Sync’ up! … without getting drained

aug 24

Pulled Kludge Sandwich

One of the most important concepts I live by was best summarized by Seymour Papert decades ago whereby he wrote : ‘You can’t think about thinking, unless you think about thinking about something.’

For me, in the particular, this simply means our mental models need to be well-defined, and moreover, our goals must be named as perfect as possible.


Ever since the dotcom bubble burst, Lean and Agile have hijacked the tech-development landscape. There’s a lot to these methodologies, though I’m pretty choosy on the ideas I take from them. I’m quite bullish on small-batch iteration, on the other hand, I think customer-opinion driven development is a loser (not to be confused with observing how your customers use your product).

One idea from Lean, perhaps the greatest idea, is that upstarts ought build minimum viable products (MVPs). In a nutshell, it asserts that over-engineering from the get-go creates waste, if your customers don’t want what you’ve built. So, just build a minimal working copy the first time around, to see what happens.

However, for founders who are just starting up something new, I think there’s a better mental model to follow. And one that keeps the most important issue front and center from the get-go.

Product/market fit

The biggest roll of the dice for any upstart is ‘will my product get traction.’ I say roll of the dice, because unlike shipping, product/market fit is statistically out of one’s control.

For first-timers, only 20% of shipped products will find product/market fit on average, and for those who fail and repeat the efforts with another product down the road, the success rate only increases 2%. (Sadly, even for those who find success the first time out, their odds only decrease to 34% for their next venture. Cruel world, indeed!)

It’s a crap-shoot, really. But the success of the venture completely relies on the product finding a runaway fit. Unfortunately, an MVP only gets you to the betting tables; for some reason, nothing about product/market fit is baked into the mantra itself.

(To be clear, ‘viable’ — or doable, simply refers to the development-end of things; as in ‘Minimum Doable Product.’)

A better founder’s battle drum

Since MVP doesn’t do a good job at keeping the most crucial idea front-and-center for founders, a new Papertian meme may serve us well: Pulled Kludge Sandwich (PKS). Here’s what this all alludes to.

Paul Graham was wise to surmise that an early founding team ought to do things that won’t scale. A self-acknowledged hacker, by admission, Graham says we shouldn’t over-engineer, but rather, do our darnedest to not scale. MVP borrows heavily from this idea, and so does PKS. To have a system of loosely coupled kludges, is wise, for one’s alpha release. This empowers us to move fast, it makes it easy to throw parts away — or revamping where things need it most.

Now, having a kludge sandwich out in the world, isn’t the whole story. Is your product being pulled at?

When founders speak of finding product/market fit, there’s many similes that are used. They say: ‘it’s like you just stepped on a landmine’; or ’you know it when you see it’ (as Marc Andreesen puts it).

Another way of saying it, and one I like, is as follows: when you feel like customers are pulling your product away from you, instead of you pushing it, then voilà, you’ve found product/market fit.

PKS: a bindle for upstarts

MVP has certainly made a dent in the minds of every upstart founder. And it’s mostly good. However, to bring what’s of zenith importance to the fore, it helps to put more emphasis on product/market fit. Why not fold it into the DNA of a founder’s vocabulary right from the start?

By framing the concept of product/market fit into one’s development, it may give founders a tad more luck at the customer retention betting tables. At very least, PKS tunes one’s mind to a different way of thinking about it all, something that will go a long way for those who need to survive the long and arduous road of startupdom.