The Bloated MVP Test
Most early-stage startups fall into the trap of making a bloated MVP which nets them zero users for their effort. Here’s a handy 10-question test to let you know if your startup is one of these rampant bloated MVPs. Just answer each question Yes or No:
- Hazy value prop?
- Zero active users?
- A whole product?
- Bundling multiple use cases?
- More than 3 person-months?
- Wishful-thinking features?
- Tedious user experience?
- Brand/UI/UX flourishes?
- Nonessential content?
See below for a detailed explanation of each question, and scroll to the bottom to see what your score means about your MVP.
1. Hazy value prop?
This question, which I call the Value Prop Story Test, is more subtle than it seems. In order to have a value prop, your idea must pass the Value Prop Story Test, which means:
- There’s a specific individual, who you can name, who has a certain need in their life that you’re filling
- There must not be another way for that individual to fill that same need equally well
- You must be able to give a plausible “day in the life” story about when and why that individual turns to your product or service for help, rather than doing literally anything else with that moment of their day
This is question is #1 on the list because in order to answer it, you don’t have to do any actual work. It’s a purely theoretical test.
Imagine you’re sitting on the couch having a beer when a startup idea comes to you. Your idea could pass or fail the Value Prop Story Test before ever getting any customers, before writing any code, before even finishing your beer and getting off your couch. It’s the most basic sanity check of the possibility that your idea could ever hope to work.
2. Zero active users?
The most common answer to this question is “yes, because we haven’t launched yet”. That’s too bad; you should have launched by now.
The second-most-common answer is “no, we have our first 500 users!” But actually you mean “yes, we have zero active users”. Most startups who claim to have 500 users actually just have 500 people who came in to check them out for thirty seconds when they launched on Product Hunt, or 500 people who poked around for a minute when they ran app-install ads on Facebook.
An active user is a human being who gives a crap that your service exists, and if they suddenly couldn’t use your product or service, they’d call you to complain and offer you money to bring it back. Here’s a good way to count active users which makes sense for most (but not all) startups:
How many users do you have who signed up more than 7 days ago, and subsequently came back and engaged with your service at least once in the last 7 days?
3. A whole product?
The term “minimum viable product” misleads founders by its use of the word “product”. If it’s complete enough to feel like a product rather than a half-baked prototype or a human-powered process, it’s probably not a lean enough MVP.
A recent example of a startup whose MVP wasn’t a whole product is Clubhouse. The founders shared a Testflight beta of their app to friends of friends, grew to hundreds of active users, and raised $12M from Andreessen Horowitz, all without ever launching their app into the app store.
Relationship Hero’s MVP wasn’t a whole product either. It was a Facebook group where my cofounder and I would give dating advice to our friends. When I took a vacation and came back and there were still active users in the group (as defined in #2 above), that was when we decided that we had enough market validation to invest a few person-weeks building the first version of RelationshipHero.com.
4. Bundling multiple use cases?
Many startups trick themselves into thinking they have a value prop because they have a unique combination of features, and they think the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. They’re wrong about that. The whole is only as great as its one strongest part. The MVP should be focused on validating the one strongest part.
I’ve previously explained on this blog:
If you pick one value prop hypothesis and launch the minimal thing you need to validate demand for that hypothesis, that’s a lean MVP. If you pick two or more orthogonal ones and stick them together, that’s usually a bloated MVP.
Validating market demand is usually where new startups fail. You’d be lucky to validate having strong market demand for one use case. Validating market demand for multiple use cases may be doable, but don’t try to do it all with the same MVP.
5. More than three person-months?
Most startups waste three Person-Years on what they think is a reduced-scope MVP, but it’s actually a bloated MVP.
Ever wonder how Y Combinator is only a 3-month program, yet a large fraction of their companies are able to raise $millions on Demo Day? It’s because YC companies are taught to follow the Lean MVP Flowchart. In just a few weeks, these companies are able to show an impressive graph with a larger and larger quantity of value being given to real people.
If you’re sinking more than three person-months of work into your startup before you’re giving value to a single person, it’s a red flag that your MVP is bloated.
These days, if your MVP involves writing code, it’s probably a bloated MVP.
