It seems like a simple and almost tautological thought, but it leads to some subversive consequences, which is one reason I have been reluctant to talk about it. The most subversive effect is that it has led me to abandon lean startup theory, which is now orthodoxy in the startup world.
As a consequence, I have mostly abandoned notions like product-market-fit, minimum viable product, pivots and the core value of “lean.” I only use the terms to communicate with people who think in those terms. And I can’t communicate very much within that vocabulary.
Physical Products and Services
Commercial airline travel is an example of a service product that satisfied the Milo Criterion during its evolution. In the early days, the user experience was not very different from riding a train or bus. Airport designers modeled their early efforts on railroad stations leading to familiar experience for early air travelers.
But modern air travel, which has evolved over nearly a century, is a very different complex of behaviors that has drifted far from bus and train travel. Just look at the enormous number of complex behaviors we’ve learned:
- Checking in (online and off)
- Security checks and rules about carrying liquids
- Gates and air-bridges that look nothing like railroad stations
- Checked baggage and hand baggage rules
- Seat belts and rules about staying seated at certain times
- Baggage carousels for retrieving luggage
- Dealing with layovers
- Online bidding for cheap ticket deals
- Airport parking and car rental options
- Duty-free shopping
- Visas, passports, immigration, customs
- Rules about when you can use electronic devices
We’ve been able to get this far successfully because we took our time. By a happy coincidence, the physical constraints of the technology limited the rate at which airline travel could evolve.
Another example is driving, which is estimated to involve close to 1500 separate sub-skills. It took us about a century to get to modern driving, GPS, zipcars and all, starting with horse-drawn carriages.
This sort of long evolution trajectory is generally the case for physical products and services. They are naturally rate-limited by a variety of factors, so they tend to evolve and mature in ways that naturally satisfy the Milo Criterion.
Thanks to the lack of physical constraints, Web products can go from paper napkin to fully realized vision in months rather than decades. They can evolve at rates that far exceed the Milo rate.
It takes decades to build out airline infrastructure in a country. Even the Chinese government cannot move arbitrarily fast.
For Web products though, there appear to be no real limits, other than typing speed, to how fast you can build things. And thanks to certain pathological externalities, they perversely go as fast as they can. In fact going faster and faster has become the motto of the sector.
Successful Web products do seem to satisfy the Milo criterion though. I tried applying the criterion to a whole bunch of products, and it turns out to be a pretty reliable way to sort the two classes. Google Wave fails the criterion. Google+ satisfies it.
The criterion seems to be descriptive. Is it prescriptive?
Consider modern software development. A set of behaviors have emerged in the last decade that appear to increase the success rate of Web products:
- Starting small and simple
- Building, testing and iterating rapidly
- Testing with active users as frequently as possible, starting as early as possible
It is important to note that these principles were discovered bottom-up by the practitioners, rather than prescribed top-down by the theorists. Theoretical codification followed rather than led. So it is possible to criticize the theories while accepting the empirically validated practices.
I have come to believe that much of the theorizing about why these methods work is mostly noise. These theories — including lean startup theory — are mostly a set of just-so explanations that serve to motivate practically effective behaviors, the way religions motivate moral behavior.
So even though the theories lead to the diffusion of useful behaviors, the flaws limit their potential.
I won’t attempt a full critique here but offer a basic axiom for an alternative theory:
The primary reason these behaviors are effective is that they slow down the process of software development and maintain the optimal behavior modification rate for humans.
In other words, the Milo Criterion is not just descriptive. It is prescriptive. It is the dominant dynamic for successful products.
It leads to alternative explanations for why the effective practices work. It leads to building blocks that are different from the ones recommended by lean startup theory.
In fact it is a pretty fertile starting point for a whole different approach to thinking about entrepreneurship and product development. I’ve been developing these ideas, mostly in private, and applying them to my own business decisions.
I don’t like being cryptic, but in this case, I am not going to elaborate further (at least not right now) because the very thought of the tedious and potentially acrimonious arguments that might result is enough to turn me off. I don’t have enough skin in the game to make it worthwhile. Perhaps I am getting old and conflict-averse.
So I am not going to share my explanations or alternative building blocks. In fact, I deleted a couple of much longer draft posts, something I rarely do, since I hate wasting writing effort.
I wrote this post primarily as a way of saying hello to others who might already be thinking along the same lines I am. If you are, chances are the Milo Criterion will spark some productive thinking for you. If not, at least you learned the story of Milo of Croton, for use at cocktail parties.
I will share one more clue: I’ve started calling my developing theory slow marketing. Read into that what you will.