Minimum Viable Work

The way we’re working isn't working

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Minimum Viable Work

Following a pointer from Robert Swannell (in what is a good read on asynchronous communication), I came upon a great post by Sahil Lavingia, the founder of Gumroad, the platform for creators. He tells the story of Gumroad:

I started Gumroad in 2011. In 2015, we reached a peak of 23 full-time employees. In 2016, after failing to raise more money, I ended up back where I began: a one-person company.

Today, when I’m asked how many people work at Gumroad, I respond with “ten or so.” That’s how I convert the number of people we have into what others expect. But the truth is more complicated:

If we include everyone who works on Gumroad, it’s 25.

If we include full-time employees, it’s none. Not even me.

We have no meetings, and no deadlines either.

And it’s working: our creators earn over $175 million a year, and we generate $11 million in annualized revenue, growing 85% year-over-year.

It’s a good story, about building a business on a completely different set of operating principles, like no full-time employees, no meetings, no deadlines, no real management. I suggest you read the whole thing.

I am going to pull out one concept from the post: Minimum Viable Culture. As Sahil puts it,

Minimum Viable Culture

This way of working isn’t for everyone.

There are no retreats planned, and no social channels in Slack. There are limited opportunities for growth. And we can’t compete with the comp packages that big tech companies can provide.

But we can compete–and win–on flexibility.

[…]

Working on Gumroad isn't a majority of anyone's identity.

People work at Gumroad as little as they need to sustain the other parts of their lives they prefer to spend their time and energy on: a creative side-hustle, their family, or anything else.

Sahil explains the nuts and bolts — how people are paid, how people ‘join’ the company, and how everyone is responsible for their own benefits. (Note: Sahil does not mention equity or stock ownership in this piece, although he raised VC in the earliest stage of the business, so there has to be equity for some of the team, or at least him and the investors.)


Minimum viable work means operating with the greatest degree of individual autonomy, the lowest degree of managerial overhead, and the highest levels of cooperation without coercion.


But the biggest takeaway for me was the idea of a minimum viable business where the team is only loosely connected, operates on part-time agreements, and doesn’t necessarily intend to work at Gumroad forever.

Sahil offers this insight,

The future of work is not working

which can be interpreted in two ways. I bet Sahil intended the idea of people spending less time at work, but maybe he’s also hinting that the way that most people work is not satisfying their needs, as creators, innovators, or just as people.

I am now fascinated with a fork off of Sahil’s insight, one that I will be pursuing in the coming months: Minimum Viable Work. How can companies operate with the greatest degree of individual autonomy, the lowest degree of managerial overhead, and the highest levels of cooperation without coercion?

As is so often the case, a few days after reading Sahil’s story, I came across very similar concepts. In this case, I read a tweet that introduced me to a new product, Murmur, that helps businesses capture the agreements that define how they operate. Halfway down the landing page, I read,

The way we’re working isn't working

which is the second of the two meanings from Sahil’s line.

The folks at Murmur are hiring, and I found these thoughts on their hiring page:

The way we're working isn't working.

Let's face it, work sucks. You've seen it firsthand. Tensions between teams. Meetings to prepare for meetings. Leaders who suck up all the oxygen in the room. Talented people unable to make decisions and move the work forward. Unclear priorities. A lack of diversity and equity. Products and customers that suffer as a result. The time has come to stop treating the way we work as an afterthought. It's time to change how the world works. Are you with us?

[…]

Frequently asked questions...

  • What is our mission?

    We know in our gut what's wrong with work and how to fix it. We simply lack the means. We build amazing software on top of existing platforms and libraries... why wouldn't we build a company with agreements borrowed from the most famous work cultures in the world? We test-and-learn by deploying different versions of a product... why not have a rich feedback loop around every team's way of working so that we can learn from experience, and each other?

    Our mission is to help every team agree to work better together.

    We bring this to life through a software application that enables teams to create, test, improve, scale, share, and implement working agreements. We imagine a world where every team gets better every day through the magic of agreements—making work more adaptive, transparent, equitable, meaningful, and human.

  • What is a working agreement?

    We like to think that almost everything at work could be an agreement. That includes our roles and rights, our processes, our meetings, our policies, and so much more. Most teams and organizations suffer from the Goldilocks Dilemma—too much red tape and stifling bureaucracy, or a swirl of chaos resulting from avoidance and lack of clarity. Instead, we help teams create just enough structure—the minimum viable body of agreements [emphasis mine] that allow them to stay coherent and safe while leaving room for creativity and judgment.

It stands to reason that minimum viable work should be based on minimum viable agreements, which I interpret as the fewest possible agreements and where those agreements stipulate only what is necessary, and no more.

Murmur wants to implement this foundation for minimum viable work as a set of adaptive agreements that meet the needs of those who will be governed by them.

Murmur is quite unlike Gumroad. Full-time employment is implicit in Murmur’s explanation of the company’s baseline culture, like excellent health benefits, flexible remote work, and a minimum viable work culture that will eventually be realized in the company’s own product. And one of the sample agreements Murmur has shared is the company’s compensation agreement, which includes equity.

Minimum viable work means operating with the greatest degree of individual autonomy, the lowest degree of managerial overhead, and the highest levels of cooperation without coercion. Different companies may realize those general principles quite differently. Gumroad is 100% part-timers, while Murmur looks likely to be based on full-time employment. Gumroad’s principles are captured in a post from Sahil, while Murmur plans a set of detailed agreements. But they share the thematic core of minimum viable work, which sets them apart from almost all other businesses on Earth.