First, no-code solutions like Typeform, Shopify, Squarespace, Webflow, Facebook pages, Zapier, etc are more than good enough to help you serve your first ten users, which is all an MVP needs to do. Sure, these ten users won’t get a polished automated experience. But until you have hundreds of users, you have enough time to reach out and personally help each user have a smooth experience.
Second, your idea has low technology risk, and you shouldn’t waste time de-risking something that isn’t a high risk. Unless you’re a tech-heavy exception, all your risk is market risk: the risk that no one would care enough to use your product even if it existed in a polished form.
If you’re inexperienced at building software, writing code does reduce team risk — the risk that your founding team might not be competent enough to ship working software. But if you’re already confident in your ability to build software (or your ability to manage contractors), there’s not much to prove or de-risk by writing code.
7. Wishful-thinking features?
Wishful-thinking features are features that make sense once your product has hundreds/thousands/millions of active users, but don’t add any value when the product has 0–10 users. For example:
- Your consumer social MVP doesn’t need a search feature for user-generated content! “But what if we get so much user-generated content that it’s completely hopeless to scroll through?” Aha, that’s wishful thinking. Don’t worry about it until it actually becomes a problem. Once it becomes a problem, congratulate yourself for having a successful MVP and getting much farther along than most startups ever get!
- Your marketplace MVP doesn’t need supplier-side features! Your first 1–10 demand-side users will be getting matched to supply that you’ve manually sourced and inputted yourself.
When building an MVP, you should focus all your effort on making sure the first 1–10 users receive a ton of value so that they’ll keep coming back as active users. Once you have that life-or-death milestone in your rearview mirror, you can start building features that presuppose having a larger active user base.
8. Tedious user experience?
A tedious user experience means you’re expecting users to do work for you, but you’re not immediately rewarding users for their effort.
For example, if you have a long signup flow with a dozen steps, you better give the user a big payoff at the end. Otherwise you’ve given them a raw deal: you took more than you gave.
You might think you’ll “pay them back later” by giving them more value when your product is more mature, but it rarely works that way. If your MVP isn’t giving users an immediate payoff for every ask you make of them, it’s probably bloated.
9. Brand/UI/UX flourishes?
If a product or service looks good, that’s a sign that the team has good taste. But if there are too many fancy logos, graphics, animations and other embellishments, that’s a sign of a bloated MVP.
Brand and UI/UX flourishes should come after you have active users. Investing in a fancy brand or logo before having active users is premature optimization. Until you have your first active users, you should be prepared to throw away everything you’ve built so far, and your fancy design is probably just extra stuff you’ll have to throw away.
Michael Seibel, CEO of Y Combinator, paints a great picture of what a lean MVP looks like:
If your friend was standing next to you and their hair was on fire, that fire would be the only thing they really cared about in this world. […] If you handed them a brick they would still grab it and try to hit themselves on the head to put out the fire.
You almost want to make your MVP a crude, ugly brick on purpose. If you can successfully sell a brick, you’ll get a stronger signal of market demand. If you have to polish your design just to attract your first user, it probably means you can’t find anyone who is truly desperate for what you’re building, and you’ll need to work harder to differentiate yourself in your market.
10. Nonessential content?
If you’re writing high-quality content to build an audience, that’s a great strategy — in fact, just building something like an email list can be your lean MVP. On the other hand, if you’re building a product and you also have a blog or social media full of mediocre posts that you think are “on brand”, that’s probably a waste of your time and a sign of a bloated MVP.
If your content isn’t on the critical path for acquiring your first 1–10 users, then don’t bother with it. Just be laser-focused on acquiring your first 1–10 users.
Count up the number of Yes answers to get your score:
- 0–3: Lean MVP: Congratulations, your startup has the rare distinction of not being a bloated MVP! You’ve earned the right to concern yourself with next-level considerations like your unit economics and growth tactics.
- 4–6: Bloated MVP: Most of what you’ve been working on is a waste, and you should probably stop working on it immediately (maybe save it for later). Fortunately, you can probably salvage one part of your current effort, the only part that’s really creating any value, and build your company around that part.
- 7–10: Bloated As Hell MVP: Sorry to tell you this, but all your hard work on your startup has mostly been a complete waste of your time up to this point. You might have a good idea kernel for a business, but you need to go back to the drawing board and start with giving a person value.
What did you score? If you’d like a more nuanced analysis, email me about your startup and I’ll give you my opinion :)