Launching a startup with an MVP, or minimum viable product, has its origins in Eric Ries’ book The Lean Startup.
Some critics now say this is one of the most misused terms in the lexicon of technology development. Although this may be a slight exaggeration, MVP has indeed lost some of its original meaning and purpose, and many founders are confused about just how minimum an MVP should be.
I have personally encountered examples of MVPs that are poorly designed or rushed builds, with the excuse of it being ‘just an MVP’. In reality, the minimum viable product is one of the most important components for founders looking to bring a product to market.
Learning from Elon
Elon Musk is said to be a master in the execution of an MVP.
Although his end goal is to live on a planet that is powered by the sun, this is the grand problem he is seeking to solve, and a long way from his starting point. And if Musk had accelerated from zero to his Tesla Gigafactory too quickly, it’s unlikely he would have succeeded.
Musk started with the electric car because the concept of a solar-powered planet needs some warming up to. And in any case, that is Musk’s grand vision, not something that is bite-sized enough for consumers to digest and for investors to get behind.
By starting small, the electric car could be road-tested, quite literally, before customers and investors put their money behind electric buses or trucks.
And this all happened well before a deal was done with Solar City, and long before the completion of the Gigafactory, the lithium-ion battery and electric vehicle sub-assembly factory designed to be entirely energy self-reliant, powered through a combination of on-site solar, wind and geothermal sources.
One of the greatest teachings from Musk is to take the customer on the journey and start by solving a smaller problem that is a subset of a larger conundrum.
Too often, I meet technical founders who have become so intent on building a product that the MVP quickly maxes out. The development of the MVP becomes an epic journey, besieged by obstacles and delays. The founders become so internally focused on completion and perfection or rushing to get the product across the line that they miss the opportunity for feedback.
So essentially, no prospective customer has ever told them their product is any good.
A simple objective
Obtaining customer feedback without full-scale investment is one of the major benefits of the MVP, and the more time spent in the customer development phase, the better the end product will be. This time enables the founder to understand the customers’ pain point and test a solution to see if it is actually solving the problem.
A maxed-out MVP often loses sight of this simple objective: to build a product, the bare minimum, with must-have features, that is essentially proof of concept with a small carefully targeted sample of customers.
If a number of customers sign up for the product, this is a vote of confidence. To some extent, the market has validated the founder’s idea.
But if the market doesn’t respond strongly to the product, this is an opportunity, not a disaster. It’s an opportunity for the founder to talk to be customers and gain valuable insight and use this feedback to evolve the product.
The founder can use this time to ask customers what part of the proposition appealed, how well the product addressed their problem, how the product failed in its delivery, and gather intel that may be important for the long term, like how important the grand problem is in their universe. This is also an opportunity to better understand competitor dynamics, what the alternatives are in the market and how the new product stacks up.
It is actually possible to execute an MVP without any technical build at all.
This may seem like an odd suggestion, but a simple manual imitation of the technology may be enough to test the proposition with the target audience.
Take a new cooking appliance, for example. If a founder can manually imitate the steps in the functionality of the appliance and the result is a great tasting cake, then the cake will itself be enough to persuade early adopters and investors that any technology that produces such a delicious cake is worth backing.
Finally, the MVP doesn’t need to be all things to all customers.
If founders focus on providing too many ‘should have’, ‘could have’ or ‘nice to have’ features, it will be impossible to capture insightful feedback.
There is likely to be a number of iterations of the MVP before a founder is ready to go to market. This is when the MVP becomes the minimum marketable product (MMP) and founder can launch the product with the confidence that the market has tested and validated the product.