By Michael Woloszynowicz

By Michael Woloszynowicz

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

The Minimum Viable Product Dissected

One of the fundamental and most misunderstood tenants of the lean startup is the minimum viable product (MVP). The misunderstanding breaks down into three key areas which are described below. I've decided to address these three issues in one consolidated post as I've arrived at the solutions through various sources, including asking the lean startups founder himself, Eric Ries.

The first misunderstanding relates to the MVP concept itself. Many people are unclear how an MVP can be created for their particular product and what components they need to integrate into it. For starters you must look at the MVP not as a product but as an experiment. The prerequisite for any MVP is a hypothesis that you want to test as this drives the scope, nature, and content of the MVP. Once you have decided what it is that you are trying to learn or validate from the MVP you can then begin constructing it. This is generally the stage where confusion sets in. What exactly do you put into the MVP and how far do you go with it? Again the answer is driven by the hypothesis you are testing, but the important thing is to be creative. Many people think that if they have a very complex and extensive product, an MVP that tests whether clients will buy it would still require a great deal of functionality, even if it is the minimum. The fact is that the actual product does not have to exist at all. Don't lock yourself into the mindset that your MVP is some early version of your final product, in fact it is likely that you will throw the MVP away completely. With the expectation that you'll discard most or all of your MVP, you should be motivated to make it as basic as possible, this is where the creativity comes into play. Rather than build a whole system, build a simple landing page with some screenshots from your graphic designer (think of, a value proposition, and a call to action. This call to action can be something as simple as "register for our beta launch". This will give you an idea as to whether anyone is interested in the concept. If this is the route you take then you'd be wise to A/B test the landing page as your value proposition can be strong but your message or delivery may be flawed. If you want to go further you can create a functional html prototype driven by static content that terminates at a form that tells the user "our product is currently in a beta stage, submit your email for an exclusive invitation to preview the system". At this point you may be thinking, "but what if my product is not done for a year, this person will be very disappointed, we've effectively lied to them". The fact is that the number of people that will arrive at your demo site is quite small relative to your target market which is hopefully big, so even if you do disappoint a few people, there will be many others to pursue. Besides, thanks to their interest the product may indeed one day come to fruition, and if it solves an important problem they will return once it’s done. Other options for your MVP include a PowerPoint prototype that you demo in person, a video of screenshots that you've pieced together, etc. Generally the more concrete your MVP the more accurate your feedback will be as you leave less to the imagination, hence you should continually test your MVP at each stage of development. The key takeaway is to be creative and remember that it's OK to fake it and fib a bit.

Similar to the above issue, I've often wrestled with the question of how the user experience (UX) plays into the MVP. How far should we go with UI design and creating an engaging UX in an MVP prototype? The answer here is to once again focus on your specific hypothesis and do as little as is necessary to validate it. Eric Ries has aptly pointed out that at the customer discovery stage you really can't create a good UX since you don't know who the user is yet, you simply don't have enough information. I would therefore lean towards a clean but minimalist UI in your MVP. Once you have moved on to the customer validation stage you can focus on perfecting the UX through more in depth research and tools such as A/B testing.

The final misconception lies with intellectual property. Most people feel that by throwing an MVP on the web they're giving away their idea and others will be tempted to steal it. There are several rebuttals to this claim. First off, Sean Ellis will tell you that most of the people that have the capability to copy your idea are way too busy with their own ideas and tasks to bother with yours. Secondly, Eric Ries will tell you that in practice it is very difficult to copy someone else's idea, go ahead and try it yourself. Finally, David Cancel will tell you that nobody gives a f*** about your stupid idea. The fact is that nobody knows if your idea is any good at this point, not even you do. If you'd heard something about a site called Twitter several years ago would you have been compelled to copy it? You'd have probably though "that will never catch on, who needs that?". The reason you would think that is because you are interpreting the idea from your perspective rather than the vision of the creator. In fact if two people pursued Twitter simultaneously it is unlikely that both would be successful or end up with the same result, as it is the execution of the idea and the pivots throughout its inception that define the outcome. The important thing to keep in mind is that the learning you gain from the MVP far outweighs the chance of someone stealing your idea. After all there is about a 10% chance (and that is generous) that your startup will be successful and less than 1% chance that someone will steal it so you decide which number it's best to dwell over.

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