As many of you will know, I’ve long been an advocate and practitioner of the lean startup methodology. I was a very early reader of Eric Ries’ blog and I even started speaking to spread the word early (shamefully before I had truly had success with the concepts). My journey with lean startup ideas has lasted almost 5 years now, and luckily with Buffer I have hit some real success. We’re now 16 people and do $2.5m in annual revenue, and it all started with a tiny Minimum Viable Product.

Masroor Ahmed recently brought my attention to a post entitled A Landing Page Is NOT A Minimum Viable Product by Ramli John, and asked for my thoughts. Thanks for asking me to chime in, Masroor.

Ramli is a fellow mentor at Lean Startup Machine and so I highly respect his thoughts here, and in fact I do believe the article is spot on in most cases. Often a landing page is a failed attempt to truly validate an idea. I have in fact written myself about why landing pages are often a bad way to validate an idea.

Here’s an excerpt from Ramli’s article describing a common set of steps new founders go through in order to try and use a landing page to validate and get an idea off the ground:

Step 1: Think of an awesome idea
Step 2: Create a sexy MVP landing page. Make sure all the pixels are in place, and all the t’s are crossed and i’s are dotted.
Step 3: Get a billion sign ups before the product is built.
Step 4: Build the product
Step 5: Make a bazzilion dollars.

The thing is, MVPs are all about (and only about) validated learning. What Ramli is describing is what I often see — a misconception and an incorrect interpretation of MVP. What is being created in these steps is a coming soon page to gather emails, with no focus on validation. Ramli also suggests you won’t get any responses to emails:

You can email them. Good luck trying to get a response.

When I created my landing page for Buffer, the focus was 100% on validated learning. I had lost 1.5 years of my life to not validating ideas before building them. I used the landing page as an initial validation of whether they would go through a long sign up process for the product I pitched on the first page. As soon as they went through that and gave me their email, I immediately sent a very personal email to the user, and often had back and forth conversation about the problem. I sometimes even had a Skype call after a few emails.

I didn’t get “a billion signups”, in fact in a long 7 week period I only got 120 signups. But I spoke with a lot of those people during that time, and 50 of them started using the product when I launched after that 7 week period. 1 started paying for Buffer 3 days after we launched. Then a few weeks later, another person started paying. Since then we’ve continued to grow. The landing page — and more importantly the conversations resulting from people signing up through it — proved to be great validation.

I wasn’t optimizing for the number of signups I could get with this landing page, I was instead trying to learn as much as I possibly could.

Ramli is correct though, many do assume that a landing page is a great way to start:

There’s a misconception that landing pages are minimum viable products and a sure path to a bazzilion-dollar valuation.

The truth is, it’s easy to fall into this trap. You throw up a landing page and ask for emails right on that first page. As soon as you do that you’ve lost an opportunity for validation. Ask them to click a sign up button at least before giving you their email and you’re doing a little better. Ask them to click a “pricing plans” button, choose a plan and then give their email and you’re actually getting some validated learning. Follow it up with a conversation and you might learn why they gave you their email and whether they truly have the problem you’re solving for.

But when you see the landing page as a way to get a billion signups and keep hold of them like prized treasure, then you’re approaching it wrong. You’re not learning much at all.

As I said in my article on why coming soon pages go wrong — ask yourself what you want to achieve with your landing page. Do you want a billion signups, or do you want validated learning?

Once you approach your landing page through the lens of it being a tool for validated learning (through the actions users take, and conversations you have), it can be very powerful.