How to successfully validate your idea with a Landing Page MVP

Anything can be your Minimum Viable Product, so long as you’re truly focused on validated learning

As many of you will know, I’ve long been an advocate and practitioner of the lean startup methodology. I was a very early reader of Eric Ries’ blog and I even started speaking to spread the word early (shamefully before I had truly had success with the concepts). My journey with lean startup ideas has lasted almost 5 years now, and luckily with Buffer I have hit some real success. We’re now 16 people and do $2.5m in annual revenue, and it all started with a tiny Minimum Viable Product.

Masroor Ahmed recently brought my attention to a post entitled A Landing Page Is NOT A Minimum Viable Product by Ramli John, and asked for my thoughts. Thanks for asking me to chime in, Masroor.

Ramli is a fellow mentor at Lean Startup Machine and so I highly respect his thoughts here, and in fact I do believe the article is spot on in most cases. Often a landing page is a failed attempt to truly validate an idea. I have in fact written myself about why landing pages are often a bad way to validate an idea.

Here’s an excerpt from Ramli’s article describing a common set of steps new founders go through in order to try and use a landing page to validate and get an idea off the ground:

Step 1: Think of an awesome idea
Step 2: Create a sexy MVP landing page. Make sure all the pixels are in place, and all the t’s are crossed and i’s are dotted.
Step 3: Get a billion sign ups before the product is built.
Step 4: Build the product
Step 5: Make a bazzilion dollars.

The thing is, MVPs are all about (and only about) validated learning. What Ramli is describing is what I often see — a misconception and an incorrect interpretation of MVP. What is being created in these steps is a coming soon page to gather emails, with no focus on validation. Ramli also suggests you won’t get any responses to emails:

You can email them. Good luck trying to get a response.

When I created my landing page for Buffer, the focus was 100% on validated learning. I had lost 1.5 years of my life to not validating ideas before building them. I used the landing page as an initial validation of whether they would go through a long sign up process for the product I pitched on the first page. As soon as they went through that and gave me their email, I immediately sent a very personal email to the user, and often had back and forth conversation about the problem. I sometimes even had a Skype call after a few emails.

I didn’t get “a billion signups”, in fact in a long 7 week period I only got 120 signups. But I spoke with a lot of those people during that time, and 50 of them started using the product when I launched after that 7 week period. 1 started paying for Buffer 3 days after we launched. Then a few weeks later, another person started paying. Since then we’ve continued to grow. The landing page — and more importantly the conversations resulting from people signing up through it — proved to be great validation.

I wasn’t optimizing for the number of signups I could get with this landing page, I was instead trying to learn as much as I possibly could.

Ramli is correct though, many do assume that a landing page is a great way to start:

There’s a misconception that landing pages are minimum viable products and a sure path to a bazzilion-dollar valuation.

The truth is, it’s easy to fall into this trap. You throw up a landing page and ask for emails right on that first page. As soon as you do that you’ve lost an opportunity for validation. Ask them to click a sign up button at least before giving you their email and you’re doing a little better. Ask them to click a “pricing plans” button, choose a plan and then give their email and you’re actually getting some validated learning. Follow it up with a conversation and you might learn why they gave you their email and whether they truly have the problem you’re solving for.

But when you see the landing page as a way to get a billion signups and keep hold of them like prized treasure, then you’re approaching it wrong. You’re not learning much at all.

As I said in my article on why coming soon pages go wrong — ask yourself what you want to achieve with your landing page. Do you want a billion signups, or do you want validated learning?

Once you approach your landing page through the lens of it being a tool for validated learning (through the actions users take, and conversations you have), it can be very powerful.