How to Build a Minimum Loveable Product

Learn how to get your digital ideas to market sooner, but still deliver a product that users fall in love with.


By Laurence McCahill
Co-founder of The Happy Startup School


Warning: This is a long one, so you may want to grab a hot drink :)

Building products is hard

Building great products is harder.

Whether you work in a startup, agency, non-profit or corporate – it seems product people want it all.

Whadaya want?

When launching any new product there’s always a tricky balance to strike between speed of delivery and quality of execution.

To create a great product takes skill, dedication and discipline. And it requires us to make bold choices. Whether that is who to hire, when to launch, what to build or how well we build it.

In essence, your product is defined by the decisions you make.

You can’t have it all

Part of the reason the lean startup movement took off was we were all frustrated with how things were working – bloated products being shipped that delivered on ‘the plan’ but little in the way of value. The product world had reached the peak of stuffocation.

Then our ‘saviour’ Eric Ries came to save the day. Along with his BFF – the often misunderstood Minimum Viable Product.

It had good intentions.

It had a purpose.

But more often than not it was crappy…

  • Cheap, yes.
  • Fast, yes.
  • Good, generally not.

So if like many out there, you struggle to get much traction with your MVP, how will you know why it didn’t work?

If you’ve delivered a scaled-down, functional product but a second rate experience have you missed a trick to create an impression with your potential customers?

Too many take Minimum too literally and skimp on the design as well as the scope. Rather than seeing an investment in a great experience as wasted effort, consider every interaction with your potential customers an opportunity to make an impression on them. A chance for them to engage in your mission And a chance for you to start building your tribe. Think of it as your marketing spend before you’ve launched.

Thanks to the likes of design-led companies such as Apple, Nest, AirBnB people have become more savvy and now the price of entry is higher. So if you want to get your product noticed you’re going to have to raise your game too.

Ryan Singer sums it up well:

“If you decide to build a feature you should live up to at least a basic standard of execution on the experience side.

It’s a competitive world out there and people only have a short attention span. You might only get one chance so make it count.

So long MVP, hello MLP

So if the MVP is no longer fit for purpose in this new age of design-hungry users what’s the alternative?

Enter The Minimum Loveable Product.

Time for some definitions:

  • MVP
    The version of a new product that brings back the maximum amount of validated learning about your customers with the least effort.
  • MLP
    The version of a new product that brings back the maximum amount of love from your early tribe members with the least effort.
“It’s better to build something that a small number of users love, than a large number of users like.” Sam Altman, Y Combinator

Think big, start small

In the below example, the MVP might validate that people like cake, but it won’t get people talking. The MLP should validate that people love your cake, will come back for more and tell their friends. And you’ve still started small so you’ve got room to manoeuvre.

Which looks tastier to you?

Your Minimum Loveable Product allows you to gain a following while exploring opportunities.

“Don’t make customers happy. Make happy customers.” Dharmesh Shah

10 tips to go from viable to loveable

So now you should have a feel of the context, here’s my top 10 (yes another of those…) for making your product Minimum Loveable:

1. Give it a point

Too often people focus solely on the solution they’re building without really considering why they’re doing it.

“Your purpose is the wind in your sail. And without the why there is no wind.” David Hieatt, Hiut Jeans/Do Lectures

Without a clear purpose that drives decisions, a product can seem bloated and pointless. And when things get tough (which they inevitably will), you won’t have much to pull you or your team through. Having a clear purpose adds some real meaning to your work.

Simon Sinek points out that you need to awaken an emotion with your early customers so that they feel something and that most buying decisions are based on emotion, rather than logic. This is where the Golden Circle comes in.

Simon Sinek’s Golden Circle framework: “People don’t buy what you do, they buy why you do it”

By focusing on the ‘why?’ you can create much deeper connections with your audience and give your product a better chance of success.

2. Do one thing well

If there’s one thing that startups in particular are often guilty of, it’s trying to do too much, too soon. Having a clear focus means it’s easier to communicate what your product is and who it’s for. Take lead from success stories such as Dropbox and Instagram by doing one thing really well.

