What is a Minimum Viable Product?
Minimum Viable Product or MVP is one of the topics that are confusing for entrepreneurs. Especially when all they focus on is their great idea, it’s hard to see why you need to build only part of it before completely implementing the full vision.
In this article, we talk about what a Minimum Viable Product is and why it’s important to understand each part of it. How entrepreneurs should approach one and what are the strategies they can use to increase the chance of success and reduce the risks of failure. This is one of the topics we cover extensively in our Roadmap Workshop for Entrepreneurs.
What is a Minimum Viable Product?
A Minimum Viable Product is that version of a new product which allows a team to collect the maximum amount of validated learning about customers with the least effort
Based on this description, the goal of a Minimum Viable Product is to allow the product team to learn from customers with minimal effort. However I’m going to focus on the 3 words themselves in the phrase ‘Minimum Viable Product’ and use them to describe what it means.
A Minimum Viable Product is just that – minimal. It’s not suppose to be complete, nor the biggest, most comprehensive solution. Being minimal from a product point of view means having the least amount of features, but also the fastest release possible. That’s where the power of the Minimum Viable Products come into play. It’s the fastest version of your app so you can score advantages, such as being first to market. Something you might lose if you build the full product but another company beats you to the punch with their own MVP.
This is where most startups and entrepreneurs make mistakes. They release their product prematurely in the hope they get that first-to-market advantage. They forget that a Minimum Viable Product has to be viable. If it’s not viable it’s not solving the problem you set out to solve and it’s not going to fly with customers. Not only do you not get the advantage you sought, but you might lose the trust of your early adopters and be flagged as spam.
What is a product? I have a simple definition for it: If it ships it’s a product. If it’s staying in your development team’s hands or the R&D department, it’s not a product – not yet. If what you have built is shippable, then it can be considered a product. If you don’t have it, you need to work more on it. You don’t necessarily need to add features, but you need to make sure that minimal set of features work in a way that a product should work. Bug free (or next to it) and ready to be consumed by customers. Early adopters have a high tolerance for non-products but you generally need to make sure you don’t cross that fine line.
How Do You Decide What to Include In a Minimum Viable Product?
This is the big question and maybe one of the most important questions entrepreneurs have to answer. The answer has a huge impact on their success (or failure) so it’s important to know what to look out for.
What we suggest to many entrepreneurs who work with us is to simply list their features and try to prioritize them. Sounds easy right? Well, not exactly.
For many entrepreneurs it’s the whole idea that makes their product worthwhile. Although it’s not easy to remove that bias, we usually suggest they look at it as a way of prioritizing app development.
We use a process similar to bubble sort in computer algorithms to prioritize the list of features and it goes like this:
- Put all the features into a list called “unsorted”
- Chose the most important feature from that list that defines your app
- Move it to the end of the “sorted” list and remove it from “unsorted” list
- Go back to step 2 until all unsorted features are added to the sorted list
This will give us a prioritized list to start with, but we want to go over the list one more time, this time comparing each 2 adjacent features and make sure the priorities are set correctly. It’s easy to make mistakes, so we want to make sure we are finding them now.
Draw the line
The next step to define your Minimum Viable Product is to draw the line somewhere in the list. Everything above the line will be in your Minimum Viable Product and everything below that will be out of it. How do we find that line? Similar to prioritization we have a computer algorithm inspired process:
- Start from the top of the list
- Imagine this feature were not part of the product, would it still be a useful product? (aka “Viable”)
- If the answer is yes, draw the line above that feature – you are done!
- If answer is no, move to the next feature down the list and go back to step 2
This simple process will give you your MVP! You know what’s in and what’s out. Afterwards, you’re going to have mixed feelings about your product and that’s normal. You will most likely feel that you should add in just a few more things. Assure yourself that this process is going to be very iterative. Iteration means that you can add those extra feature immediately after MVP, so don’t sweat it too much.
The Litmus Test For a Minimum Viable Product
We have designed our own, very simple, litmus test for MVPs. It’s mostly focused on how we define Minimum Viable Products: P + V + M.
The test is simply looking at what’s at hand:
- P: if you build this, will it be shippable? If you are putting a feature out that makes the solution not-shippable, that’s a problem.
