To anyone who knows me reasonably well, its no secret that I love video games. But I don’t just love playing video games; I love learning about (and sometimes experimenting with) the process of making them. So maybe it’s no surprise that when tough times struck for our small business, it was a concept from game development that helped me understand what to do next.
The concept of an MVP, or minimum viable product, is likely not unique to the world of game development, but I first heard about it through a YouTube video by Mark Brown, the creator of an amazing YouTube channel called Game Maker’s Toolkit. Mark has been documenting his own attempt at developing a game, and despite his knowledge of game design things haven’t been going entirely smoothly. He found himself struggling to make clear design decisions; he felt that his vision for the game lacked cohesion and that he was wasting time on unnecessary elements. A more experienced developer set him a challenge: create a minimum viable product—a tiny, but fully featured, version of the game—within a set time period. This exercise would help Mark focus on the core elements of his game design, and keep him from going into the weeds adding random ideas and features that didn’t contribute to making the best version of the game.
That idea of the minimum viable product, the smallest, most stripped back, but functional version of the thing you are trying to create, came to my mind when I felt I was at the end of the rope with this business.
It’s no secret that the economy is in rough shape right now. Conventional wisdom would say that it’s really not the best time to be opening a small business. On the day that the Fed raised national interest rates, the business loan we were counting on was rejected. The situation seemed completely hopeless; we were stuck with a three year lease for an unpainted, concrete floored space, a storage unit full of books, and a whopping two bookshelves to put them on. How were we going to furnish the space? How were we going to pay the lease? How could we open a bookstore when we had nothing?
My business partner David and I started brainstorming. We applied for another loan; rejected immediately. We looked into FinTech companies offering lines of credit; only for established businesses. We researched grants; most of them not available to businesses like ours, or with such a small chance of winning that it was impossible to stake our hopes on them. All we could really do was keep praying that God would give us something.
We began to discuss how cut down our startup costs; it seemed clear that we weren’t going to be getting amount of money we had planned on, so some things would have to go. And it was then that I realized: we technically already had almost everything we needed. We had a building. We had books. With a free card reader from Square, David’s school iPad could become a point-of-sale system and business computer all in one. We laughed about the idea of stacking books on the concrete floor or on borrowed card tables, but that didn’t change the fact that even if we had to do that, it would still be a functioning store. Obviously, it was not the ideal solution. But it was functional. It was scalable. It was the minimum viable bookstore.
A lot of books and blog posts and articles are written about the value of having the correct mindset: a growth mindset, an abundance mindset, or what have you. To be honest, I’ve never put much stock in mindset. And, really, I still don’t. But, in a way, the idea of the minimum viable bookstore shifted my mindset from one of despair to one of hope. Wellness gurus or business coaches might say that my mindset went from one of scarcity to one of abundance. God had already given us so much, enough in fact, to make this thing work. Obviously, the minimum viable bookstore is not the place to stop. But it is a place to start.