Before them companies like Basecamp (formerly 37 Signals) were breaking the mould and making simple, usable software. Their co-founder Jason Fried explains their thinking in the book Getting Real:

“If you can’t fit everything in within the time and budget allotted then don’t expand the time and budget. instead, pull back the scope.

It’s not as easy as it sounds. Often there can be pressures from customers, investors or other team members, but learning to say no is something you’ll need to get to grips with if you want a usable product. Get the core right and you’ll make your life a whole lot easier.

One thing we make a point of doing with each product we work on at Spook Studio is to make a list of things we won’t do. This helps to add some constraints to the design process as everyone has a clear idea of what the product isn’t. In this way we can make better decisions and not take our eye off the ball. We also find that agreeing on some design principles for the product can be a great way to make better and quicker decisions.

One way to achieve this focus is by developing your Blue Ocean Strategy. A simple but effective framework for developing a targeted value proposition. It allows you to consider ways in which you can stay ahead of the competition and create new value.

The strategy canvas is one of the core tools at the heart of the Blue Ocean Strategy framework

It takes discipline to stay on track and not lose focus, but it’s a valuable trait that all successful entrepreneurs and product owners seem to have.

3. Timebox it

In his book Steal Like An Artist author Austin Kleon writes:

“In this age of information abundance and overload, those who get ahead will be the folks who figure out what to leave out, so they can concentrate on what’s important to them.”

You need to prioritise.

Without prioritising what’s important to you the road ahead will be a rocky one. By setting constraints on time and budget this forces you to reduce the scope.

After years of trying different approaches, we’ve come to develop a 12 week process for launching an MLP as we’ve found it to be the ideal timeframe to take a new product idea to market.

FutureLearn’s Head of Product Matt Walton has reached a similar conclusion:

3 months is enough time to deliver on your vision but not long enough to lose sight of it
It’s enough time to make something high quality but not long enough to get bogged down in perfectionism
It’s enough time to develop a rhythm and habits but not long enough that you stop questioning them
It’s enough time for a team to gel but not long enough for it to get stale
It’s enough time to spend the budget efficiently but not enough time to spend too much or go too far astray
It’s enough time to develop what you need to but not enough time to develop things that might start diluting the product
Thanks to Ash Maurya for the quote. And Sir Clive Sinclair for the C5…

4. Solve only high value problems

When deciding what to include for your first release it’s wise to zoom in on problems that are real pain points for your customers. Yes it would be nice to solve all of their problems but if you try and do that you won’t achieve an elegant simplicity in your product. Only focus on building features that relieve your customers’ pain and allow them to get their jobs done simply and easily.

Use tools such as the Value Proposition Canvas to help you decide which features will create real value that you can build your product around.

The Kano Model is a powerful technique for creating profitable products and services that genuinely excite customers

5. Add surprise & delight

If you go to a hotel room and there’s no bed there you’ll be a little disappointed, possibly angry. If there’s a bottle of champagne, some flowers and a box of chocolates you’ll be taken aback and probably over the moon.

What can you do to create a positive response from your customers? Go above and beyond what’s expected of you and you’ll reap the rewards.

Design for emotion.


Still with us?

Great – halfway there ☺


6. Put your money where your mouth is

Whilst the tide is turning, there’s still a need to educate startup founders in particular about the competitive advantage well-designed products and services can bring.

“Design is not just what it looks like and feels like, design is how it works.” Steve Jobs

It’s been proven that there’s a direct correlation between a positive user experience and loyalty. Happy customers tend to spend more, more often and tell their friends.

With this in mind, hire the best designer you can afford. It could be the best money you ever spend.

Don’t just say that design is important to you. Show it through your actions.

7. Make ‘em hungry for more

One of the hardest things to crack is how you can get people to use your product again and again. You may be able to get them interested but how do you get them in the habit of using it on a regular basis.

This is where Nir Eyal’s Hook Model comes in – a 4 step process companies can use to build customer habits.

