Timing is Everything
When clients come to us with their ideas, they’re not just looking for a website or an app — they’re looking for speed. Launching their platform early is critical because it is their portal to the target market, assessing market conditions, and the next round of funding. Light-speed timing from new idea to MVP launch is critical because the market is always moving at warp speed and you need to get your platform out there as soon as possible to test your assumptions against the real world. Nobody has a crystal ball, but the next best thing is to test your assumptions with minimal investment so that you can iterate faster on your way to identifying the optimal product-market fit.
Origins of the Minimum Viable Product
Not too long ago, the term MVP (Minimum Viable Product) would raise an eyebrow among techies — not anymore. I first heard the term in 2011 when Eric Ries’s book The Lean Startup hit the market, and the term — shorthand for building something relatively quickly to validate an idea — stuck ever since. Here’s a more technical definition:
The Minimum Viable Product is a development technique in which a new product or website is developed with sufficient features to satisfy early adopters. The final, complete set of features is only designed and developed after considering feedback from the product’s initial users.
Another way to think about the MVP is as a prototype that you may release (and even sell) to real users. In the past, product teams would ask customers what features they wanted next, and then hunker down and build those features. Those products often released with a giant thud because users famously don’t really know what they want. The MVP process seeks to crack this dilemma by giving users something concrete before the development process.
Here’s the original (circa 2011) MVP loop, meant to be performed multiple times before hitting 1.0 status. The goal was to build something small, get it out there and measure the response — and then iterate. Round and round tech companies went, getting closer to the perfect product-market fit.
How Has the MVP Changed Since 2011?
The problem with the above model is that you still have to start off in the ballpark to get it to work. If your original premise was way off base, no amount of tweaking (known as pivoting) would matter because the data being gathered would not yield relevant insights. You weren’t learning about the major problems that your target users face. Sadly, many entrepreneurs bought into this MVP loop so profoundly that they didn’t bother talking to users until it was too late. By the time they sat down to pitch the product, too much money and time had already been spent without learning the right things.
So, to make this work, a new MVP loop was proposed — one that starts with real problems and real people. It also attempts to get some financial commitment from users — real validation!
By talking to real people and going deep into their workflows and tools — while identifying any problems that they’re having — you get at the why. The thing that really drives your prospects. Crucially, you’re also learning about their biggest pain points. This deep insight is going to solidify your confidence that you’re solving important problems, and not just addressing minor annoyances. That may be the difference between a flop and a hit product that people are willing to pay for.
Once you know and appreciate their major problems (often problems with the tools they’re using), you can make a basic demo of your proposed solution. Super basic. This can be as simple as a drawing, an Illustrator file, or an interactive Keynote slide deck. Once you present this demo to your prospects — who, for example, you found on LinkedIn based on your profiling metrics — you can even offer to sell them early access to the upcoming MVP.
Prepay for a demo? They’re likely to do it because you’ve identified — and addressed — the pain point(s), instead of having created a me-too product that relies solely on polish. Some entrepreneurs, fearing rejection, feel that free is the only way to get started. The real tragedy here is that they could charge real money and truly impress potential investors with sales data — if they only studied and addressed their prospects’ obstacles. If you follow the process methodically, you end up with an offer that your customers can’t refuse.
This demo will either yield a new customer or not. If the answer is not, listen very closely to their reasons. Remember, if you’re not obsessed with solving their problems, you don’t deserve their them as users and you definitely don’t deserve attention from investors. The art of this demo is showing the smallest thing possible to convince a customer you can solve their major problems.
Steve Jobs’ pitch to the World
A famous example of this pitch — which was a bull’s-eye in terms of addressing the problems with existing tools — was when Steve Jobs launched the iPhone. He nailed the pitch by first elaborating on the limitations of the clunky offerings on the market at the time (such as the Blackberry and the Moto Q), and then explaining in simple terms why a touch screen solution would alleviate all those problems. It was so utterly convincing that rival CEOs were asked how they would respond to the as-yet-unreleased product. Within days it became obvious that every other smartphone maker would have to offer a multi-touch interface in order to stay relevant. Did Apple have a finished product ready to ship? Absolutely not. Apple would need another 6 months to make it work reliably enough for the mass market.
Another fantastic example of the demo-and-MVP launch is DropBox. They launched with a brilliant low-budget Youtube video that got picked up on Digg, which resulted in thousands of techies signing up within the first 24 hours. Combine that huge launch with an ingenious referral program, and you now have a multi billion dollar company that coincidentally enough turned down an acquisition offer from none other than Steve Jobs.
Never Stop Learning
Not long ago we were developing an MVP for a fun photo sharing platform. We knew that other photo apps were addictive, but wanted to see if we could create interactions that were more compelling than simply liking and commenting on photos. We wanted to gamify the the photo sharing experience. As we built out the app we reached out to our target market (college students) and encouraged them to use the early builds in student events. Once we looked at the analytics and KPIs, it was clear: people insisted on treating our app like all of the other social networks that were out there, and were coming in with certain expectations. Listening to our ambassadors taught us a great deal about what they really cared about, which included learning about things that really annoyed them about other apps. This insight allowed us to quickly iterate and incorporate valuable feedback into the MVP.
The MVP model is a cycle because we never stop learning. Your first product should deliver on what your demo promised — but it won’t be a perfect product. It’s a minimum viable product which aims to satisfy your prospects — and likely excite investors — so you can gear up for a Phase 2. Instead of inventing new problems — or building something for the sake of building cool tech — let’s double down on listening to our users and truly understanding the real challenges that they have.