So, for the uninitiated, we’ll start at the start. MVP is the acronym for Minimum Viable Product. And it’s pretty much what it say’s on the tin. Creating a product in it’s smallest, feature lean form and that still demonstrates the core of what the product is. Tech companies have done this for years with Twitter, Facebook and Amazon being some of the prime examples of products that were pretty lean in features initially, but then grew over time.
Building an MVP often means creating a product with the minimum amount of time, effort, money, development and features. The reason many companies and startups choose to use this method of building a product is simple. You spend as little time and effort as possible to create something you can then give to users. And if they don’t like it, they can tell you. If they do like it, they’ll still tell you. Either way, you learn or gain something and the downside is fairly minimal. It’s especially prevalent in the startup area for these very reasons. Startups usually want to prove that their idea or product works for the market and they don’t have a huge amount of time nor money to make this happen so building an MVP is a useful method.
However, although there are many positives to using the MVP method to build a product there are also several things that are overlooked or under-appreciated. It’s the following things that can lead to the failure of an MVP which can in some cases be the downfall of an entire startup…
- Market & Consumer Research
- Planning Issues
- Clear Feedback Loop
- User Engagement
Market & Consumer Research
Anyone can have a great idea but understanding how that idea fits with the market and validating that idea against your target market is critical. It’s part of why the MVP method can be so effective because you’re giving your product to your target market early on. BUT, insufficient research before building your product can lead to it becoming a non-starter.
Sometimes people get caught up in their idea and, without realising it, build the product within an echo chamber. It’s something I’ve seen at large firms and small startups alike. Having the Market and Consumer research done effectively and readily available is often a great resource to refer back to when planning the CORE features of the product. This is because it is a continuous method of validating that the product you’re building will be useful for the consumers and fits within the trends of the market.
If, for example, I have a great idea for a new car but don’t do my market or consumer research what I might find is that I build a car in a market where there is less appetite for vehicles on the whole and where the consumers who do buy them mostly prefer electric low emission vehicles. By that point, I might have already built a diesel car that no-one wants to buy. As cool as I think the car looks, it’s a product that just isn’t needed or wanted.
And this is why getting market and consumer research right is key.
The next step outlines the first part of the above: Prove that you are the cardholder
Key Players: Merchants and companies with payment facilities
That’s a quote famously attributed to Benjamin Franklin who was considered to be quite a clever fellow. And while it easy to use that phrase in most aspects of life, it’s particularly relevant when trying to deliver an MVP.
The reason it’s key is, as mentioned before, the MVP method is time, resource and money sensitive. And getting planning wrong often leads to time, resources and money becoming a lot more volatile and unpredictable the longer the project takes to complete. So getting your planing right before you start the MVP and even before you do your market and consumer research is important.
Not only does it give a level of structure to the MVP but it also gives more clarity as to how long each part of the product build will take, how many resources will be needed and therefore how much money it will take. And for anyone not aware cash flow burn is one of the main reasons startups fail!
A core part of the planning process is prioritisation. And this goes hand in hand with the customer and market research as to prioritise features you need to know what the customer wants and the market is dictating and weigh this all up with your expert knowledge. This SWOT style table is a great way to sort out the wood from the trees.
One of the great perceived benefits of the MVP method is the fact that you get direct feedback on the product. However, this is only relevant IF you know what to measure and HOW to measure it.
Sometimes people think building an MVP is the silver bullet to creating their product when in reality it takes a lot of work. And as mentioned before, planning is key. And this includes getting the right insights into the MVP which starts at the planning phase. The ‘BUILD -> MEASURE -> LEARN’ feedback loop is a fundamental principle Eric Reis’s Lean Startup methodology, but also core to the success of an MVP build. Knowing how to build is important but so is knowing what to measure and how to learn from this feedback to improve the product. And so starts the feedback loop…
A fundamental mistake people make during MVP is getting the product ‘built’, giving it to users and simply asking ‘What do you think?’. The reality is that users rarely give valuable feedback using this method as the question is too open and potentially stifles honesty. A more effective way of creating an efficient feedback loop is to build tracking features into the MVP from the get-go to see which features are being used, how often, at what times of the day and in which order do buttons get pressed. This builds a profile of the user and their journey which can then lead to more informed and useful questions.
For example, if after analysing data from the product and its clear that around 80% of users don’t use a specific feature, a good and measurable multiple-choice question to ask would be ‘Out of the following options, which one closely matches the reason you didn’t use feature X?’. It’s sent to the users who are affected, so directly relevant, and you give the user options to pick rather than open text entry which can often deter users from providing feedback. As long as the multiple-choice answers are written clearly, insights can be learned from the feedback, built into the next version of the product and then given back to users. This is an efficient and effective feedback loop.
This one sounds obvious and yet is still overlooked. And it’s mostly because user engagement doesn’t mean telling users that the product is available to use. It’s about:
-> Keeping the user in the loop at every step of the way
-> Telling them what the product will be
-> What kind of features to expect
-> Letting them know how their feedback will be used
-> Giving them relevant content to learn about the subject matter
…And many, many more…
Often in product builds, user engagement is an afterthought and only seriously considered towards the end of the build. However, by this point, it could already be too late. If involvement is left to this late stage it can be difficult to build a great community of users because it’s overwhelming for the user to understand what the organisation is doing, what their values are, what has led them to build a product and what the product does. All these things need to be slowly built up throughout the build and user engagement should start when the build starts. Or ideally, before!