- V: if you build this set of features, will it be solving the problem you are set to solve. Answer No to this question means you need to go back to the list and move your line.
- M: Is it minimal? Can you remove a feature and still be viable and shippable? If so, move your line again!
Why Is It Important to Start With a Minimum Viable Product?
If the main reason startups fail is because they build something that no one wants, it stands to reason that you should use whatever tools are available to you to make sure you are building something people want. An MVP is one of those tools.
Make something people want. That’s the fundamental problem. If you die, it’s probably because you didn’t make something people wanted.
– Paul Graham, co-founder of Y-Combinator
Ofcourse, the goal is to succeed, but if you have to fail because people don’t actually want what you think they want, it’s better to fail early. Failing fast and failing often is a mantra of many successful startups. The reason is that if you fail fast, you are not going to use all your resources before you its too late to pivot to something else. Eventually, you’ll land on the idea people want.
You can easily test the market with an MVP to validate your hypothesis and if you were proven wrong, no hard feelings! You can start over. You can collect the maximum amount of validated learning about customers with the least amount of effort.
Different Types of Minimum Viable Products
Now that we’ve covered the Minimum Viable Product and why it’s important to start products off with MVPs, we’ll look at a few different approaches to starting with MVPs. We will cover 4 different examples and see how they are different.
Landing Page MVP
If you’ve read Tim Ferriss’s book, The 4 Hour Work Week, you are probably familiar with this one. You setup a single page or website that communicates your unique value proposition and try to measure the response from the visitors. You might say that this is marketing, but it’s in fact a Minimum Viable Product. It validates your value proposition, product-market fit and can even validate your pricing. So based on Eric Ries’s description, this qualifies as a Minimum Viable Product. A great example of that is Dropbox. Before their launch, dropbox already had 5000 subscribers. They already knew they had product market fit and validation for their idea. How did they do that? With a simple landing page and an explainer video.
Wizard of Oz MVP
When you put up a front that looks like a real working product but you do the functions behind the scenes manually, you are creating a Wizard of Oz MVP. You are basically investing in making your product look good and then manually do what you promise people it would do. It’s a great example of prioritizing and drawing the line. You know that you are going to create the full product, and release it when it looks good but not necessarily do all that’s promised yet. In the meantime, you pick up the slack. A great example of this is Zappos. They didn’t start with a big e-commerce backend or big orders for shoes, instead they went to local stores and took photos of the shoes and shipped them as they were bought. Starting everything manually helped them reduce the risk and make sure they had the product-market fit before investing in building the real product.
If you are thinking of providing a service to your customers, one way you can build your MVP is by providing the exact same service to your customers but doing it manually. A good example here is the meal planning service Food On The Table. Before building anything the founders interviewed potential customers to find who would be interested in their service. When they found it was a good product/market fit, they started their Concierge MVP. Instead of setting up a ton of technology to create shopping lists and find recipes for the clients, the founders came up with the shopping list and recipes every week based on customer’s preferences and promotions in local stores, for the price of $9.95.
Along the way they learned a ton of information from those initial interactions and although they weren’t making money, they got the validation they needed from their Minimum Viable Product.
Somewhere between a Wizard of Oz MVP and Concierge MVP, a Piecemeal MVP emulates the service your product will ultimately provide but does so using existing tools or manually. A good example of this is Groupon. Starting out as a customized WordPress blog titled ‘The Daily Groupon’, they started posting deals each day manually. Whenever someone signed up for a particular deal, the team would generate a PDF document and email it using Apple Mail. Not exactly scalable, but definitely proof of concept and market validation. Only after Groupon began gaining traction with successful feedback and active users was the actual Groupon launched.
Ship Early & Often
The moral of the story is: no matter how great you think your idea is, create your MVP first, be strategic and get it out there early. That way, you have time to pivot, reconsider and iterate on your offering before you run out of money. A Minimum Viable Product doesn’t have to feel like a compromise or substandard offering in comparison to your vision. Think of it instead as testing the waters to learn as much as possible, as early as possible. That way you can better serve your customers and provide them with something they really want or need.