Bullets Before Cannonballs

Heads Up: This is part 4 of a 5-part series. We’ve done our best to make each article stand alone but, you’ll get the most from this content if you start at the beginning.

In his book Great by Choice, Jim Collins uses the idea of a 1-on-1 pirate ship battle (we like to imagine it happening in a thick fog) to illustrate a concept he calls “Bullets first, then cannonballs.” Here’s a summary of the idea from his landing page on the topic:

First, you fire bullets (low-cost, low-risk, low-distraction experiments) to figure out what will work—calibrating your line of sight by taking small shots. Then, once you have empirical validation, you fire a cannonball (concentrating resources into a big bet) on the calibrated line of sight. Calibrated cannonballs correlate with outsized results; uncalibrated cannonballs correlate with disaster. The ability to turn small proven ideas (bullets) into huge hits (cannonballs) counts more than the sheer amount of pure innovation.

Those conceptual bullets Mr. Collins is talking about are the Minimum Viable Product (or offer, or website). They are the build phase of a “Build > Measure > Learn” feedback loop.

The fuel for the flywheel.

Jasper sees this, so he fires his best shot, his best first guess in the fog — and every next MVP bullet is adjusted, based on what he learned from firing the one before it. He doesn’t waste resources by trying to do too much too soon. This is how he stays agile and budget-friendly.

Phase one of Jasper’s next project is the first run around his flywheel. He makes a quick landing page to test the idea for his offer. The page is a draft, it is imperfect.

He launches it anyway.

He measures how people use it.

Where are they coming from?

Where on the site do they linger for a while?

How many filled out his contact form?

He learns from this data…

Makes the second draft…

Measure the response…


Build the third draft.

The fourth.

The eightieth.


At first it’ll be a slow process. It’ll take more time than we would like before we see the traffic, or gain the results we hope for.

That’s part of the process.

That’s how real, mechanical flywheels work too. Meaning, this stuff isn’t just true conceptually, it’s true of the fundamental engineering of the thing.

Here’s an interesting example:

The man in the video above is turning the crank of mechanism inside a WWII-era Tiger Tank.

The mechanism is called a flywheel.

That guy doesn’t look like he’s not strong. Right?

And it still takes tons of energy for him to get the mechanism moving — he’s not going slow due to caution, the crank is stiff, and difficult to move. Yet, the more it moves the less force it requires, and then, eventually…

The inertia carries itself.

This is a profoundly important concept.

It is also worth noting that Jim Collins is credited with teaching the flywheel concept to Amazon’s Jeff Bezos, who acknowledges it as one of the primary factors contributing to his incredible success.

Pay attention.

It is the same mental model powering every case study you’ll fine here at Wabbit.

This shift in understanding enables projects, products, offers, businesses, etc. to self-fund — and provides priceless early feedback, while mitigating the risk of complete failure.

That’s why we embrace it.

Let’s connect some more dots, and recall that in the article preceding this one, we gave you an assignment…

We asked you to imagine Larry as an aspiring indie developer who has an idea he thinks his people will love.

Then we asked you this question:

Does he need to have his idea finished before he can start selling it?

Given what you know now, reflect again on the idea of bullets before cannonballs.

When we mentioned allowing for imperfection, we weren’t just talking about typos.

The entire MVP can be imperfect.

In fact, Kickstarter proved beyond a shadow of a doubt that we can sell an idea before we’ve even made the thing.

But that doesn’t mean we can flail around blindly, so…

Let’s give the MVP term a more refined definition now, and continue connecting dots. 

MVP stands for:

  • Minimum – Most rudimentary, bare-bones foundation of the solution possible.
  • Viable – Sufficient enough for early adopters.
  • Product – Something tangible that customers can touch and feel (or, for digital goods, use at a minimal level)

The MVP represents the absolute minimum you can make to test your idea, and gain feedback.

It helps you quickly Identify what customers really want.

And what they don’t want.

Our pal Larry over-focuses on the product (or idea), because he believes success comes from an elusive intersection of right place and time. 

To him, once the stars align, he’s ready to build the big, revolutionary idea (before validating it), and he’ll convince himself that he just needs a loan to make it happen…

But an influx of cash isn’t what Larry needs, and his pursuit of loans and investments is a mistake so common that the world accepts it as normal behavior.

So, how can Larry discover what he really needs?

We’ll talk about that next.

Click below to keep reading.

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