The ABCs of MVPs: How to Get the RIGHT Product out Faster

According to Lean Startup Methodology, the minimum viable product represents the absolute smallest value you can deliver to test assumptions and start to learn about a business idea. This concept and its acronym get thrown around A LOT in the startup world.

However, the truth is: most companies don’t optimize MVPs. Startups try to make their MVP a most valuable product instead of a minimally viable one. So, how do you know what a MVP is for your business? How do you stop yourself from wasting time building features that should be part of Version 2 or 10 of your product?

Here’s some advice from an entrepreneur who both wasted time and came to understand what those precious letters actually mean:

1. M = MINIMAL

What is minimal? Remind yourself of your basic value proposition, and ask yourself what the smallest, least time intensive thing is that you can do or build that will provide that value.

Now, this doesn’t have to be what you envision the product to be a year from now: it could be a landing page, a Facebook ad, an event, etc. This MVP just proves that people are willing to sign up and use (or better yet, pay for) your business.

Remember Shrek? He compared himself to an onion because onions have layers. Now, think about your MVP, and peel back a layer. Do it again. Keep peeling back layers until you have the simplest element. Rinse and repeat.

A great example of bare bones MVP is social sharing tool Buffer. For their first in a series of MVPs, they simply had a landing page with their value proposition. Initially, their goal was to see how many email addresses they could collect. After reaching their goal, they expanded their MVP another layer to include a pricing page to learn exactly how much customers were willing to pay for their product.

buffer minimal viable product home page

Buffer’s initial landing page MVP. Their next layer included an actual pricing options page.

When you’re thinking about your MVP, make a list of the core functionalities your product will have, and map that to your list of assumptions. As you prove each assumption, you can add another layer.

Top questions to see if your MVP is actually minimal:

  1. Can you make it simpler?
  2. What is the assumption(s) you are out to prove?
  3. How quickly can you get it out?

2. V = VIABLE

Viable means it gets the job done. That’s it: no bells or whistles. MVPs by definition are rough, dirty, but ultimately functional. In the same way that you think about minimalism for the product, think about minimalizing functionality. The main objective for an MVP is to prove assumptions and learn.

Make sure your MVP has data collection abilities, even if it’s as simple as counting the number of people who walk by and look at a stand or basic Google Analytics.

One of my favorite examples of minimum viability is Ash Maurya’s book, Running Lean. He wanted to write a book about his journey using Lean Startup Methodology but wasn’t sure if other people would care (or pay for it). So he started writing his book without a book deal or plan in mind and released it to followers on his blog. Soon, people were paying for the book before it was even published. When he reached his numeric goal, he went to publishers and showed his list of paying customers, so it was a no-brainer for them to sign him on. Here, the minimum viability was a simple emailed PDF with valuable content.

Running Lean the Book

Ash Maurya’s book started out as a series of PDFs emailed to his loyal readers and turned into a best selling book.

Top questions to see if your MVP is actually viable:

  1. What core functionality does your MVP have?
  2. What numeric criteria determine success or failure?
  3. What will you learn from the performance of this MVP?

3. P = Product

The MVP is a data gathering, value proposition delivering, assumption proving machine. You have spent many hours evaluating assumptions to test but few hours actually building.

All copy and explanations should be clear and in simple English. Test it out on friends/social media to make sure you are getting across the exact value proposition (often copy is influenced by our own perspective). Or, try A/B testing with Optimizely.

Set goals for your product and expectations for follow up steps when you’ve reached those goals. For example, Dropbox started off with a video explaining what their product would do. Visitors to the site thought the product was real; however, the Dropbox team knew how difficult it would be to actually build the functionality, and they didn’t want to do it unless they proved the public wanted it. Their simple three minute demo video drove traffic and increased signups exponentially. “It drove hundreds of thousands of people to the website. Our beta waiting list went from 5,000 people to 75,000 people literally overnight. It totally blew us away,” said CEO Drew Houston. With this data, they could work on Dropbox knowing the product would be valued.

For more ideas on successful MVPs, check out this Quora thread.

Dropbox mvp home page

Dropbox’s demo video on their homepage, an MVP, showed a product that didn’t even exist.

Top questions to see if your MVP is the right product:

  1. Is your value proposition clearly and succinctly stated?
  2. What event will prompt you to take the next steps?
  3. Will knowledge gained be enough to iterate?

TL;DR?

Make your MVP as SIMPLE as possible.

Measure every interaction with the product.

Go back, and make it even simpler.

With my current lean startup, we made mistakes on all three of these criteria. Our initial MVP was way too complicated, took too long to build, and was not able to collect data efficiently. We realized we had wasted months of time because we just had to have certain features. In hindsight, following these three simple rules would have saved us a lot of time and energy.

About the Author: Stella Fayman is cofounder of matchist, a site dedicated to matching entrepreneurs and startups to top developers. Stella is also cofounder of Entrepreneurs Unpluggd, a media company focused on supporting early entrepreneurs. Follow her musings on twitter: StartupStella.

  1. Stella – I wish I had read this article prior to launching my MVP – I ran into the same issues driven by the fact that neither I nor my developers truly understood MVP. I now understand it. Terrific walk through. Thank you!

  2. I enjoyed reading this article. Definitely learned something new. This seems like the best mindset to have for a startup

  3. Thanks for sharing, Stella! This post is very informative. The examples you’ve stated definitely helped me in understanding it better. :)

  4. Thanks Stella for sharing such a nice article , i forget it to read yesterday , but came back now to read it.. kissmetrics.com really helping me a lot to learn new thing .. Thanks Guys

  5. Great article, thanks!

  6. Darius vasefi Dec 04, 2012 at 7:20 am

    How can you call something a product when it does not actually “do” anything? I understand the concept of testing the market for potential customers before building something but none of your examples are really products, they are marketing tactics.

    The MVP is the first version of the actual product which you’re telling the world about.

  7. Hey!

    I thing in your this article its not enough to define the examples of products and yes they are marketing tactics.
    I agree with Darius vasefi.
    But i love the way of your writing style.

    Thanks!

  8. hey Stella !
    it is something new which i have learned from you. Thank you for sharing great tips.
    Thanks again.
    Matt

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