The Minimum Viable Product (MVP)

I discuss MVP’s in my book, The Start-Up J Curve, but I wanted to add some additional color because it’s so critical to get it right.  As most people  in the startup world are aware, MVP stands for Minimum Viable Product.  Each of those words are important.  Minimum means the least amount of time, money and effort that you can put into the product to test the hypothesis.  Viable means that from the perspective of the user, it works enough to test the hypothesis.  Product means it is something real – it is more than a discussion or a pitch.

Prior to even embarking on building an MVP, I recommend having discussions with potential users and customers.  Those discussions can help you hone in on what the customers actually care about, as opposed to what you think they care about.

In my experience, 90% of MVPs are not really MVPs, they are really a version 1.0 of a product.  As a result the startup spends way too much of their scarce time and money building something when they don’t have any real-world proof that people care about it.  I frequently see MVPs that take 3, 6 or even 12 months to build.  Of course it depends on the product but, just to pick a number, if it takes longer than 2-3 months, I’d say you are quickly moving out of the spirit and reality of MVP land.  Personally, I think anytime you take longer than 2-3 weeks, you should be rethinking your MVP strategy.  A bell should ring after 1 month and if you are still developing, then you should start hacking features out and push to finish it immediately.  If you are into 2 months, a guy like me is going to start asking a lot of questions, because I will suspect that something is wrong.  Past 3 months and I will begin assuming my investment is a zero, because in my opinion the team is not “getting it.”

Ideally, it is way shorter than months and measured in weeks or even days.  Groupon did the MVP of their famous morph from “The Point” within 2 days. DoorDash spent up-front time talking to over 200 prospective restaurants about their operations system, and when the restaurant owners didn’t show enough interest they asked them about their problems.  “Deliveries are painful” was the most common answer, so they put together a prototype in a couple of hours and got orders the first evening they went live.

Utilizing a proper MVP strategy is critical when you are in the nadir of the J Curve, in Morph stage where your back is against the wall and you are trying to figure out the product.  Executing proper MVPs will give you multiple “shots on goal” that will give you the greatest odds of success.

I think the trick to a good MVP strategy is to answer up front the 2 most important questions: 1) What specifically is our hypothesis and; 2) What do we need to do to prove or disprove that hypothesis?  If you skip or skim over this, you are already headed down a dangerous path.  Spend time on this and keep forcing the team and discussion back to this simple, yet tough, question.

MVPs are all about figuring out every possible shortcut to save time and money.  For example, lets say you want to sell a great new service or product.  You can cobble together a website in a few days, but you don’t need the perfect back end payment system, just hook into PayPal or another quick and easy system.  It’s OK if the MVP is not perfect as, in a way, it generates a stronger signal if people like it despite the fact that it’s imperfect.

I should note that there is a time where MVP is not appropriate.  Specifically, if you are determined to get into an existing market and your product is not highly differentiated, then there will be a minimum bar or hurdle that you will need in terms of feature set.  We do this at LoveToKnow, when we think we have a particular advantage that we would like to leverage to get into an existing market.  It carries its own set of risks and those risks are magnified because the initial product can take well over 3 months.  So we need our confidence to be quite high to pursue these.  Still I think we probably do too many of these and not enough MVPs.

Becoming really good at MVPs is a required startup skill.  Nailing that strategy can make the difference between a joyful adventure in the wilderness on your way to success, or a very long, cold winter at the bottom of the J Curve.   Don’t over-bake your MVP, keep it simple, test the hypothesis and roll from there.