Your MVP is About Discovery – Not Product

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.

  1. If you’re not familiar with Steve’s work, he introduced the concept of the MVP in 4 Steps to the Epiphany

15 Comments

  1. neil patel July 14, 2013 at 7:51 am #

    Excellent post , When you are planning to do a startup, always have the big idea in mind & understand the crucial basics of discovery process will give you an edge

  2. Brent July 14, 2013 at 9:56 am #

    I think we discussed this when you were doing customer interviews, but this is spot on with one of the things I found when doing my last startup. As I think I told you (as I told everyone), the problem I found was this:

    Everyone told me this was a problem, but when push came to shove, not too many people acted on it because it was not a BURNING PROBLEM. My product required a day or three of implementation work by the company’s IT team and my product failed to address a top 3 problem for them. It was more like a top 20 problem. The result was that they were happy to dawdle. There was no sense of urgency.

    And that was when I knew that I had to change something.

    • kevindewalt July 14, 2013 at 5:04 pm #

      Yep. A great example of what you learn from doing that you can’t learn from talking.

  3. Thomas Pichon July 16, 2013 at 11:56 am #

    Nice post Kevin, as usual. From what I understood of some success stories, it’s exactly what the founders did. E.g.: AirBnB or Vayable, where they mostly learned by manually connecting travelers with locals. Paul Graham also highlights in his last essay a technic for B2B Startups, about “picking a single user and act as if they [the founders] were consultants building something just for that one user”.

    • kevindewalt July 16, 2013 at 5:55 pm #

      Good observation. I’ve also been recently thinking about how to do this in stages – start with 3 passionate users, then 30 paying subscribers, … etc. Still thinking through it.

  4. Ashley Bennett July 17, 2013 at 7:50 pm #

    I am actually working on this process myself and I am beginning to understand that it is not enough to just be aware of a problem. The problem that you should actually work on must be a major issue that people are actually willing to pay for.

    If you find that people are not receptive to that, then it is probably time that you move in a different direction and do some more research.

    • kevindewalt July 17, 2013 at 8:10 pm #

      “then it is probably time that you move in a different direction”

      Exactly. Also, I’ve found this to be the norm – 99% of the time our first ideas about problems are wrong. The key to success is sticking with it another 3-6 months to keep exploring other options. Discovery takes time.

  5. Mayer Seidman July 19, 2013 at 9:54 am #

    Your point about “discovering your passion with the MVP,” is terrific. As with anything, its only once you really dig in that you discover whether you are passionate enough to see it “through.”

    If you find that you aren’t passionate, the findings (desirability, willingness to pay for such value etc.) from your MVP wont suddenly create such feelings.

  6. Brynner Ferreira July 21, 2013 at 3:34 pm #

    Awesome article!!! But about SoHelpful: who guarantees that Cindy will talk about Eddie? I do not think so.

    “You’re not going to discover the truth by talking – you’ll find it by doing.” -> Perfect!

  7. To Cuong July 26, 2013 at 8:02 pm #

    do you have any ideas about startups in Viet Nam?
    I’m From Viet Nam and love startups so much. Your post make me think quite a lot, because I really love and be good at sales and marketing. About all of my business until this moment, I think I executed and can execute them pretty good thanks to my skills in sales and marketing.
    However, these project are nearly not related to technologies or Internet, websites, or designs… I want my next project is related to tech or Internet, because I like it and these areas in Viet Nam need risk-accepted young-pioneers… But I don’t know much about tech, I’m a business-administrative student at Foreign Trade University ( I’m only 20 years old), I have some problems in finding co-founders, or product-developing. I only know that I’m strong in Marketing, sales and be undertanding the trends of tech, the way a startup excucutes.

    I’ve found an idea that I love it, although some of my mentors always ask me ” what is your competitive-advantage? ” & ” where is your income in your web from? “.., These question sometime make me quite confused..

    I hope to receive your truthful and multidimensional advises. A young student like me has read, seen and received many advises from others, but I know their advises are only right for them, for their jobs, but NOT always right for my path. I always want to hear about multidimensional advises..

    Thank you so much! I hope to get in touch with you!

    • kevindewalt July 26, 2013 at 10:08 pm #

      “do you have any ideas about startups in Viet Nam?”

      Hey To,
      Actually I’ve not been to Vietnam (yet!) and haven’t had a SoHelpful call with anyone from Vietnam. So it would be great to meet you.

      As for your questions…you’re asking a lot that are pretty complicated, so it would be best if we picked one or two to discuss. Just find a slot on my schedule or if I’m not available you can see if one of my colleagues can help you.

      • To Cuong July 27, 2013 at 5:04 pm #

        thank you so much!

        • To Cuong July 28, 2013 at 10:19 pm #

          I used to meet 2 famous people working in IT to receive advise for my project. I think this maybe quite unfortunate with me! …

          Before I meet these people, I always thought that: to do sth, let’s try it, do anything to fail and I would find my own idea!!! I applied this thinking when i opened a web selling books. And I feel it’s so helpful.

          However, about my next project- a social network website, I didn’t know much about this online business model => I met 2 mentors, they always asked me a question: ” I want you to show me the marketing size & the income from your web- Is profit enough huge to execute ? And where you will get income ? Advertisement is suitably not good income with your project…. And so let’s find where’s your huge income from this project and what’s your models…. ” ===> This really make me very confused and can’t concentrate on the discovery to build product…

          Maybe these aren’t suitable mentors to me – a 20year-old student! I thank you so much for your post. I will execute immediately my web next week !

  8. nilsdavis April 21, 2014 at 7:35 pm #

    Kevin – I just (finally) took the Pragmatic Marketing Foundations course, and the first “box” of the 37 on the diagram is “Market Problem.” They spend a lot of time talking about finding a problem for which there’s a big enough market, that will pay. But they don’t talk at all about MVPs or prototypes. And it’s interesting that Lean mostly talks about “finding a repeatable business model,” but if you boil down the stories it’s about finding a problem that people will pay for a solution for. Bottom line, I think both sides have half the picture – you need to find and validate a market problem, but you can’t do that by talking to people, you need to show them something. And if you find a market problem, which enough people will pay to solve, then you find a business model to sell a solution to them. That is, the MVP is there to validate a market problem, not a business model. And if you formulate it like that, then the whole “P” part of the MVP becomes less important – it doesn’t have to be a “product” in the sense of working software – it’s the thing that lets you validate some part of the question of “is there a market problem that people will pay to get a solution for?”

  9. Nellie Bolea May 14, 2016 at 10:12 am #

    You give me hope !! thanks a ton !

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