Before we get into the cheap ways of building an MVP, I think it makes sense to talk about what is an MVP and why a startup like yours needs an MVP in the first place. I think it is probably best also to say what is not an MVP. If you are someone who knows all of this and are just looking at ways in which you can build an MVP then skip ahead to the section “Cheap ways to build or make an MVP”.
What is an MVP?
For those who have not been hit by the Lean Startup advice, MVP stands for Minimum Viable Product. Eric Ries, the author of “Lean Startup” book, defined an MVP as that version of a new product which allows a team to collect the maximum amount of validated learning about customers with the least effort. The point to stress upon here is that of “least effort”. This also translates into “quick” and “cheap” in my mind.
Why do you need an MVP?
So you have a brilliant idea. Right? How do you now go about validating whether your set of target customer (s) would want your product or service? This is where you need to get to work on your MVP. I should clarify here that you don’t necessarily always “build” an MVP. I will elaborate this in a subsequent section.
Now why does a startup like yours need an MVP in the first place? The shiny new idea that you are working on would have customers adopting with a chance of it becoming a “hit” only when certain underlying assumptions become true. Lets take some popular companies in the recent times and look at some of the assumptions they made:
- AirBnB : AirBnB made a very big assumption that home owners would open up their house to complete strangers to earn some money.
- Dropbox : Dropbox made an assumption that users would be comfortable uploading their personal files from their computer on the cloud.
- Zappos.com : Zappos made the assumption that people would be willing to buy shoes online. This is a big assumption that they made as people usually would prefer to wear the shoes, touch and feel the shoes before buying.
Your startup idea also would be having some underlying assumptions that need to be validated first. A simple way to look at these assumptions is to look at what “questions” your customers would have that need to be answered before they take their purse out to pay for your service or product.
How do you know that the customers are comfortable with the assumptions that you are making and have their questions and apprehensions answered? How do you even know for certain that you have identified all the assumptions and questions? This is where an MVP really comes in. An MVP lets you take your idea to your target customers and lets you validate your assumptions, lets you get customer feedback and lets you understand the apprehensions that your customers have. An MVP also lets you really validate whether you have identified the right target customer for your product and service.
Some examples of MVP
Now I would like to elaborate on what would constitute an MVP? Going back to the definition and the objective of making an MVP, we need something that is cheap, quick, least effort and gives us the maximum learning. The other point that I want to clarify that you don’t have to necessarily always “build” an MVP. You can easily put together an MVP too with things that are already available in the market. Lets take some examples of MVPs built by companies to validate their idea.
- AirBnB : AirBnB just put together a simple website and targeted a very narrow target audience to get their idea validated. The website did not have options to select multiple dates, locations or prices. They just targeted one demographic: tech conference attendees at a single sold-out conference. You can read more about AirBnB’s MVP here.
- DropBox : The founding team of Dropbox just put together a 3 minute video that walked a customer through the concept of cloud based file storage and how the product would look like. This is all that was needed for them to get 75,000 customers interested without even writing a single line of code. At GoFloaters I had to create a simple product video for our launch in a new city. I neither had a lot of time nor the budget to outsource the work. Biteable video maker tool is what I used to create a quick 1 min video for the launch event.
2. Zappos.com : Nick Swinmurn, the co-founder of Zappos just put together a simple website with pictures of shoes from shoe stores near his house. When an order would come from a customer, Nick would run to the store, buy the shoes at full price and ship it to his customers.
As you can see from the three examples above, each of the companies adopted an MVP strategy to validate the assumptions that they had made before they made bigger investments. The other point to highlight is that DropBox did not build any piece of software even though their idea was a technology based idea! This is why a MVP need not be built. It can be put together with things that are available.
Another example to quote here is that of GoFloaters. I agree that we are not in the same league as the giants mentioned above but it is a good example and is worth sharing. GoFloaters made a big assumption that startups and freelancers would be comfortable working at cafes and would be willing to pay for the space usage. We needed a simple MVP to validate this and get customer feedback. With the inputs of my mentor Mr Sukumar Rajagopal, we decided to launch our service on WhatsApp. We built a simple website and put our WhatsApp number out there and asked users to send their space requirements to us. We would then respond back to them with locations and pictures of the place. If they liked it and wanted to book, then we would send them a InstaMojo payment link. We ran this MVP for about 2 months to validate our assumptions, perform pricing experiments and to gain customer feedback.
