Should You Build a Minimum Viable Product?
Do you need a Minimum Viable Product to sell that product?
Last week, I got a bunch of questions via my website from “Devin,” a smart young entrepreneur in the healthcare technology space. His MVP, a mobile app, was about six months from completion before he realized he needed to do more work around his business concept.
Now his MVP is about a year out, and he’s frustrated because he wants to reach out to his target market to gauge interest in his solution. He wonders if he should wait for his MVP to be built or should he just get out there and validate his idea. And if the latter, what the hell is he going to put in front of potential customers?
Wait. Stop. Take a Breath.
Before we go any further, let’s make sure we understand Devin’s dilemma, because I didn’t myself until we spoke a little more at length. The first question is: Should Devin be building an MVP? And the very important answer is: It depends.
Devin is going back to his business concept and maybe reinventing a little bit. That alone tells me stop building right now and harden the concept before spending another minute or dime.
But beyond that issue, should he be building an MVP before he gets in front of potential customers?
On one hand, that seems like wasted time and money spent guessing at what those customers ultimately want. That said, that’s not always how I roll. Startup is, at its very core, the execution of the founder’s idea. Entrepreneurs aren’t just caretakers of companies or instruments of execution. Most of us are makers.
An entrepreneur should never let the customer completely dictate what we’re building. There’s no soul in that and, ultimately, there’s no success in it. Short term? Maybe. But over the long haul, unless the idea was, is, or can be reinvented into something spectacular, all the execution in the world isn’t going to make one product stand out against another.
So Where Do You Draw the Line?
We can all agree that Devin should not build an MVP in order to validate his idea with customers. But he should definitely be building the MVP while he validates his idea with customers.
Look, I’ve seen entrepreneurs shop an idea for months, even years, without producing a single line of code. Making something tangible gives us something to believe in when everybody invariably craps on our idea.
If we trust our idea and have the conviction to chase it, then rolling up sleeves, whether that’s coding ourselves or laying out a little bit of money or equity to get a framework started, will pay dividends during the validation process and after.
- It will force us to build flexibility into our MVP from the very beginning, because every time we visit a prospective customer, we’ll want to tweak that MVP a little bit. MVPs must be, above all, flexible.
- When we do indeed go all-in on building the MVP, we’ll already have a framework, built on learned lessons of what to do and what not to do.
- If our customer validation process immediately starts to produce some traction, we’ll be that much closer to having something to sell.
So how do we sell something that doesn’t exist yet?
Pre-MVP: The Mock Up
Charlotte is an Executive Editor with a business-focused publishing house, and she gave me a great real-world example:
“Book publishing is all based on selling things that don’t exist yet. Authors sell me their book without a finished MVP all the time. They just fill out the book proposal guidelines and then I have to guess from that whether it will be a good product. Then our salespeople have to sell the book to bookstores with nothing more than a cover and marketing copy to show.”
She’s on point. Devin doesn’t need a working MVP to validate his idea, he needs a visualization of his idea. This can be done a couple different ways.
Ideally, an interactive demo is the best possible mockup for communication and validation of an idea. In my experience, interactivity speaks volumes, and I’m constantly grateful for how quickly people get over the learning curve and react to core concepts when we’re driving the demo together.
Packages like Adobe XD, Sketch, Invision, and others allow us to create visual assets, turn them into mocked-up screens, and then navigate those screens just like a mobile or web app. We can click, tap, swipe, scroll, even use Alexa-like voice commands to fake our way through several use cases in the same demo.
I can’t speak for all packages, but Adobe XD is also somewhat object-oriented, meaning we can reuse assets and controls and actions. This means these packages also make a good starting point as an asset repository for our UX and UI design when it comes time to build our MVP and even our production versions.
It’s time spent, but not time wasted.
No Time? Get Visual.
Barring the cost and time sink to build something interactive, we can use something like Photoshop or Gimp, even Powerpoint or Google Slides, to mock up still screenshots. I’ve even seen screenshots done in Excel. Ugly, but surprisingly digestible screenshots.
Making these mockups pretty should be second priority to making them functional, but we should make them look good, really good. And while it’s certainly advisable to get someone to help us on the finer points of design if we can, we should be the ones constructing the mockups ourselves whenever possible. We’re makers. It’s our idea. We need to sink a few days into learning the tool so we know how to express our idea and its business concepts in the best possible light.
When we’re done, we’ll put those screenshots or a link to the interactive demo in a deck.
Sell the Idea, Build the MVP
Now we have something to show, so the next steps are who do we show it to and how do we show it.
As for who to show it to, we’ll want to get to the decision maker, and that may take a couple steps. Our target user, the one who will find the most value in what we’re offering, might not be the decision maker. When we have to choose, start with the person who will find the most value, the champion, and have them get us to the person who can make the decision, the check-writer.
It doesn’t matter how you reach these folks, but I’d start with asking people I know who they know in the role we’re trying to reach. I’ve even gone straight to Twitter and LinkedIn: “Do I know anyone who knows Healthcare IT Directors?”
Show, Don’t Tell
What if I told you that every time I write one of these posts, it comes in at well over 3,000 words. It’s really easy for me to write 3,000 words. They just freaking fall out. I’m doing it now. Banana.
Then I re-read it and get it down to about 2,000 words. Then I do it again and I get it down to what you read. In all that cutting, I never lost a single point, and it’s still too long.
In your communication, be brief. Be. Brief. Here’s an outline, the stuff in italics is implied.
This is who I am.
The founder, not a disconnected salesperson who will waste your time with jargon and statistics.
I’m not selling you anything.
Yet. Maybe someday. Right now I’m asking for your professional help.
This is what I’m building.
Keep this at 10–20 words, tops. We don’t need to tell them why they need it. Remember, we’re not selling, we’re validating. We want them to tell us whether they need it or not and why.
I’m sure it can help you. I need to ask you a few questions to verify that.
I have a 5-minute deck we can walk through with some screenshots. Phone is fine.
Be prepared to walk them through the deck we made over the phone without a screenshare. Get good at it.
Here’s what I can do for you.
What You Can Do For Them
This is optional, but I like to make some kind of offer so I don’t feel like a leech. If they like it, maybe they get early access and a period of free use with unlimited support (trust me, we want them to accept that, it’s just opportunity for more validation down the road).
Be ready for a lot of rejection. Be ready to be constantly tweaking our mock up and ultimately tweaking our MVP, our product, even our idea. This phase sucks, and the vast majority of startups don’t get out of it.
But if we do, our sales pitch is going to be pristine, because we’ll have the confidence that we’re building something people want, based off our idea, and we’ll even have a few prospective customers already built in.