Whenever I talk about viable minimal products with product-oriented startup founders, I often find myself in a frustrating conversation. The term MVP is such a profound misnomer; a good MVP is not feasible, and it is certainly not a product. Chances are it’s not even as minimal as you’d like it to be, come to think of it.
In the world of lean startups, founders need to stay hyper-focused on figuring out how to fail as fast as possible. Ideally, you don’t fail, which means you’ll end up with a functioning business. Many of the “trying to fail” approaches involve examining business opportunities and reflecting on where your business might fail in the future. So go figure that part.
There’s no need to create the world’s best platform for selling Beanie Babies if the entire customer base is already satisfied with using eBay and doesn’t change their mind, even if your product is superior. It’s no good making a great lock specifically for rideshare scooters if you find that scooter companies don’t care if the scooters are stolen. It would be great if there was a way to tell if someone would buy your product before writing a single line of code.
So where do MVPs come into play? As a startup, you have a guess; an MVP is the least amount of work you can do to confirm or debunk your hypothesis. Eric Ries – yes, the guy who wrote “The Lean Startup” – famously uses Dropbox’s MVP as an example. It wasn’t a full-fledged, feature-rich product. It wasn’t a product with a lot of bare features. It was a video, showing how a product could work. The response to that video was the confirmation the company needed: if they build it, they will be able to find a customer base for its yet-to-be-built product. Here’s what they did: they built the product and they became a huge success.
Design a good MVP
Designing a good MVP means thinking outside the box. How little code can you write? Can you get away with designing? If your biggest question is whether you can attract customers for a customer acquisition cost that makes sense, could you just run an ad campaign and checkout page and then refund anyone who places an order? If it sounds funny but you are concerned about the risk of the brand, could you create a fake brand and get a response to your product?
The trick is to think carefully about the hypothesis: 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 good question. Here are some examples:
- Can I reduce four hours of manual accounting work to a script that can run in three minutes? This is a technical MVP – you probably need to hack some code together 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 might save a junior accountant time, but in some industries people just 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 who says “oh, that sounds like a good idea” is different than what you put in your pocket and in reality paying you money.
- Is design important for this product? A lot of B2B software is horribly ugly. It is not because there are no good designers, but simply because it is not a priority; people who need to use the product may prefer a better design or simpler UX, but decision makers don’t care and users don’t have a say. In other words: don’t spend half your development budget on making something easier to use if you can’t find a business case for it. Especially if you find that you inadvertently end up developing the wrong feature set in the process.
- Will an incumbent copy us and destroy us? If you have a number of incumbents in your space, do some research and see how they’ve reacted to other startups. If they tend to acquire them, fine. If they tend to copy their features and innovations and then squash them, less big. A little googling (and, of course, reading TechCrunch for your industry) can save you a lot of headaches in the future. If incumbents routinely steal innovations, invest more in patents and set aside some money for lawyers.
- Does this feature make sense to our customers? It may be that a very noisy minority of your customers are requesting the same feature, but you wouldn’t be the first company to launch a new feature to great fanfare only to be greeted by a collective shrug. Loud customers don’t speak for the entire customer base, so be judicious in how you clean up your backlog – if a feature doesn’t add significant value to your company’s overall business goals, don’t prioritize those that do. . One way to design an MVP around this is to simply add a button to your UI and track how many people click on it. Throw a “coming soon!” message when clicked, for example. Yes, it’s annoying for users, but it’s much cheaper than spending several development cycles adding a feature that hardly anyone will use.
Simply put, the key is to think very carefully about what the question is, and then find elegant, low-level ways to ask that question. Could a survey work instead of the shipping code? Could a demo video give you the answers you need? Can you call 50 customers and ask them circumspect questions and see if they suggest the feature you are thinking of as a potential solution to the problem? They might surprise you in two ways: your customers might overwhelmingly want what you’re suggesting (great!), They might hate it (also great: it means you don’t have to waste time and money developing something they don’t want), or they might have a way completely different than solving the problem hitting the sweet spot, it is cheaper to develop and helps them feel involved in your process.
I don’t have a suggestion for a better name for MVP, but don’t fall into the trap of thinking of it as a product, doable or, necessarily, small, simple, or easy. Some MVPs are complex. The idea, however, is to spend as little of your valuable resources as possible to get your questions answered.