Case Study: A Failed MVP

How not to build a minimum viable product

Marc Gayle
Apr 2, 2014 · 6 min read

The beauty about building an MVP, is that you get the opportunity to discover the weaknesses in your business case/product as quickly as possible.


I built CompVersions a few years ago, to solve a problem I had at a previous job.

Problem: Showing/viewing multiple comps of a design and getting/giving quick feedback was a pain. You had to battle with FTP servers or multiple Dropbox links. It gets worse when you need feedback from multiple stakeholders.

Solution: A web app that allows you to upload multiple images and then allows the people invited to give it a quick thumbs up/down and leave a comment.

TL;DR: At the time, the set of designers that I knew how to reach not only didn’t have this problem but explicitly didn’t want to have it — i.e. they didn’t want their clients to ask for multiple comps for a design. That’s the exact problem they DID NOT want. Turns out that reaching a small subset of designers that have a particular problem in an industry I am no longer in — is quite challenging to be done remotely.

So now when I build Minimum Viable Products for clients, I encourage them not to make the same mistakes I did by focusing on polishing the UI and all the ‘nice’ stuff — but to focus on the stuff that matter (customers, how to get to them, and how to solve their problem). At the end of the day, in my experience, if your app rarely doesn’t succeeed because you had the uglier UI. It is, generally speaking, because you didn’t find the true value of the problem you are solving.

The Process

CompVersions was the first web app I built from soup-to-nuts. Every part of it I built. I worked with a designer to craft every element of the interface and experience. Then took the comps and built the front-end (HTML, CSS, JS), then did the back-end (Rails). It was a very illuminating process, I honed my skills as a web developer on this project. So from that perspective it was a great learning process. I learned how to be a product manager, UI designer, front-end & back-end developer. I also learned how to do things as cheaply and quickly as I can — i.e. the exact skillset that all startups/resource-constrained-environments need to thrive.

I had built many web apps and sites before, but it was largely with either using off-the-shelf open source scripts or working with some other developers. This was the first project that I did everything myself. Boy was it equally parts satisfying and frustrating.

The Logo

I did all the things that entrepreneurs do and made the mistakes I constantly see first-time entrepreneurs making still. I spent a lot of time worrying about things that don’t matter to a fledgling product that wants to grow up to be a startup. Things like spending a lot of time designing a logo.

Notice the subliminal messaging of how the colored rectangles and squares represent images of various types and sizes, all overlaid to communicate that the user will be ‘comparing multiple versions’. Also notice how the CompVersions changes color, also indicating 2 versions of the copy. Clever huh? How epic this logo is going to be, in many years, when branding experts are doing case studies on the success story that was CompVersions. Delusions of grandeur abound in abundance.

I also spent a lot of time being very clever with the marketing site. For starters, I created a frikkin mascot. I mean….really? A mascot?!?! Yes a Mascot! Because MailChimp has one, and so do many others. It felt good. Mine was clever. His name is ‘Huey’, and he is a chameleon. The best part about Huey is that he is a transparent PNG, that takes the color of the background of the site. So as you scroll down he changes color. See it all coming together from a branding perspective? Huey, changes Hues as you scroll on the page — indicating that he has multiple ‘versions’. The cleverness never stops. Mark Zuckerberg watch out! Big Up to Adam Fairhead at Fairhead Creative for helping me with these ideas and actually building the HTML & CSS for the marketing page.

The UI

That is just the tip of the iceberg. The actual UI of the app itself, I spent so much more time on the UI. Andree Blixt is a Photoshop & UI genius. I just love his work, check him out for yourself. So I was blessed that he agreed to work with me on this.

These are what the initial set of comps looked like:

Each of those squares on the dashboard would turn from grey to colored when you hover over them. This dashboard is the on-boarding process of what the app looks like when you login for the first time. You have no comps done, no clients and no feedback.

As you add projects and clients, the dashboard gets filled out — but the general principle is the same. The layout of the UI is 4 panes, where you do most of your CRUD (Create, Read, Update, Destroy) actions.

Yeh….I thought so too….but at the end of the day….all of that didn’t matter.

Spent so much time working on so many aspects of the UI — I may actually do a series of posts that break down the UI and the decision-making process if this is something you guys are interested in. There is so much there, and so much to talk about…it may be a therapeutic exercise.

All-in-all, ultimately I learned what not achieving product/market fit feels like — so now when I look at other opportunities, I know what to avoid and what questions to ask immediately. Hindsight really is 20/20, so when someone brings an idea to me and they are fully focused on the UI and the way the app will function a lot of alarm bells go off in my head.

I can empathize with those founders that want to work on this stuff, because it provides immediate feedback. But it is a false sense of progress. Yes, you are making progress when you finally knock out the login page per the comp you meticulously designed…but when your cash runway is running out and time is against you…the last thing you can afford is to spend too much time on the login screen. Your #1 priority must be getting customers to pay attention or even in some cases to pay you. That’s not always a pre-requisite, because not all apps are appropriate for payment upfront.

If there is one thing you takeaway from this article…remember to focus on what matters. A pretty UI, for the most part, does NOT — when you are just starting out. Sure, it may help with engagement in the future — and even with conversions — but you have to solve the problem in a way that provides value for your customers that you know how to reach.

I can ask you the right questions and help keep you focused on the issues that matter.

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