Image of Rucksack_courtesy of Christer_via_flickr

Four Pounds of Nuts: Exploring “The Lean Startup” through Nature, Part II


My father lifted my pack into the back of his car in the EMS parking lot in North Conway, where we’d agreed to meet to carpool the rest of the way into The Whites.
He whistled low and under his breath. “Geez, Kendall.”
“What?” I was grabbing poles and double checking to ensure I had ACTUALLY put my boots in his car.
“Your pack is light…you sure you’ve got enough here? I mean, there’s running lean and then there’s running lean . . .”
I looked at him quizzically and mentally inventoried what I’d packed the night before. Nope, all present and accounted for.
“Yeah, Dad, I’ve got what I need . . . I mean, the water isn’t in there yet but . . . yeah. Why? How heavy is YOUR pack?”
After a day of hiking, in which we parted ways so that I could summit a different mountain, I rejoined him at the AMC hut. He’d had a significantly less strenuous hike and gone a far shorter distance and was already on his second cup of hut-coffee. I’d been out in the rain, sleet, and wind for the past seven hours. I immediately changed into the warm clothes that I’d wear to bed and would serve the next day’s chillier forecast and then dried my hair with my camp towel, clumping it back up into a rough ponytail. I put on my down jacket and brought everything out to hang above the hut stove in the common area. I wasn’t fashionable but I was dry and warm and that was enough.
My father had changed his clothes and looked spiffy and relaxed. He’d combed his hair and had lounge shoes on.
I was beginning to get an inkling of the reason why his pack was so heavy.
I ribbed him slightly and then asked to take a look at what he’d hauled up the mountain.
Aside from the second outfit, he had a new shirt for tomorrow, two pairs of socks, toothpaste, comb, an extra stuff sack, A PILLOWCASE and enough food for a group of four or five. I laughed as I pulled a giant gallon-sized Ziploc of mixed nuts out of his pack.
“Now this IS nuts, Dad. This has got to be at least four pounds right here!”
He looked sheepish. “Yeah, I didn’t want to run out of food. But I didn’t eat as much of it as I thought I would have.”
I began seriously hiking about a year ago. I look back at pictures of myself from those early days and feel a little sheepish myself. My clothing is naive but passable. I also know what is in my pack and how wrong it is. And, beyond even that, I know that there is a steep learning curve before me with regards to how I should fuel and hydrate my body – and when. How to listen to the subtle – and not-so-subtle – cues it gives me.
The lessons were sometimes counter-intuitive and took multiple trips to learn and then fine tune. I recommend to people asking me about First Hikes that they not think about it too much but just pack a small pack and go on a small hike. Pick one with low mileage and a nice view. The temptation will be to conquer something big but this is a mistake. Usually, they nod, thinking that I’m talking about conditioning and, in a way, I am. But the conditioning goes beyond leg strength and “lungs”.
Early hikes teach you to be on the trail. What it feels like to “bonk.” What it feels like to “bonk” and then scramble to recover and, not having quite recovered, move on anyways. They teach you to step over things, not on things. They teach you that pace is key and it’s a lot slower than you think it should be. They teach you that the diagonal root IS NOT YOUR FRIEND and that your mid-weight gloves ARE, even in summer. They teach you to recognize, early on, what the trail looks like and when you are off it (watch for slightly decomposed birch branches pulled across the path). They teach you that half the crap in your pack you can leave home. They teach you that a headlamp should never be left at home and extra batteries are mandatory and that, no, a flashlight is not equivalent. They teach you what you need to feel comfortable in the woods and they teach you the real safety and comfort value of being as lean as possible…you find that perfect balance. They teach you that from there, you can add just a little here or a little there and alter your pack and your experience for winter hikes or hot summer hikes, for long or short hikes, overnights or four-hour jaunts.
They teach you to think about food differently and this is the lesson my dad had yet to learn. Hikers are pragmatic about food. Calories and weight come first, taste comes second. I know how many calories I will roughly burn on a hike and I pack to replace those, but not all of those. I pack to eat certain types of food at certain stages of my hike. Nutritional mathematics.
Here’s how I look at nuts: A highly concentrated power-food, especially when mixed with raisins. About 100 calories per serving, which is about the size of a handful. If I want to replace about 500 calories with nuts then I bring about 5 handfuls of nuts…or about ⅔ a pint baggie. Could I eat more than that? Absolutely. Do I need it? Nope. My dad was carrying about 2,500 calories up a hill for a short and easy hike based upon specious rationale: Four pounds of nuts FELT like what he should bring.
When thinking about your minimum viable product (MVP) for your software development project, you may be best served to consider both lessons inherent in my father’s packing and in my early days of hiking. First, understand that in pursuit of your MVP, you shouldn’t think about it too much. By that I mean you should design an experiment that solves the problem to the best of your knowledge and solves it quickly and then go out and try it. Take it for a short hike and see what you learn. Come back and debrief: What do you want to keep? What worked? And in what way? What failed? And in what way?
Then design a new experiment and try it out again, repeating the process until you’ve got a super light pack that solves the problem of hiking in the woods elegantly. Until what you pull out of your “pack” makes seasoned hikers (your users) nod their heads and smile. They know exactly why you are carrying that thing and why you settled on that solution. It makes sense to them.
This pattern is the Build, Measure, Learn cycle. Iterate fast and release early. You can’t think your way through this, you’ve got to get out on the mountain and test your solution to learn that May blackflies laugh audibly at your Deep Woods Off. You’re gonna need DEET. Lots and lots of DEET.
Finally, understand that your MVP is indeed “Minimum.” You are incrementally trying to find that sweet spot in your solution. Don’t haul four pounds of nuts up the hill based upon your feelings. Think about things in a pragmatic manner. How much do you really need? Do you really need the expensive pack raincover or is it enough to throw a garbage bag in the bottom of your pack and see if you use it? How much does it matter that your pack gets wet on a 2-day trip? Maybe you don’t need to solve this problem at all right now.
Because, sure, it was funny that my dad hauled that much weight up the trail; the hike was short and easy and the only damage was his pride and his own exasperation at himself. But weight on the trail can be dangerous. It quickly wears on you and slows your pace. That weight is being carried by each step you take, being driven through each foot. That is an enormous amount of pressure on your knees and ankles. Weight changes your balance and exhaustion makes you clumsy. Search and Rescue fields call-outs every weekend for folks who have fallen and broken bones or blown out knees and ankles. Exhausted hikers make dumb decisions, like trying to bushwhack down to the parking lot as light fades.
To follow the analogy: Extra weight on your application is wasted money and time and clouds your ability to learn what’s working and what isn’t. Holding off on releasing to your users and bloating out your application with feeling-features leads clients to start thinking about taking shortcuts through the woods as dusk approaches in a desperate attempt to get back to the car, to get DONE.
Back in the hut, my dad and I repacked his pack. I leaned in conspiratorially and told him I had a surprise to share with the rest of the hut visitors and the caretaker. I pulled a block of sharp cheddar cheese (with the little crunchy crystals of goodness!) and a bag of rice crackers (lighter than Triscuits) from my pack. A luxury I had specifically calculated for in my packing. We found a cutting board and sliced up thick pieces. Our experience gentrified, a mean game of cribbage broke out as the wind picked up outside the hut. The fire glowed.
And that’s all it took for us to arrive at MLP, “Minimum Loveable Product.”
You can read Parts I and III of this series here: Kill Your Darlings: Exploring “The Lean Startup” through Nature, Part I; Maps and Territories: Exploring “The Lean Startup’ through Nature, Part III

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