Nir elaborates in this post:

Trigger
The trigger is the actuator of a behavior — the spark plug in the engine. Triggers come in two types: external and internal. Habit-forming technologies start by alerting users with external triggers like an email, a link on a web site, or the app icon on a phone.
Action
After the trigger comes the intended action. Here, companies leverage two pulleys of human behavior – motivation and ability. This phase of the Hook draws upon the art and science of usability design to ensure that the user acts the way the designer intends.
Variable Reward
Variable schedules of reward are one of the most powerful tools that companies use to hook users. Research shows that levels of dopamine surge when the brain is expecting a reward. Introducing variability multiplies the effect, creating a frenzied hunting state, activating the parts associated with wanting and desire. Although classic examples include slot machines and lotteries, variable rewards are prevalent in habit-forming technologies as well.
Investment
The last phase of the Hook is where the user is asked to do bit of work. The investment implies an action that improves the service for the next go-around. Inviting friends, stating preferences, building virtual assets, and learning to use new features are all commitments that improve the service for the user. These investments can be leveraged to make the trigger more engaging, the action easier, and the reward more exciting with every pass through the Hook.

We’ve found this model (and the accompanying book) to be a great starting point for a customer acquisition and retention strategy.

8. Build your tribe

Marketing is dead. Now’s the time time to build a community around your product. A community of passionate customers that believe in your mission.

So think about which customers will be so passionate about your business that they’ll be your advocates – coming back regularly and telling their friends? Or another way of thinking about it:

Who will love you so much that they’ll get a tattoo of your company?

OK, maybe a bit far fetched but it’s a useful exercise and people do it…

Have a think what it would take for people to love you that much?
Clue: It involves winning their heart and mind, not just wallet.

One effective way to build your tribe is to nail your colours to the mast and create your own manifesto before you release a product. Startups like Maptia, Holstee, NOBL Collective as well our own initiative The Happy Startup School have created their own manifestos to get people to rally around their mission.

We created our Happifesto to encourage more entrepreneurs and leaders to build businesses the right way, that is, to put people first and enjoy the journey. It’s what we believe in and it helped to kickstart our movement for more purpose-driven startups.

And remember – it’s ok if not everyone likes you. In fact, it’s better if some don’t. It’s hard for people to love you if you’re trying to appeal to everyone – it’s ok to be a Marmite product. If you piss people off that generally means you’re making some impact, as this chart shows…

9. Make it remarkable

So don’t play it too safe. Transform your product by making it remarkable. In Seth Godin’s words:

Be the purple cow in a field of monochrome Holsteins.

So don’t be a little bit different. Be very different.

Don’t be so safe you’re easy to ignore. Give people a reason to talk.

“Take that money you would have spent on business cards and instead take your 5 most passionate customers on a pub crawl.” Jeremiah Gardner, The Lean Brand

At the beginning don’t sell to them. Get to know them and what makes them tick so you can create something they find worth remarking about.

10. Make it part of a strategy

In his recent talk at Campus London, Entrepreneur’s First co-founder Matt Clifford talked about the mistakes he’d seen teams make at his startup programme, with the most common one being what he called ‘the lonely MVP’.

He described this as a situation where the MVP was the product, not part of an overall product development strategy. He saw this as being a very risky approach and one which puts you at a disadvantage.

You need to clarify and communicate your vision so your team is clear where you’re going, what your strategy is and where the MVP fits into this. Bear in mind that your first release should the start of your journey towards product-market fit, not the end of the road.

From our recent Startup Summercamp

In summary

Making products is hard, but if you find the right business model, aim to delight your users and get them talking, you’ll be well on your way to growing your tribe of passionate super-fans and building a business with soul.

So just remember to:

  1. Build sh!t that matters
  2. F-O-C-U-S
  3. Add constraints
  4. Solve a real pain point
  5. Rise above the functional
  6. Hire a designer
  7. Get your users hooked
  8. Build your tribe
  9. Make it remarkable
  10. Be strategic

Remember to go beyond the viable.

To build something that people actually want.

And love ☺


Want to learn how to build a Minimum Loveable Product and bring your digital ideas to life fast? We’re looking for 10 budding tech founders to take part in our inaugural MLP program starting April 2016. As this is 100% online you can based anywhere. Apply here »