Travis Pew

Web Developer & Entrepreneur

Determining the Right MVP

The Minimum Viable Product is a key strategy of the Lean Startup methodology, but many entrepreneurs struggle to implement the MVP in practice. The purpose behind the MVP is to maximize learning about the market with the least effort to avoid spending money and time building something that nobody actually wants. Discussion boards are filled with entrepreneurs battling it out over the best MVP because there is no simple formula: different products require different MVPs.

The Scientist Entrepreneur

To figure out what is necessary for your MVP, try thinking about your product as if you were a scientist. Think about what premises you hold about the market and your potential customers that you may not actually have solid evidence for. What hypotheses form the basis of your idea? What must be true for your product to be successful?

At the core of these hypotheses is usually a value proposition or “leap-of-faith” question. Your product solves a problem for some group of people or in some way provides them value. If we can do X, will people use us? How can you test that people actually have this problem and that you can solve it? If you have trouble answering this question, you’re going to have a hard time determining what MVP you should build. If your leap-of-faith question seems too convuluted and complicated – If we do A, B, C, D, E, F, and G, then people will use us – then you might be trying to do too much.

Some things can be tested first with basic MVPs, such as a simple signup page. Dropbox’s MVP was simply a video demo and beta waiting list signup page. But, an MVP is not always the smallest product possible and you eventually need a real product. Is there any way that a simpler product would appeal to a smaller group of people? Maybe most people won’t use your product without Super Amazing Complicated Feature, but you should be able to get a small group of people using it anyway. When Pinterest launched, it started with a small core community of users, who enjoyed using it even at its early stages. Instagram and Foursquare both used up their 100 person provisioning profiles before launch to test their MVPs.

In all of these cases, however, the companies were essentially testing a hypothesis. For Dropbox, the hypothesis was simpler: “People are interested in a product that seamlessly allows sharing files across multiple platforms.” They didn’t know yet if people would pay for it, but they at least knew people were excited about the concept. If your product plan will take six months to find out if people are even interested in your product, you’re probably not building an MVP.

Even apps that partially rely on having a large network to be fully valuable can often find a small group of users who will use the app early. If nobody is actually willing to use your app, be skeptical of the thought that you just need to find more users, that what’s needed is a big marketing push and launch. Zero active users multiplied by a thousand is still zero. Reddit didn’t have as much value before it got more popular, but some people liked it. Facebook is more useful now that you can connect with the whole world, but it still had value to users on isolated college campuses.

You should be skeptical of the thought that everything has to be polished before adoption by users. If your product really provides a value, some segment of users will be OK with bugs and an unpolished interface, even if you think your design or quality will be a differentiator. If you can’t find anyone who will use your unpolished product, ask why you really think a better design will change the value of your product. Maybe your hypothesis about the value of your product was wrong.

The biggest risk an entrepreneur faces is that you’ll make something that nobody wants. Repeat that and remember it. You need to know that what you’re building is actually wanted. Surveying your friends won’t tell you if this is true. To avoid making this mistake and avoid wasting your time, you need to test your assumptions early and fast. You need to ignore your feelings and examine your market objectively. An appropriately scaled MVP is the easiest way and has little downside. The costs of not doing so could be years of your life building something that nobody cares about.

Discuss this post on Hacker News

Yes, it's better to succeed than fail. So what?

Bruce Nussbaum wrote an interesting post arguing that entrepreneurs should stop fetishizing failure. While he brings up a number of interesting points, I feel that Bruce has missed a large part of the point of those who chant “Fail early, fail fast, fail often.”

Claim: You learn as much or more from success

Of course it’s better to succeed than fail, but Bruce seems to be taking success as a single separate event. I suspect that if you look at most big successes in the world, there is lots of failure involved. Did they really learn more from their success, or did their failures enable their success?

I don’t believe that the failure “fetishizers” intend to mean that failure is the end goal. The purpose is not failure, failure is the means. You should not be afraid to try things that might fail because if you think an action is the right action to take, you shouldn’t let the fear of failure get in your way. If you do fail, find out why the failure occurred and what was incorrect about your initial assumptions. Nobody holds all perfectly valid ideas in their minds and the only way to correct invalid premises is to learn that they are wrong. A failure is evidence of an error in our knowledge and the fastest way to invalidate an assumption can be to act on it and fail. Is the alternative not to act on our beliefs because we fear we may fail and therefore prove ourselves wrong?

Claim: Failure has consequences and feels bad

Of course failure has consequences, often negative ones. Is “failure” more serious for a kid in an “urban public school” than for a well-off kid attending Stanford? Probably (although the consequences of not taking a chance may also be more serious for that urban kid). This is part of what the “fail fast” crowd seeks to alleviate. All talented, smart kids will experience failure no matter how hard they try. Rather than labelling a person a “failure” for a couple instances of failure, we can tell them, “It’s OK, many successful people have failed, and you can use this failure to learn more.”

