There’s a lot of talk in the technology community about your Minimal Viable Product (MVP). Just like Product-Market Fit, I believe this is another innovation idiom that is over-used and often used incorrectly. There are so many useless and varied definitions about what an MVP is or should be. No wonder newcomers to digital product development are lost!
Let me clarify it for you: Your first version of the product (i.e. your prototype) should be the smallest group of features that can solve your most valuable problem (The Real MVP). This prototype should highlight your unique way of solving that problem.
The minimal viable product needs to demonstrate enough features so that you can do customer research and validation. Most entrepreneurs are very optimistic and sometimes overlook this very crucial step. You’re not going to do that.
A Better Definition for your MVP
From my Innovation Cycle Framework (which replaces Product-Market Fit), there are 3 distinct stages of your product roadmap. When you’re solution finding and iterating, the benchmarks you want to hit are:
- Value / Prototype
- Prototype / Pilot
- Pilot / Product
Your minimal viable product should line up with “Prototype.” Options for demonstrating your first prototype vary. If you’re a software developer, building your first prototype is easy and cheap. If you’re not a software developer, what are your options?
For nontechnical founders, you can do an offline prototype, manually providing a productized-service that mimics the eventual technology solution you will offer. Some people call this a concierge prototype.
Back in 2017, Alison of EndsAndStems.com wanted to tackle the issue of food waste. After a ton of customer discovery and validation, she realized she could help young families address food waste by making weekly meal plans that use up all of the food they buy.
She dreamed of a digital product that could alternate recipes in and out of plans while recalibrating the grocery shopping list. Her MVP, or her first prototype, had her creating meal plans in Google Docs. She shared them with 10 close alpha user customers to get feedback on the basics like recipe selection, directions, and the grocery shopping experience.
As you can see, Alison’s minimal viable product (i.e. prototype) demonstrated her unique value to customers in the cheapest way possible.
Once Alison was ready to launch these meal plans to a larger audience, she invested only in a $5K WordPress website. She iterated on the prototype by drawing and designing architecture-like plans (i.e. wireframes) that she could fully validate with customers (i.e. user testing) then handed off the designers to her developers.
Performing her own research and doing her own designs, Alison was able to keep her monetary investment low while proving out her business.
Read Alison’s recount in, Finding Product-Market Fit as a Non-Technical, Self-Funded Female Founder
But how can I get good feedback without developing the MVP in code?
I get this question all the time.
“To solve the [problem] I need to build the most technologically sophisticated [solution]. Don’t I need some proof that I can build this while I am looking for the fit?”
For your customers, the proof is not in whether you can build it or not, the proof is whether or not you can deliver value. After all, they are solving the problem some way right now, without your service.
- Can the customer derive value from your prototype?
- Do they enjoy deriving value from your prototype?
- Do they like the way your prototype approaches their problem?
By keeping your minimal viable product constrained to the cheapest way you can deliver value, you’ll protect yourself from the many common reasons startups fail.
With a prototype, you can:
- Solicit more useful and actionable feedback from the people you speak to.
- Refine your product features iteratively, quickly and affordably.
- Describe your product more effectively with your stakeholders, potential investors, and business partners.
- Build out your product roadmap based on real customer insights.
- Validate your business model and estimate the business opportunity.
- Detail the requirements to a development team in a way that minimizes costly changes in the future.
Thinking About Your Minimal Viable Product
Here are some questions you should consider:
- What are the minimal features needed to solve the problem?
- What features can we avoid building now while still creating the value we’ve promised?
- Will customers pay us to solve this problem this way?
With an early and cheap prototype, you can prove the market efficiently, effectively and without investing too much too soon.