When I talk about minimum viable products with product-driven startup founders, I often find myself in a frustrated conversation. The term MVP is a deep misnomer. A good MVP is not viable, and it is certainly not a product. It’s probably not the bare minimum you’d like either, think about it.
In the world of lean startups, founders have to focus heavily on figuring out how to fail as quickly as possible. Ideally, you fail to fail, which means that you end up with an effective business. Many “trying to fail” approaches involve looking at your business opportunities and thinking about where your business might fail in the future. Then go find out this part.
It’s not a good idea to build the world’s best platform for selling Beanie Babies if your entire customer base is already happy with eBay and won’t turn away, even if your product is superior. It’s not a good idea to build a cool lock specifically for motorcycles if it turns out that scooter companies don’t care if the scooters are stolen. It would be great if there was a way to know if anyone would buy your product before writing a single line of code.
So where do MVPs come from? As a startup, you have a premise. MVP is the smallest amount of work you can do to confirm or dispel your hypothesis. Eric Ries – yes, the guy who wrote “The Lean Startup” – is famous for using Dropbox’s MVP as an example. It was not a complete and feature-packed product. It wasn’t a product with a lot of stripped-down features. It was a video showing how the product could work. The response to this video was the assurance the company needed: If they built it, they would be able to find a customer base for their product that hadn’t yet been built. Here’s what they did: they made the product, and they were a hit.
Good MVP Design
Good MVP design means thinking outside the box. How little code can you write? Can you get away with not doing a design? If your biggest question is whether you can attract customers for a reasonable CPA, can you run an ad campaign and checkout page, and then refund whoever places an order? If this sounds fun but you are concerned about brand risk, can you create a fake brand and get an answer for your product?
The trick is to think carefully about the premise – what needs to be true about your product, the market, the problem space you’re entering, the customers you hope to attract, and the competitive landscape? How sure are you that your assumptions are correct? Designing a good MVP is an art, but it starts with a really good question. Here are some examples:
- Can we cut four hours of manual accounting tasks into a script that can run in three minutes? This is a technical MVP – you will probably need to hack some code to see if you can reliably automate manual tasks.
- Can we find someone willing to pay to automate this task? In some cases, the answer will be “no” – yes, you can save a junior accountant some time, but in some industries people simply don’t care how much time junior employees spend doing manual tasks. In this case, you need to determine if you can find 20-30 customers who are willing to pay for it. Remember that someone saying “Hey that sounds like a good idea” is different from reaching their pockets and Really He pays you money.
- Is design important to this product? Lots of B2B software is hideously ugly. This is not because there are no good designers, but because it is simply not a priority; People who have to use the product may prefer a better design or an easier user experience, but the decision makers don’t care, and the users don’t get an opinion. In other words: don’t spend half of your development budget on making something easier to use, if you can’t find a business case for it. Especially if it turns out that you’ve inadvertently ended up developing the wrong feature set in the process.
- Is the incumbent copying us and destroying us? If you have a number of companies based in your space, do some research and see how they interact with other startups. If they tend to have it, that’s great. If they tend to copy their features and innovations and then crush them, that’s less great. A little bit of Googling (and of course reading TechCrunch for your industry) can save you a lot of trouble in the future. If incumbents routinely steal innovations, invest more in patents and set aside some money for lawyers.
- Does this feature make sense for our customers? It may be because you get a very loud minority of your customers requesting the same feature, but you wouldn’t be the first company to launch a new feature that caused quite a stir only to be met with mass disregard. Customers don’t speak loudly about your entire customer base, so be wise in how you set up your backlog – if a feature doesn’t add much value to your company’s overall business goals, don’t prioritize it over those that do. One way to build an MVP around this is to add a button to your UI and keep track of how many people click on it. Throw “Soon!” A message when clicked, eg. Yes, it is annoying for users, but it is a lot “cheaper” than spending several development cycles to add a feature that almost no one will use.
In short, the key is to think carefully about what the question is, and then come up with elegant, low-key ways to ask that question. Instead of a charging code, can scanning work? Can a video demonstration give you the answers you need? Can you call 50 customers, ask them careful questions and see if they suggest the feature you’re considering as a potential solution to the problem? It may surprise you in two ways: your customers may overwhelmingly want what you’re proposing (awesome!), they may hate it (also cool – that means you don’t have to waste time and money developing something they don’t want) or they may have a completely different way of solving the problem you come up with. The sweet point, they are cheaper to develop and help them feel involved in your process.
I don’t have a suggestion for a better name for MVP, just don’t fall into the trap of thinking of it as productive, viable, or necessarily small, simple or easy. Some MVPs are complex. However, the idea is to spend as little of your precious resources as possible to get your questions answered.