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.