Each iteration of your MVP has to add some value and it should allow you to get customer validations and feedback. This image below illustrates how you should approach building / making your MVP and how you should not think about it.
Cheap ways to build or make an MVP
In my prior corporate avatar, I was running an innovation lab at a large MNC. Our job was to re-imagine the future of insurance at this innovation lab, take it customers, get their feedback an explore possibilities of doing a pilot. We tried various ways to build out MVPs. What I am sharing below are some of the “cheap” ways in which we have put together simple MVPs and what I have seen other startups do.
- Simple sketches : Simple sketches will do sometimes. Just bring your team together, brainstorm on the idea, visually represent the idea as sketches and take it to the market to get feedback. Don’t worry if you are straight lines are not straight or your sketch of shopping cart does not look like a cart. The beauty of a simple sketch is that customers and even your friends dont hesitate to provide feedback as they know that you are showing them something that is in its raw form and that you have not invested too much time and that you wouldn’t feel bad if they gave you feedback.
- MS Powerpoint (or better even KeyNote) : This idea could be an extension of the previous idea. You can take the sketches that you have drawn and put them into a slide deck. You can create your screens using Powerpoint and Keynote templates for web and mobile and create a mock of your application. Powerpoint and Keynote also give you the ability to create hotspots that on tapping which you can take the user to another slide. The best thing about Keynote is that you can export the presentation as a clickable HTML files. The links work too! This essentially means that you have a clickable prototype MVP ready with just Keynote.
- Videos : Videos are another simple and cost effective way to show your idea to someone else visually and get their feedback. Hey this is what Dropbox did and it worked for them. It may work for you too. MS Powerpoint and Keynote decks can be saved as video files. This is the cheapest way to create a video. This is how we created GoFloaters’ first explainer video. You can also use free version of tools like Powtoon and Vyond to create videos of various kinds. Yes there is a small learning curve but it still would need less time and money than what you would need to put together an app.
- MVP ideas for eCommerce startups : Like Zappos if you want to test if your customer would buy “X” online then you certainly need to go a little bit further from sketches and videos possibly. Before you put in lot of money on your slick mobile app or build an ecommerce site with the latest and greatest of technology, you can do this first. Use services like Shopify, Woocommerce or Magento to set up your first version of ecommerce site first. You can also look at website builders like Wix or Squarespace that also provide you with ecommerce plugins. For a hackathon that I was part of, we used Shopify to build an ecommerce site for selling customized headphones for audiophiles. You may think that these options often limit you when you want to do many features. Well, that is true but you dont need all the bells and whistles to be in place to know whether your customer would buy “X” online. You can set up an ecommerce site using some of the services mentioned above very quickly. If you are not a techie then these services are a blessing.
- MVP ideas for service startups : If you want to test out your service startup idea, then you could potentially go the GoFloaters route. You don’t need to build an ecommerce site even. Just give the customers a channel through which they can request the service you are offering. This channel could be email, WhatsApp, Facebook Messenger, Facebook Page or even a simple telephone number. If enough customers request your service and are ready to pay for it, then you can built a slightly more sophisticated MVP using Wordpress or Wix or Squarespace.
One question may be bothering you at this time. Let me try and preempt it. Are you thinking how would a simple website with a WhatsApp number or how would be email based channel scale? The simple word of advice that I received from my mentor when I asked him this very same question was “In the early stages of your startup invest time and effort only on validating your assumptions and whether your idea is adding value”. He said “Only when you have crossed this stage should you think about value.” Think of it this way. You have two boats that you can travel in. The first boat is named “Value”. The second boat is named “Scale”. You cannot travel in both the boats at the same time. Can you?
If you just distill the approaches taken by many successful companies, you will get the core concept that you need to validate all of your assumptions, validate your idea and get customer feedback in the cheapest and simplest possible way. Only have you have completed this stage should you go about investing more money on your product or service.
There is much more to talk about this topic that I cant possibly do it one article. To read about what are the broad categories of MVP you can read this article. I would also strong encourage you to watch Three Minute Thursdays videos where my mentor Mr Sukumar has talked about Learn Startup.
If you have taken an interesting approach for your MVP, kindly share that as a comment to this post. It would be helpful for others who come across this article.