📻 — The Problem with Terms like “Product-Community Fit” and “Minimum Viable Community”

This is your Community, Daily.

Reading Time: ~ 6 min.

Hey yenizens!

I’ve shared this more privately with a handful of you but I decided to finally share a few words publicly about what I feel is a growing perspective that has all the right intentions but ultimately fails (and makes worse) our ability to mature the community space and industry as a whole.

The two terms are “Product-Community Fit” and “Minimum Viable Community” which affectionately borrow from the worlds of high-tech software and manufacturing as well as anything “lean startup”, Eric Ries / Steve Blank, the world-famous startup accelerator, YCombinator, and a just-as-storied venture firm, a16z, which have built-upon and further devised these phrases:

These are incredibly-useful terms for early-stage product development and they help a nascent project validate baseline hypotheses around a market opportunity.

When they are they are intimately tied to customer feedback and discovery workflows it gives the early venture the best shot at not dying an early death and continuing their journey towards a game-changing, innovative, and enduring company.

The problem is simply this: The principles, practices, and implementations of “MVP” and “PMF” are a fundamentally technical in nature and describe binary outcomes that should be easily and quickly deduced.

Relationships, on the other hand, are neither processes nor the result of sophisticated programming — they are fluid, layered, and impossible to capture in their very essence as a finite and discrete outcome. They are ever-changing and evolving, as they are wont to do, and aren’t beholden to any process improvement or “data-driven” analysis.

Ergo, my argument is that terminology like “Minimum Viable Community” and “Product-Community Fit” are woefully unfit and dramatically less useful than what people make them to be — in fact, it confuses more people than helps.

Again, this is because those original (technical) terms were designed to represent real, technical outcomes — take for instance MVP:

A minimum viable product is a real product. Real users and real customers will use it and pay for it. While founders might think of it as a prototype, users and customers will think of it as a finished product.

Therefore, an MVP needs to be a complete story with a clear purpose, or function, and with just the right set of features to promote this function.

Unlike with a prototype testing, you – the founder – will not be there to curate the experience.

Practical Design, the MVP Spec

In short, the MVP is a standalone product that makes the business money when you’re not around!

And that is objectively not what most folks are describing when they talk about a “Minimum Viable Community” because without the founder’s insane level of commitment and their unwavering (literal) presence in the environment and the resulting investment and contribution into the new relationship (network), the community would never get off the ground.

Without a community leader (or community “starter”), there is no community at all. And most (if not all) of the engagement is strictly manual and intentionally not automated:

In the early days of community building, it’s essential for the community leaders (or brand) to model the behavior you’re hoping to set as a shared standard and to guide your members along the way.

This process is human-focused, high-touch and has nothing to do with speed or optimization — in fact, it requires immersion in the experience to live and learn in real time.

For an early community, this stage is all about building a foundation and much of it has to be 1:1.

via Marianna Gose Martinelli

And guess what? That is not an MVP. It doesn’t even seem to describe one. And, it’s not an MVC as I think I understand it. An MVP is the smallest, automated, version of your value proposition that you can deliver to a paying customer and there’s no way you could ever recreate that type of system in early-stage community building.

Telling someone that they should they’ll be “fine” if they can just get to a “minimum viable community” metric is like telling them to just hope they’ll get lucky — which, if we’re to be honest, is the story of how many (most?) real and vibrant communities formed: A little bit of serendipity and (dumb) luck.

And luck, as they teach us in engineering school, isn’t part of the technical equation when building product; instead, we’re taught to arm ourselves with customer data that informs our feature development. And when we’ve built enough of those features that also align with customer value it forms the basis of the MVP which will always align with customer sentiment and need.

We then automate those features so there is nothing manual that we necessarily have to do in order to create value. Again, not really close to what we all know about relationships and how they operate.

Or, as Mariana wisely reminds us:

Community is a living, breathing organism made up of people. And like people, it will expand and contract, flourish and fail, just as we do.

Even as I write this, my opinions and perspectives on community building are growing, shifting and adjusting.

Our relationships and our communities can change dramatically in very small sequences of time with dramatic changes in wants, needs, hopes, desires, fears, sentiments, and outcomes.

Markets, in contrast, do not change or evolve nearly as often and that’s why a system of thinking and process of achieving “Product-Market Fit” is possible. Let us not forget that PMF also describes a category winner as “first to market seldom matters — rather, first to PMF is almost always the long-term winner.”

Meaning, there is a binary outcome and communities are not binary creatures. This is effectively what people are trying to do, though, when they shoot for “Product-Community Fit” in their community-building process: It’s like shooting against a moving target but without the ability to adjust your aim. Good luck with that.

But, the verbiage isn’t the worst adaptation that I’ve encountered; it’s just that communities necessarily require context to be fully understood. An example of a “successful” implementation and use of “Product-Community Fit” might be a traditional marriage with a bounded set of 2 humans.

Or, in other words, it takes two humans to successfully create a “MVC” and/or hit “PCF” for a new, nuclear family! Now, you can “automate” the (community) systems to “maximize value creation” at home in the ways that might seem best for the couple.

Then you have kids. And then… you have to pivot. And then… this analogy will self-destruct in 3, 2, 1…

We just need to use better terms and terminology that more accurately represents our community building intentgoals, and value.

You see, what I think folks are trying to say (and the question they are trying to answer) when they say “MVC” or “PCF” is: How many community members (customers) do we need to financially break-even and/or become profitable as a business so we can continue to function as-intended?

And if that’s what your after then I suggest that you simply use the well-worn, time-tested, and completely predictable terms of “Product-Market Fit” and “Minimum Viable Product” — no need to be clever or re-invent the wheel. Community building is already hard enough as it is!

On that note I think it’s important to remember that we, as a community and as an industry, must never feel pressured to have to borrow anything from other industries — it should be the reverse!

No business succeeds without community builders. This is true before the internet and it’s just as true today — we just didn’t call it or see it that way. Community is the very foundation upon which an entire organization (and its success) stands.

We know what we’re worth: We’re worth the entire org.

The problem with terms like “Product-Community Fit” and “Minimum Viable Community” is that they aren’t just ineffective terms, they are antithetical to what community is all about as they describe systems and outcomes fundamentally tied to automation, not personal touch.

It’s like how “fitting in” isn’t the same as having a real, authentic “sense of belonging” — close cousins but world’s apart. I know we can do better.

To infinity & community,

— john


Links and stuff that made me go whatthewhat:

  1. OnlyFans. Billions. Plain Sight.

  2. Belonging. Yes. Thanks David (and Brené).

  3. Celebrity boxing. Huh.

  4. Flex commerce is a thing.

  5. 55 questions for mission-driven cofounders.

  6. The buildies.™️ Nominate today!

  7. OnlyFams… not OnlyFans.

  8. Global blocks in Notion? WHOA. This site, tho.

  9. How to build an entire online course in 5 weeks.

Have a great one folks.