I am a startup founder who loves to code and build things. The first version of my startup NameShouts — an app that helps you pronounce names took almost 2.5 months to code. It was exhilarating to work on, and satisfying to see it launched. Yet, I made a lot of mistakes.
This was before I read The Lean Startup by Eric Ries. In 2021, if I want to start another company, I will do things differently. In fact, because of how easily you can prototype a software solution, I won’t write a single line of code in the beginning. Hopefully, this article will help founders avoid my mistakes.
So, what exactly is an MVP?
A minimum viable product is the simplest version of the product that adds the most amount of value to a select group of users.
It could be just one simple feature. For example, Foursquare started out as a way for people to win badges when they shared their location. The app eventually became popular and expanded to become a full-fledged city guide.
A different approach was used by the Zappos founders. They took pictures of shoes from stores to see if anyone would buy shoes online without trying them on. They found out that, even in 1999, some people preferred buying shoes without trying them on.
To build an MVP in 2021, I recommend founders follow these 5 steps:
1. Identify your target group of users
Who will find value using your product? You are trying to find the early adopters for your product. These people need/want it so badly that they are willing to put up with something that works partially.
For Zappos, it was tech-savvy internet users who didn’t fear buying shoes online. For NameShouts, it’s millennials and gen-z who are starting out in the workplace and they care about identity and culture.
You are looking for a group of people who share a similar set of characteristics. It could be age, profession, geography or something else.
2. Ask the right questions
Most first-time founders don’t know how to interview users. I was no different. I was handed this gem of a book by an advisor, and it’s been one of my most recommended books for founders.
When my co-founder and I launched NameShouts, we would often ask our friends and family whether they would ever use such a tool. They all weakly said yes and then quickly switched topics. I was making two mistakes. They were the wrong set of users to question and I was asking the wrong questions.
This is why reading The Mom Test was eye-opening for me. Some of the main takeaways from the book are as follows:
- Find out about the lives of your users as much as possible.
- Ask them specifics about the past, and not questions about the future.
- Don’t pitch your idea and talk about future solutions. Instead, practice active listening.
Active listening and imagining yourself in their shoes will help you understand them. Empathy is a key quality in a founder.
Their answers should help you figure out the answers to these key questions:
- Do these users really need what I am building?
- When and how often will they use them?
- How critical is it for them to solve this problem?
What you build should be valuable to them. If not, be ready to pivot.
3. Build your prototype and show it to your users
It’s fantastic, to be a founder in 2021 especially if you are working on software. You should be able to build a realistic-looking version of an app in hours instead of weeks or months.
Sketch out your solution. Whiteboards are wonderful for this but you can also use a wireframing tool if you prefer.
After you finished your wireframe, the time has come to build your prototype.
Timebox this step, and get the prototype in front of your users quickly.
4. Carefully observe how they use it
Now, sit down with your users and watch them use your product. Was the prototype simple and easy to use? Was it intuitive? Does the design make sense?
Try to meet your users in person. If that’s not possible, you can also schedule a zoom call and ask them to share their screen.
Feedback sessions are a great way to learn what your prototype does correctly and what it does wrong. Do record these sessions if you get their permission and take notes.
Tools like UserTesting can help you get real-time feedback. I would avoid them for the MVP. It’s a bad idea to delegate this to anyone else but the founders. Try to be present and understand how your user is using the prototype.
5. Iterate your prototype quickly
It’s hard to get your prototype right the first time. Get feedback quickly and keep iterating on the product.
You should limit your MVP to a simple set of features. Remember, the Pareto Principle.
Pareto principle is a prediction that 80% of effects come from 20% of causes.
You can add more features if it adds enough value to your core group of users later on. Try to keep your feature set minimal for your MVP.
Once you feel certain about your prototype, you can start coding. There is something about a live, working app that can’t be replicated with a prototype.
Again timebox this step. Try to finish in weeks rather than months. You shouldn’t build something overly complicated yet. Once the app is launched, get feedback from your users. Add analytics to your app to see which features they use most. Remember to get feedback through surveys and feedback sessions.
Repeat this cycle until you can delight your users enough to reach product-market fit. Getting to product-market fit is difficult and you may have to pivot several times before you can get there.
According to Geoff Ralston and Michael Seibel from Ycombinator.
…the most important tasks for an early stage company are to write code and talk to users.
This is important to remember. As a startup founder, your time is valuable and distraction often masks as opportunities (podcasts, conferences, press coverage etc). Remember to keep your focus and execute quickly.
Now, go build something awesome!