Failure does feel bad. Failing to achieve a value or goal feels bad practically by definition. But Bruce’s approach would seek to only reinforce that and punish risk takers. Instead of simply feeling bad because you didn’t achieve what you wanted, you can also celebrate what you’ve learned from the risk you took.

Fallacy of Failure

According to Bruce, the fallacy of failure is that failure is really only celebrated when you ultimately succeed. Aristotle said “we are what we repeatedly do,” so if we are always failing, don’t we become failures? But, Aristotle also believed that a person only found virtue through trial and error in the experiences of his own life. We have to have failures to improve ourselves and succeed. This alleged “fallacy” of failure is really just evidence that failure is not the intended purpose, but the necessary means to achieve sucess.

People who never risk failures are probably the people most commonly viewed as “Failures.” The rest of us are making mistakes and trying new things, sometimes with big consequences to ourselves. The best way to avoid becoming a “Failure” is to accept failures as a part of life and part of the path to success, and then to learn from our failures.

Redefining Failure?

At the end of his post, Bruce makes an interesting clarification about what he means. He argues for a “play” approach rather than a failure-focused one. There are different outcomes, different ways of winning, and when something doesn’t work, you try another. He says this is not failure, although the consequences to an “urban” kid who tries things that don’t work may be indistinguishable from the consequences to a kid who tries something and “fails” at it. Bruce asks, “Do kids who go to Montessori school think of themselves as Failures when their blocks don’t quite fit together?” The answer is no, because kids at Montessori school learn that little failures don’t make you a Failure.

Unlike traditional educational enviroments that emphasize achievement, performance, and results, the Montessori school of education believes in failure and mistakes. Children are not punished or reprimanded for failure, even failures as big as breaking classroom objects. Mistakes are necessary educational tools for children to develop in a Montessori classroom. Dr. Montessori is quoted as saying “it is well to cultivate a friendly feeling towards error, to treat it as a companion, inseparable from our lives, as something having a purpose, which it truly has.” In other words, as a Montessori educator puts it, “Nobody praises his achievement, but nobody needs to. The lessons learned from his mistakes, and his ensuing success, are his rewards.”

Yes, it’s better to succeed than fail, but to succeed, you’re going to have to fail along the way. Remove the possibility of failure and you most likely remove the possibility of success as well. Fail early (rather than later), fail fast (so that your failures are small and you learn from them quickly), and fail often (keep taking new chances and pushing yourself).

How to Find a Technical Co-Founder

Before I joined GetComparisons, I met with a large number of people looking for a technical co-founder to help them turn their idea into reality. I’ve kept in touch with some of them and some have asked me why I chose GetComparisons over their startup, or what they can do to better attract someone like me to their company or idea. There’s no one answer to this question, but I believe there are a few important things that a non-technical person can do to improve their chances.

Present a clear vision

This may seem obvious, but are you presenting a cogent idea to those you meet? Sure, your idea is going to change and be revised (a lot), but I need to know that you have something more than just a vague idea like a social network that combines chocolate reviews and dating.

I want you to be able to answer questions like “How do you envision feature X working?”, “What do you think should happen when users do this?”, and “How do you hope to acquire users and encourage them to partcipate?”. If you haven’t even thought of these, you haven’t really thought things through and you’re not convincing me of your value as an “idea guy”, let alone as a business-savvy partner.

Just because I may be in charge of product development, doesn’t mean you don’t need to have thought through the implementation of your idea, if it’s your idea that you want me to work on.

Prove your value

People with a more technical background can be skeptical of partners without coding or design skills. They may view things like sales, marketing, or networking as unpleasant, but not overly challenging. While this is absolutely not true – a good person with skills in any of these categories will probably make or break many startups – you need to convince me that you’re more than just a good socializer.

You need to do things that I can’t or don’t want to do. “Idea guy” is not enough. You think I don’t have ideas? I’ve got a few full notebooks that say otherwise. What I will need you to do is get us interviews and press, talk to investors, and make good connections, among other things. If you can’t pitch compellingly to me, you won’t be able to pitch investors. Both execution and ideas are important, but if you can’t help me build the site, tell me how you’re going to help build the company.

What if you still can’t find anyone?

That’s the situation my co-founder Akshay, found himself in with GetComparisons (known as Mokabla at the time). So he just started the company anyways, hiring a designer and an Indian developer. By the time I met Akshay, he had already created a prototype that was in Beta and started getting some traction. This was of course far more appealing to me: a real vision, some evidence that the idea was valid, and most importantly evidence that Akshay knew how to execute.

So, go for it. You believe in your idea, don’t you? Outsource while keeping your day job. Or, spend a couple months learning to program a little. No, you won’t create something perfect, but at least you’ll have a prototype to show that will communicate your vision and show that you are committed to it.