Minimum Viable Products are Dubious in Critical Infrastructure

The concept of a Minimum Viable Product (MVP) is catching on across the startup industry. The idea of the MVP is tied closely to The Lean Startup model created by Eric Ries in 2011 and has very sound principals focused around maximizing the return on investment and feedback from creating new products. Eric defines the MVP as the “version of a new product which allows a team to collect the maximum amount of validated learning about customers with the least effort.” This enforces the entrepreneurial spirit and need for innovation combined with getting customer feedback about a new technology without having to develop a perfect plan or product first. An MVP is also meant to be sold to customers so that revenue is generated. In short, be open to testing things out publicly earlier, pivot based off of technical and market feedback, and earn some money to raise the valuation of the company and entice investors.

Personally, I believe the lean startup model as a whole is smart. I use some aspects of the model as CEO of Dragos Security. However, I chose not to use the concept of an MVP. Minimum Viable Products are dubious in critical infrastructure. I state this understanding that the notion of getting the product out the door and gaining feedback to guide its development is a great idea. And when I say critical infrastructure I’m focusing heavily on the industrial control system (ICS) portion of the community (energy, water, manufacturing, etc.). The problem I have though is that I have observed a number of startups in the critical infrastructure startup space taking advantage of their customers, albeit unintentionally, when they push out MVPs. This is a bold claim, I won’t point fingers, and I don’t want to come across as arrogant. But I want to make it very clear: the critical infrastructure community deals with human lives; mistakes, resource drains, and misguiding expectations impact the mission.

My observations of the startups abusing the MVP concept:

  • Bold claims are made about the new technologies seemingly out of a need to differentiate against larger and more well established companies
  • Technologies are increasingly deployed earlier in the development cycle because the startups do not want to have to invest in the industry specific hardware or software to test the technology
  • The correct customers that should be taking part in the feedback process are pushed aside in favor of easier to get customers because successes are needed as badly as cash; there is pressure to validate the company’s vision to entice or satisfy Angel or Seed investors
  • The fact that the technology is an MVP, is lightly (if at all) tested, and will very likely change in features or even purpose is not getting communicated to customers in an apparent attempt to get a jump start on the long acquisition cycles in critical infrastructure and bypass discussions on business risk
  • Customers are more heavily relied upon for feedback, or even development, costing them time and resources often due to the startups’ lack of ICS expertise; the startup may have some specific ICS knowledge or general ICS knowledge but rarely does it have depth in all the markets its tackling such as electric, natural gas, oil, water, etc. although it wants to market and sell to those industries

What is the impact of all this? Customers are taking bigger risks in terms of time, untested technologies, changing technologies, and over hyped features than they recognize. If the technology does not succeed, if the startup pivots, or if the customers burn out on the process all that’s been accomplished is significant mistrust between the critical infrastructure stakeholders and their desire to “innovate” with startups anymore. And all of this is occurring on potentially sensitive networks and infrastructure which have the potential to impact safety or the environment.

My recommendations to startups: if you are going to deploy technologies into critical infrastructure early in the development cycle make sure the risks are accurately conveyed and ensure that the customer knows that they are part of a learning process for your technology and company. This begs instant push-back: “If we communicate this as a type of test or a learning process they will likely not trust our company or technology and choose to go with other more established products and companies. We are trying to help. We are innovators.” And to my straw man here, I empathize greatly. Change is needed in this space and innovation is required. We must do better especially with regards to security. But even if we ignore the statistics around the number of failed technologies and startups that would stress why many should never actually touch an ICS environment I could comfortably state that the community is not as rigid as folks think. The critical infrastructure community, especially in ICS, gets cast in a weird light by many outside the community. My experience shows that the critical infrastructure community is just as innovative, and I would argue more so, than any other industry but they are much more careful to try to understand the potential impact and risks…as they should be.

My experience in a new technology startup: when the Dragos Security team was developing our CyberLens software we needed to test it out. Hardware was expensive and we could not afford to build out networks for every type of vendor’s ICS hardware and network communications. Although we have a lot of ICS knowledge on the team we all were keenly aware that we are not experts in every aspect of every ICS industry we wanted to sell to. Customer feedback was (and still is) vital. To add to this we were pressed because we were competing with larger more established companies and technologies but on a very limited budget. So, instead of trying to sell an MVP we simply launched a BETA instead; the BETA lasted over twelve months. How did we accomplish this? We spent $0 on marketing and sales and focused entirely on staying lean and developing and validating our technology. We made contacts in the community, educated them on what we wanted to do, advised where the technology was tested and safe to deploy, and refused to charge our BETA participants for our time or product since they were greatly helping us and keeping our costs down. In turn we offered them discounts for when our product launched and offered some of our time to educate them in matters we did have expertise. This created strong relationships with our BETA participants that carried over when we launched our product to have them join us as customers. We even found new customers when we launched based on referrals from BETA participants vouching for our company. Or more simply stated: we were overly honest and upfront, avoided hype and buzzwords, and brought value so we were seen as fellow team members and not snake oil salesmen. I recommend more startups take this approach even under pressure and when it is difficult to differentiate in the market.

My conclusion: the MVP model in its intended form is not a bad model. In many communities it is an especially smart model. And just because a company is using an MVP route in this space does not mean they are abusing anyone or falling into the pitfalls I listed above. But, as a whole, in the critical infrastructure community it is a process that is more often abused than used correctly and it is damaging in the long term. Customers are not cash cows and guinea pigs – they are investors in your vision and partners. Startups should still push out technologies earlier than trying to wait to create a perfect product without the right feedback, but call these early pushes what they are. It is not a Minimum Viable Product it is a BETA test of core features. Customers should not be asked to spend limited budgets on top of their time and feedback for it nor should they be misled as to what part of the process they are helping in. You will find the community is more likely to help when they know you are being upfront even with understandable shortcomings.


This post originally appeared at RobertMLee.org

Author:

Robert M. Lee is a fellow in the Cybersecurity Initiative. He is Founder and CEO of the cybersecurity company Dragos, Inc., a SANS Institute course author and researcher, and a PhD candidate at Kings College London.