The Happy Startup School Guide to MVPs

Getting your idea off the ground sooner!


There are a lot of opinions about what minimal viable products (MVPs) are and to contribute to the confusion :-P I’ve put together my guide to what they really are…

Assume nothing. That should be the phrase to live by for any startup. Unless you’re happy to base your business on a leap of faith, then you need to do some basic homework before ploughing forward..

No plan survives first contact with customers” Steve Blank

Your idea may sound great in your head and I’m sure your mother thinks it’s amazing. Hell, even your best friends are probably all telling you it’s a surefire winner. You’ve planned everything out and know in your heart of hearts that it’s going to be the next big thing. However, until you test that idea with people who aren’t friends or family, you’ll never really be sure if it’s actually grounded in reality.

a startup is an organization formed to search for a repeatable and scalable business model” Steve Blank

By their nature all startup ideas are based on at least one risky assumption. Some may be valid, especially if you’re scratching your own itch. But many will be guesses based on your own personal view of the world. Furthermore you need to beware of the “unknown unknowns”. These are assumptions you haven’t even realised you’ve assumed yet.

So you’re either that happy-go-lucky type that will risk their hard earned savings on a wing and a prayer or you’re the more pragmatic type that will want to carry out some due diligence.

In the world of Lean Startup this is called building a Minimum Viable Product (MVP). There are various schools of thought about what an MVP really is but the two main definitions are:

  1. an experiment to test an assumption (experiment MVP)
  2. the smallest product that’s viable in the market (product MVP)

Let’s look into each of these in a bit more detail.

An experiment to test an assumption

This type of MVP is a stand alone activity to test a hypothesis. Leanophiles call them experiments. You’re trying to find the minimum amount of work you need to do to test whether your assumption is valid. An experiment is viable if it clearly answers your question and the product is increased knowledge about your customer and market. Activities that don’t provide any learning are not viable experiments.

The key is to identify your most risky assumptions. The ones that form the foundations of your business idea. If any of these are proved wrong then you’ll need to re-evaluate your entire venture and so you want to test these early. If you don’t you may find yourself spending time and money building something fundamentally flawed.

Crafting the correct MVP is all about formulating the correct hypotheses; asking the right questions and running the right experiments. Here are some examples of experiment MVPs:

The landing page

The most widely used experiment MVP out there is the pre-launch landing page. This is a simple one page website that sells the core idea behind your product/service and invites visitors to sign up to a mailing list to learn more (or become the first customers). One of the key benefits of this approach is that you will build up a list of people with whom you can discuss your product in more detail. It’s minimal because it doesn’t take much work. It’s viable because the number of signups will help validate whether your idea is worth building. And the learning you’ll get from engaging with these early adopters will be the valuable product. The founder of the Ghost blogging platform did just that, creating a mockup of his solution as an image and posting it as a single web page. He got hundreds of thousands of page views in the space of a few days.

The fake video

Sometimes words and pictures are not enough to really communicate the value of a product or service. So if building and then testing it will prove too expensive then why not just fake it. This can be done by creating a simple video presentation that demonstrates your solution and how it provides value. You can then communicate your vision more clearly and better gauge whether anyone buys into it. DropBox did just that before they launched. The video was simple but the response was overwhelmingly positive.

The paper prototype

Rather than spend too much time building a mobile app a great way to understand the relevance of the product is to create a fake one (made of paper). You’ll learn a lot about the context in which your app will be used as well as identify any usability problems when you share it with potential users. A picture can convey a thousand words and so this approach can also save you time trying to explain what your idea is. You can then go one step further and use Pop app to turn your sketches into an actual prototype that can be demoed on a phone or browser.

The dummy feature

This is an add-on MVP that would compliment an existing product MVP (see below) or landing page. It’s a bit sneaky but could save you a lot of time and effort. It takes the form of a button or service option on your site. The button doesn’t actually work but by measuring how many people use it will help you evaluate whether that service or feature is really needed.

The meetup

Talking to customers is an important aspect of building products/services of real value. So why not get them all in the same room? Running a Meet Up themed around the subject of your startup idea is a great way to validate your assumptions and discover new customer needs. Offer to run a workshop, host talks by key influencers or just provide a networking opportunity. You’ll learn lots; make new friends; form strategic partnerships and also have a chance to sign up initial customers. Whatever you do, make sure to provide free beer and pizza!

An important part of running experiments is defining what your success criteria are and measuring your results. You want to be able to objectively say where your assumptions are valid or whether you’re just deluding yourself.

The smallest product that’s viable in the market

Once you’ve individually validated your most risky assumptions you’re going want to test out the idea as a deliverable product. Building a product MVP is about really putting your idea to the test and gauging the appetite of the market. However, it isn’t just about getting customers, it’s still also about learning what customers really want.

While you may have a whole list of features to be included in your product the purpose of this approach is start off small. So as not to waste time and money you should launch your MVP with the least number of features/services while still providing real value to your customers. You’re trying to reduce the time and expense of getting something to market and so Minimum means you want to avoid over engineering the solution. However to make this product Viable a level of quality is required that will capture the imagination of your users and provide an experience they will remember (for good reasons!!!). You are delivering a real Product to real customers and they will soon tell you what does and doesn’t work. Examples of this type of MVP are:

The beta release

It feels like all web based software is released as a beta version these days. This is supposed to communicate to the customer that it isn’t a finished product. The value in this approach is that by releasing only the core functionality you limit the time spent building and refining. You then get your product into customers hands early and start collecting valuable feedback.

The pop-up shop/bar/restaurant

Betas aren’t just for digital products. Avoid spending money on expensive property leases and equipment. Find a venue, hire the equipment you need and pitch up your service where your customers hang out. You’ll learn so much about the logistics of running your business on a day to day basis as well as finding out what people value. Small Batch coffee started off as a micro roaster with rickshaw-type mobile coffee outlets. Once they had built up a following saw that there was a market for their own coffee shops they then got their first premises.

The concierge approach

Rather than automating your processes and spending money on complex IT why not just do everything manually to start with. Groupon started off as a Wordpress blog displaying offers everyday. If you think out of the box you could deliver your product with very little capital investment. It won’t be scalable but at least you won’t have wasted too much money if it doesn’t take off or you need to change things.

If you engage with early customers in the right way they’ll help you improve and enhance your offering. You’ll validate some assumptions, invalidate others and discover those “unknown unknowns”. You’ll be in a much better position to judge where to focus your efforts next. The product MVP is an essential stepping stone to building a scalable viable business that customers value.

So what’s the best MVP, experiment or product?

Both of course! You need to start with experiments, which should lead up to the launch of your product MVP. Remember, initially you’re trying to discover where the value in your idea lies before trying to deliver value in the form of a product. It’s all about being methodical, diligent and not leaving anything to chance.