Summary: Many entrepreneurs believe the key to an MVP is identifying the right minimal features for the right customers. It turns out this is mostly a fool’s errand because an MVP isn’t about product features – it is about the next phase of Discovery. The real value of an MVP is that getting a basic product in the hands of customers allows you to Discover your Business, Customers, and Passion – and it allows customers to Discover your Commitment to their problems.
Readers note: If you’ve been reading my blog for awhile or we’ve met through one of my Startup Help Calls, I’m trying something new this week. I’m flattered to have been asked by Ryan Hoover to participate in startupedition.com, so this week I’m responding to the group question: How do you define an MVP? I’m responding based on my own experiences and hundreds that you have shared with me.
The Myth of the MVP
One day an entrepreneur has an idea, so she reads Running Lean, takes Steve Blank’s Udacity Course, and learns how to find and interview customers. Over a few weeks she finds and interviews dozens of people and eventually identifies a real problem. Instead of building a complete product, she identifies the most enthusiastic customers and builds the most basic product solves some of their problems: a Minimum Viable Product, or MVP.
She’s done such a great job identifying the most important features that these customers pay for the MVP. With this validation she raises her first round of funding, hires a team, and then starts making her product better and better, getting more customers and revenue on her way to fame and fortune.
Years later, she looks back and attributes her success to early traction from that MVP – the product with a few carefully-selected features that solved a white-hot pain point for early adopters.
If you’ve been reading anything about Lean Startup in the past few years you probably assume that Lean practitioners are following a similar path. I know that was my expectation when I started.
MVP Reality: Never This Straightforward or Easy
Unfortunately I’ve never seen an MVP like this. I’ve followed Lean Startup practices as diligently as anyone and my MVPs haven’t worked anything like this.
If you’re planning on building an MVP you’re probably struggling with one or more of the following:
- How do I know when I’ve talked to enough people to start building?
- I get inconsistent, confusing feedback. How do I know what to build first?
- Neither potential customers – nor I – know whether they’ll use it until they have it. How do we talk about pricing before that point?
Sound familiar? If so, don’t worry – I have these same questions with every new product. So do the hundreds of entrepreneurs I’ve helped in the past few years.
Unfortunately the real world isn’t as simple as this Myth of the MVP caricature I describe above. In the real world people selectively listen in conversations, give us inconsistent feedback, change their minds, and think about problems differently. Products are difficult to scope and hard to build.
If a few weeks of conversations were enough to identify a market need someone would have already solved it.
Don’t Worry About These Details – Remember the Big Idea
When you find yourself struggling with these type of questions take a step back and take some advice that Steve Blank gave me1:
Don’t fall in love with my process – fall in love with the Big Idea
–Steve Blank, Beijing 2013
What’s the Big Idea? Startups are about discovery: searching for a scalable model, not executing on an idea. So let’s talk about how your MVP will actually work.
Reality – What to Expect from Your MVP
Here’s the reality: your MVP – as a product – is going to suck.
No matter how well you know your market, neither you or nor you potential customers really understand what is needed until both of you have months and years working together. It takes…time.
You can sit back and build a product for 2 years before putting it into the hands of customers. You map out everything beautifully, have a great UI, complete test suite, documentation, etc. And your product will…suck. Or you can get something basic in the hands of potential customers ASAP and it will…suck.
So stop worrying if you don’t have the MVP as a “product” figured out. The point isn’t the FEATURES or QUALITY of the MVP – the point is that getting an MVP in the hands of earlyvangelists is part of the DISCOVERY process.
That’s it, the one point of this post. Your MVP isn’t about the Product, it’s about what you discover when you get people using it.
Discover Your Business with the MVP
Most of what is written about MVPs concerns continuing the Customer Development process – learning the details about customer problems and how to solve them. What features matter, what don’t, what they will pay for, and how to sell.
People ask for things during Customer Development they will never use. They assume you’ll include things they never mentioned. They promise to pay…then don’t. The only way to know is to get them using something.
Discover Your Customers with the MVP
Something interesting happens when you go from talking about a problem to solving it: some of the most passionate people you meet in interviews never even try the product – never download the app, never complete the website registration. You’ll be shocked by their apathy and wonder what you did wrong. Turns out it isn’t you – it’s them. Some people like talking about problems but don’t do much about them when presented a solution, especially an imperfect one.
And you’ll find apathetic – and even very negative – people who become your most passionate customers when they start using a product.
I’ve recently experienced all of these situations with SoHelpful. It turns out there was a bigger pattern at work that I didn’t understand until I gave people something to try. Talking alone didn’t get me there.
Discover Your Commitment with the MVP
No, I don’t mean that YOU will discover your commitment – I’m quite sure you’re committed to your startup (at least for now). I mean that CUSTOMERS will discover your commitment.
I can’t tell you how many times I’ve recently heard from people, “wow, I’m surprised to see you actually built a product with SoHelpful.” This didn’t happen 10 (or even 5) years ago. Turns out that tons of people are talking about entrepreneurship today – talking and not doing.
Prove that you’re different. Let Customers discover your commitment to them and their problems by taking action. Build them an MVP – and when they’re disappointed, keep making it better.
Discover Your Passion with the MVP
Finally – and I would argue most importantly – building an MVP will help you discover about you. Do you really want to spend the next 5-10 years working on this problem? For these people?
You won’t really know the answer until you get a couple of nasty emails and some negative feedback – and you won’t get these until you’ve frustrated someone who tried to use your MVP.
I found this out when I tried building a startup in the automotive industry – turns out that I don’t really like cars or working for car dealers. But neither customers nor I knew this until I gave them a product to test. Fortunately for both of us we found out early.
So Take the Pressure Off of Your MVP
If you find yourself getting into debates about “what is and isn’t an MVP”, take a pause and remember the Big Idea: startups are about search and discovery, not executing an idea.
You’re not going to discover the truth by talking – you’ll find it by doing. So stop worrying about the ideal set of product features and make your best guess with the information you have and get an MVP – however you define it – in the hands of customers. It’s the only way to keep the Discovery process going.
I’m Here to Help if You – Yes You – Need It
I know, trying to make sense of all of this can be maddening – especially if you don’t live in an active startup community. If you find yourself frustrated, just grab some time with me and we can chat about your situation over Skype.
I promise you that I’ve helped others dealing with similar problems.
About the Photo
I decided to look for a photo about space for this post and found this awesome one by Skiwalker79. Space makes me think about Discovery better than anything else.
- If you’re not familiar with Steve’s work, he introduced the concept of the MVP in 4 Steps to the Epiphany ↩