Whenever I discuss minimum viable products with product-driven startup founders, I often find myself in a frustrating conversation. The term MVP is a deeply misnomer; a good MVP is not viable, and certainly not a product. Chances are, it’s also not as minimal as you’d like, now that I think about it.
In the world of lean startups, founders have to be very focused on figuring out how to fail as quickly as possible. Ideally, you fail to fail, which means you end up with a running business. Many of the “try to fail” approaches involve looking at your business opportunities and contemplating where your business might fail in the future. Then go and find out that part.
There is no use building the world’s best platform for selling Beanie Babies if the entire customer base is already happy with eBay and wouldn’t switch, even if your product is superior. It’s no good creating a big lock specifically for rideshare scooters if it turns out the scooter companies don’t care if they get stolen. It would be great if there was a way to find out if someone would buy your product before writing a single line of code.
So where do the MVPs come in? As a startup, you have a hypothesis; an MVP is the least amount of work you can do to confirm or dispel your hypothesis. Eric Ries, yeah, the guy who wrote “The Lean Startup,” uses the Dropbox MVP as an example. It was not a complete product, full of features. It was not a product with many features removed. 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 their yet-to-be-built product. So that’s what they did: They built the product and it became a huge success.
Designing a good MVP
Designing a good MVP means thinking outside the box. How little code can you write? Can you get away with not doing any design? If your biggest question is whether you can attract customers for a customer acquisition cost that makes sense, could you run just one ad campaign and one checkout page, and then simply refund the orderer? If that sounds like fun but you’re worried about brand risk, could you create a fake brand and get a response for your product?
The trick is to think carefully about the hypothesis: what must be true about your product, the market, the problem space you enter, 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 reduce four hours of manual accounting tasks to a script that can be executed in three minutes? This is a technical MVP – you probably need to hack some code to see if you can reliably automate manual tasks.
- Can we find someone who is willing to pay to automate this task? In some cases, the answer will be “no” – yes, it can save a junior accountant time, but in some industries, people just don’t care how much time junior employees spend on 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 “oh, that sounds like a good idea” is different from them reaching into their pockets and Really paying you money.
- Does design matter for this product? A lot of B2B software is terribly ugly. It’s not that there aren’t any good designers, it’s just that it’s not a priority; the people who have to use the product may prefer a better design or a simpler UX, but the decision makers don’t care, and the users have no say. In other words: don’t spend half your development budget on making something more user-friendly, if you can’t find a business case for it. Especially if it turns out that you inadvertently end up developing the wrong feature set in the process.
- Will a headline copy us and destroy us? If you have multiple starters in your space, do some research and see how they’ve reacted to other startups. If they tend to acquire them, great. If they tend to copy its features and innovations and then crush them, so much the better. A little Googling (and of course reading TechCrunch for your industry) can save you a lot of headaches down the road. If incumbents are routinely stealing 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 vocal minority of your customers ask for the same feature, but you wouldn’t be the first company to launch a new feature with great fanfare only to be met with a collective shrug. Noisy customers don’t speak for your entire customer base, so be judicious in how you arrange your backlog: If a feature doesn’t add significant value to your company’s overall business goals, don’t prioritize it over other features. 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 to users, but it’s much more “cheap” than spending multiple development cycles adding a feature that hardly anyone will use.
In a nutshell, the key is to think very carefully about what the question is and then come up with elegant and understated ways to ask that question. Instead of the shipping code, could a survey work? Could a video demo give you the answers you need? Can you call 50 customers and ask them circumspect questions and see if they suggest the feature you’re thinking of as a possible solution to the problem? They can surprise you in two ways: your customers may overwhelmingly love what you’re suggesting (great!), or they may hate it (also great: it means you don’t have to waste time and money developing something they don’t want). they want) or they may have a completely different way of solving the problem that hits the sweet spot, is cheaper to develop, and helps them feel invested in their 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 a product, being viable, or necessarily being small, simple, or easy. Some MVPs are complex. However, the idea is to spend as little of your valuable resources as possible to get your questions answered.