If you’re a product manager or part of a startup, you’ve likely heard about the Minimum Viable Product concept for getting products to market faster.
In my opinion, the definition of an MVP is often misunderstood, and I’ve seen entrepreneurs and product teams misinterpret it with unfortunate results. Those that take the concept of “minimum” face value run the risk of releasing a thin set of features that may get their product to market quickly, yet deliver a poor customer experience and ultimately fail.
After defining and launching several MVPs over the years, I want to explore what an MVP is to me. And what it’s not.
What is the Minimum Viable Product?
First, a shout out to Frank Robinson, a fellow product development pro in Santa Barbara who coined the term “MVP” about 20 years ago. For him, the MVP is more than a process or grouping of features. It’s a mindset: “Think big enough that the first product is a sound launching pad for it and its next generation and the roadmap that follows, but not so small that you leave room for a competitor to get the jump on you,” he says.
Sure, it’s certainly a way of reducing the scope of a product to get it into the hands of customers faster. But the MVP also must be a set of features that provides customer value and customer delight. You need enough customer value/delight that it stands out from alternative solutions. And enough value that a customer is willing to pay for it (or use it).
Brown Cow, Purple Hat
Seth Godin had the concept of a “purple cow,” a metaphor for creating products that are remarkable. You might see brown cows frequently. But if you saw a purple cow, well, that’s something remarkable.
For an MVP, however, I think of it a bit differently. You might need to create a brown cow to get to market. That’s the minimum for your product to be taken seriously as a cow. And you don’t have the resources to release a fully purple cow. And besides, maybe you have it wrong and the market actually needs a red cow. So you build your brown cow and put a purple hat on it. That’s the MVP.
I believe that “perfect is the enemy of good.” Your product needs to solve a real problem, and you can often do that with 80% of the features you believe provide value. In my experience, you never want to shoot for 100% of the features, because getting to 100% presumes you know the right thing to build in the first place (you don’t).
A great example of this mindset was when I was part of a team that launched the online meeting software GoToMeeting. Our team concluded that we could get our MVP to market with half the features. Yet that wasn’t enough to have a product that stood out from a vast field of online meeting competitors. Through our customer discovery interviews we learned that we could differentiate GoToMeeting with several innovative “features.” First, we made the product easiest to start and use online meeting product on the market. We also introduced what was at the time an innovative all-you-can-use monthly subscription model – something that disrupted the market.
For more history on the background of the MVP, refer to our ProductPlan page on Minimum Viable Product (MVP).
Getting to the MVP
Now that we’ve talked a bit about what the MVP is (and isn’t), how do you get there?
The beginning of the MVP starts with customer discovery—the process of deep learning about customer problems. You are then defining a core set of issues that you want to solve.
Delighter features don’t need to be major. They can be small, sometimes UI features that make a difference in the customer’s experience.
In the case of ProductPlan, one of our early delighters was our visual drag-and-drop interface for building a roadmap. We spent a lot of time and engineering resources, making that 3-second experience of dragging an item onto the roadmap into delight. Ultimately, we created delight through our overall ease-of-use, creating and sharing a roadmap within minutes.
If you cut features back to only the “must-haves,” you have a recipe for a weak product that doesn’t succeed.
The Minimum Sellable Product
After you identify a problem to solve and a problem that’s high enough on someone’s priority list, you’ll also need to validate what I call the “minimum sellable product.”
The product you are selling needs to be a combination of the following:
- Its core features solve at least one problem well and get you in the game competitively.
- There are one or more exciting features that solve a problem uniquely: customers didn’t know they wanted, and differentiates you from the competition.
The path to discovering the right MVP starts whether you can test-sell your concept to potential buyers. You can increase your confidence of success if you can clearly define a buyer’s problem and ascertain their likelihood of buying.
I’ve written in the past about conducting test interviews, so I won’t rehash it here. Briefly, I recommend you talk with at least twenty people who fit your target persona. You’ll probably get a few false-positive sales, where someone says, “that’s great; I’d buy it,” when, in the end, they won’t.
But this is all okay because you’re learning about the MVP. If you can get a handful of people to agree in theory to buy your solution, you’re on to something. This verdict shouldn’t take over 20 interviews before you know if you’re on the right track.
Through launching several SaaS products I’ve learned that the MVP is not simply delivering half of the expected features. It will fall flat. It needs to be functional and create delight. When you have this combination, launch as soon as you can, and begin rapidly iterating, you dramatically increase your odds of creating a product that is heads above the competition.
If you liked this article about launching products, read my book about Getting to Product-Market Fit Faster, Lessons for Product Managers.
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