It’s an ongoing process about building trust with your user base so that you give them a product they need and love and they give you the feedback & insights to continually improve the product.
So the biggest mistake made here is that users are treated more like a resource than part of the community. And not getting user engagement right can be catastrophic when it comes to building a product because, in essence, you’re giving the product to a group of people who simply don’t care about or don’t understand what you’re doing.
NOTE: Revolut and Monzo did a great job of this when starting out and in fact it’s what created a huge buzz around their products.
Resourcing is usually a difficult thing to manage when dealing with any type of project but it’s even more of a balancing act when building an MVP. It can be very easy to get the resourcing balance wrong. Too many bad or too few of the right resources can prove to be the undoing of your product. And when money & time is sensitive, efficient resourcing can be the one thing that can push your product in the right direction.
So what does a usual resourcing profile look like for a product development cycle?
Most product development teams consist of at least a Developer, Tester, Business Analyst/Product Manager and Product Designer. And most teams tend to have more Developers and Testers than Business Analysts or Product Strategists. The reason for that is more developers is usually perceived as getting the product built quicker. But it’s counterintuitive. Having more developers alone doesn’t get the product built more quickly and in many cases leads to the product being built more slowly. Mainly because having many developers often means that either the developers become bored and frustrated at the lack of work OR that developers are not all working on features that are directly related to the business objectives of the MVP.
The balance is rarely right because often teams overcompensate the lack of Product Strategists and Business Analysts in the team with developers who can often cost less. The other problem with this is that even when developers have the correct amount of work, because of the lack of strategists and analysts, the requirements for features are not well defined and often lead to frustrated and overworked developers.
All of these scenarios are undesirable because they can all contribute to one thing. A failed MVP.
A better way of building the team for your MVP is to start very much like the MVP itself. Small and Lean. Start with 1 or 2 developers, 1 Product Strategist/Owner/BA and a Product Designer. As the product progresses and you have more requirements than output, add another developer. For every 3 or 4 developers, the team should add an extra Product Owner/BA to ensure that the requirements are well defined and developers can get on with what they are good at. Adding more strategists also helps when delegating work to a growing team which is critical when growing the product and the team, as it keeps both efficient and effective.
Keeping these 5 tricky but critical areas in mind will keep you in good stead when building an MVP but there might still be question marks about whether the MVP method works. Well if you needed proof, the following section should be all the evidence you need.
Some famous MVPs that made it big…
You may have heard of it. Odds are, you’ve got an account even though you might not be using it that actively anymore. If you’ve seen the movie dramatisation The Social Network (and it’s a dramatisation based on a book, not fully endorsed by the people involved) you would have seen Zucks bashing away on his keyboard creating Facebook from his dorm room. That part is true. The other significant truth is that ‘The Facebook’ started as a social networking platform for students of Harvard and the origin of the idea was from Facesmash. This was the first site developed by the core Facebook founders which asked students to view side by side pictures of students and then asked them to pick ‘the hot one’.
So the original product put out to users was an MVP, initially for Harvard students and just a single page showing some basic info on each student. It then grew to other Ivy League universities in the states, and slowly but surely grew to be the biggest social networking site on the planet.
The oldest of the famous MVPs. Amazon started as a simple website offering books at a reasonable price. As you can see from what the site looked like back in 1994, it was VERY VERY simple.
At that point, although Bezos knew he wanted to sell everything from A to Z from an online platform he knew he’d have to walk before he could run which is where the bookstore MVP comes in. He started to sell books to try and prove that an e-commerce site with lower overheads than a physical bookstore would work. The initial idea came after he saw that web commerce growth would be around 2,300%. He then shortlisted products that he could viably sell online and settled on Books. The site was a clean form of an MVP because he’s done his research into the market, the consumers, he had a short timeframe and plan for delivery and his scope was clear.
Twitter, or Twttr as it used to be called back in the day because dropping vowels was trendy, started as a simple idea in the mind of Jack Dorsey. Even though at the time he was working for a company called Odeo on a podcasting platform, he had an idea to create a platform that revolved around status. The idea was already formed in Jack’s mind but rose to prominence during a hackathon whilst working for Odeo. After initially coming up with the idea it was then backed by Odeo Noah Glass who saw Jack as “one of the stars of the company”.
The initial MVP of Twitter was a simple SMS platform that you use to send a text to a single number and would text broadcast this to a group of friends. And since that simple idea, it’s grown into a platform people use to tell the whole world what they are thinking.
Another popular platform that started with an MVP is Airbnb. Airbnb MVP has a ring to it. But it started as AirBed&Breakfast. The founders, Brian Chesky and Joe Gebbia started it after they were struggling to pay went in their San Francisco loft apartment and decided to set up a business. As accommodation was an issue for them, they decided to look into providing accommodation for new people coming to town. So they set up a website, took some pictures of their apartment and pitched the listing to people coming to town for a design conference. Airbnb was born and grew organically from there…
Notable MVP Mentions
Uber – Initial MVP was to connect iPhone users to drivers in the area to get customers a cheap and quick taxi. Didn’t include live taxi tracking, fare splitting, surcharges, etc
Instagram – Started as Burbn. A foursquare style app where users would post their location along with a pic. The picture sharing function was so popular that the founders decided to strip the other features back and focus solely on that. In 2010, Instagram was born.
So, to summarise in a concise MVP way. Building an MVP not the silver bullet to all your problems. You need to do it right for it to be effective and that means planning and being on top of every area that counts. And if you’re not sure what those areas are you need to re-read this article and then do some more research. Or reach out to me!