What Should Your MVP Look Like?
What I learned about an MVP from Solar Impulse II.
Solar Impulse II was the first solar-powered flight to fly successfully across the world. The product was nowhere close to a commercial flight, but it shows us how a minimum viable product should be like.
“Ladies and Gentlemen, now you are doing your last flight on a combustion-engine airplane. In the future, you’ll be flying electric.” mocked Bertrand as he sat inside the cockpit of a discarded airplane in a dumping yard in Phoenix, Arizona in the PBS show, The Impossible Flight.
Bertrand Piccard is one of the two ambitious pilots flying Solar Impulse II, the first-ever solar-powered airplane to travel around the Earth. Solar Impulse II started its journey from Abu Dhabi, and flew for 505 days, covering 26,000 miles at an average speed of 45 mph.
The success story is inspiring for many, and it would lead to greater innovations toward a future without fossil fuels, but what really inspired me is the plane itself and how we can translate it directly to creating our own products — physical or digital.
The plane was fully functional, but not the most efficient.
Solar Impulse II was fully functional but the team didn’t make much effort to perfect every aspect of the aircraft. The cockpit door needed to be opened from outside, the solar batteries stored just enough juice to last through the night and have a 10% charge leftover at sunrise. The plane was built for ideal weather. Any surprises and the mission could end. In every aspect, it was a minimum viable product (MVP).
Your MVP should be that — fully functional but scrappy. I love how Eric Ries, the author of The Lean Startup, defines an MVP — “A Minimum Viable Product is that version of a new product which allows a team to collect the maximum amount of validated learning about customers with the least effort.”
An MVP is created to learn — about the market, about the product-market fit, about the customers. What it’s not, is a fully completed product. An MVP should be this:
and not this:
It should have something of everything and not everything of one thing.
Solar Impulse II had extremely limited space.
It could accommodate only one passenger — the pilot. Even though the plane needed to fly for five straight days over the Pacific Ocean, it couldn’t manage to squeeze in another pilot. And that means that the plan could have failed any time — the pilot could have fallen sick, missed a sign, fallen asleep and whatnot.
Similarly, create the MVP to accommodate only the “core” features that help test the hypotheses you have. Every additional feature included in an MVP is an effort that’s wasted. Find the “minimum” minimum viable product and create just that.
It’s difficult to create the absolutely minimalistic version and according to Eric Ries, most of the MVPs have at least double the number of features that should have been developed to create the minimal product.
Solar Impulse II wasn’t the most visually appealing machine around.
The Solar Impulse II looked nothing more than an upgraded glider with a huge wing that’s covered with solar panels. The engines looked childish and it needed a customized, mobile hangar that’s almost twice the size than what’s needed for a modern commercial plane. It couldn’t withstand rain. Every time it rained, a crew would work round the clock to ensure that every inch of the plane if dried up before it flew again. A bit of rain had the potential to damage the batteries and throw the project off the course.
Your MVP, similarly, doesn’t need to look perfect with every loophole plugged in.
This was Amazon’s first version of the website — not the most visually appealing website around. But it worked. People could order stuff and get it delivered. In the book The Everything Store, Brad Stone says that Amazonians (as the Amazon employees would call themselves) delivered the goods to their customers themselves if there was a shortage of workers.
Don’t waste time in perfecting every aesthetics of the product only to see a competitor launching something similar and gobbling up market share, or worse, the customers don’t even care about what you created! Launch a scrappy product, see how customers’ receive it, hear to what they say, and iterate, fast.
Solar Impulse II needed absolutely perfect weather to fly.
The journey of the Solar Impulse II was delayed multiple times because of the weather. The plane was so light that it couldn’t handle downdraft winds. To maintain elevation, the pilot would have to use more battery power, ultimately depleting the juice before sunrise. The engineers designed the plane keeping perfect conditions in mind.
Remember this scene from Silicon Valley? The “naive” entrepreneurs enjoyed their success as their servers caught fire due to traffic overload.
No, you don’t need to be so naive. That was a show, this is real life. Factor in the traffic, look for edge cases but don’t go overboard. If you’re just starting out, don’t think of an architecture that handles a billion requests a month yet. Wait for your MVP to validate your market assumptions for you before you start investing heavily. Wait for all the extreme edge cases. Test for the core functionality first and launch it to a limited set of users to avoid such traffic loads.
Solar Impulse II was in expert hands.
Above all, know what you’re doing. The plane might be fragile, but it was being monitored 24x7 by experts from the ground. Every movement was being monitored, every spike in readings was analyzed, and every external factor was closely watched.
Do the same for your MVP — hire experts, define every key success metrics upfront, create tools to monitor those metrics, look through every customer feedback, analyze their pain points and use all of these to define your next iteration.
It’s hard to imagine that with so many deficiencies, the plane achieved its goal. It took close to a year and a half to complete the journey that could be completed in a little over 2 days by modern planes. But the Solar Impulse II team had ambition and courage. They re-defined aviation and knew that if something can be achieved in air, it can certainly be achieved on the ground. They were not only showing the world that aviation can be redefined, but they were also showing how world transportation can be redefined.
The same ambition and courage would help your MVP succeed and you’d have a product that customers love.
Photos Courtesy: Google Images