To fully understand what minimum viable product means, let’s first dissect the term, word by word.
Minimum refers to the least amount of effort required to create something.
Viable means that something works. In the start-up world, viability specifically means that users find value in your creation. It works for them, so much so that they’re willing to pay you money to use it.
A product is another word for your creation. People use products to solve their problems.
So, an MVP is some sort of stripped-down, workable version of the creation you have in mind.
Done correctly, an MVP can work wonders for founders. If you can build a simplified version of your idea and discover that there is, indeed, a market for it, and if you can reach that market and convert it, then you have the green light to scale your business.
The two biggest misunderstandings about MVP, however, is that it’s always going to take the form of an app, and that it has to be very high quality.
Neither notion is true.
MVP Is So Much More Than Building an App
An MVP is not a stripped-down version of your app. Rather, MVP is a stripped-down version of your entire product, which also includes marketing and customer support along with product development.
To have a true MVP, you need to allocate resources to finding customers, engaging with them, and converting them to pay you for your service. Let’s say, for example, that you’re building a marketplace for home cleaning. Your MVP can be something as simple as a basic landing page that helps homeowners find cleaners for a small fee. If you can attract enough customers for this simple service and you actually help them find cleaners, then you can build an app to scale your business.
Approaching MVP this way — holistically — is much more important in the early stages of a business than only building a technical solution. In fact, most of your efforts in building an MVP should go into marketing and solving customer problems, not burning money on a tech solution. As Paul Graham wrote, do things that don’t scale.
Spare Yourself the Heartache: Build a Simple MVP
In a lot of cases, building an app for an MVP is a logical step. But even here, your app should be as simple as possible. Maybe even with a “fake” backend, where all the work is done, to some extent, manually.
Often people think that an app as an MVP needs to be high quality with an excellent interface. But what happens if people don’t find your idea viable? Spending a fortune and many months on an app only to discover that it’s useless hurts. If you open a Japanese restaurant downtown and spend all your savings on it and go in debt for life and then realize that sushi isn’t trendy anymore — everyone’s vegetarian now — it would be a disaster. But if you open a small stand in the mall and spend only a few thousand dollars to learn that, it wouldn’t be as big of a deal.
If your idea provides enough value, no one will mind the simplicity of it. Imagine, for instance, that you built an app that magically cured cancer. Would anyone care about its interface or how high quality the app looked? I highly doubt it. (If you were building the next Facebook, though, you’d need to rely more on eye candy — a smooth interface with animations that work faster than Facebook’s, a better user experience — to stand out among other social media platforms.)
If we treat our products as working experiments, we’ll feel a lot better if we fail.
The Big Picture
Recently, I’ve been talking to venture capitalists about the reasons why start-ups fail. The top reason that they cited? Customer acquisition problems. Investors typically give founders advice on customer acquisition, which often has to do with marketing your product. But when you’re a founder in the process of building an MVP, it’s easy to ignore that advice — to put the scary work of marketing on the backburner, and instead get carried away with fun product development work.
I understand that. I love building apps. It’s fun! That’s why I’ve been doing software development for fifteen years. I find that the clients that I work with love to think through and design technical solutions, too. But if you want your start-up to succeed, you’ll need to think beyond product development — definitely don’t neglect the marketing work, and keep simplicity in mind with your tech solutions.