A minimum viable product (MVP) is an early version of a product, such as a SaaS (software as a service) application, that is designed to ensure that product vision and strategy are aligned with market needs.
Typically, an MVP delivers just enough functionality and value to appeal to early adopters and other innovators. It’s not a beta version of your product, designed for shaking out bugs or for fine-tuning features and interface elements. It’s also not an idea that exists only on paper (or slides), or a raw demonstration of a proof-of-concept.
Instead, the term “MVP” suggests something very specific:
Minimum: the smallest number of capabilities, features, and packaging that…
Viable: deliver enough value that customers are willing to spend money (or another currency such as personal information)…
Product: on something they can use today… not just invest in a future concept, promise, or offer.
The goals of an MVP are to validate the premise of a product, to test hypotheses about market needs, to make adjustments to the product vision, and to prioritize where to invest in future development. As such, MVPs are a profoundly powerful approach towards finding product-market fit.
By testing and refining core premises with real-world validation, MVPs help product teams to accelerate their decision making and maximize agility. When done correctly, MVPs mitigate the risk of spending time and money developing a product only to find no one has any interest in it when it’s released.
Great MVPs start with tough questions
Don’t be fooled thinking “minimum” means “easy.” Determining an MVP’s minimum feature set is hard work, but asking the right questions is an important part of the process.
What problem are you trying to solve, and is it really a problem worth solving?
All of us encounter pain points large and small in our day-to-day lives. If you’ve identified one that you think needs a solution, spend some time considering whether it’s a problem that has enough friction that people will want to use your product.
For example, consider Uber. Anyone who has spent enough time in a large city knows how frustrating it can to be to stand at a curb and try to hail a taxi. That was a pain point large enough to make Uber compelling to anyone who wanted to be able to simply pull out their smartphone, launch an app, and quickly summon transportation.
On the other hand, consider Juicero. It turned out that very few people wanted an expensive juice press that had Wi-Fi and required the scanning of a QR code before it would squeeze a juice pack. It didn’t help that squeezing a juice pack by hand worked nearly as well as putting it in the press.
What’s the easiest, most direct way to solve the problem?
Don’t worry about all the cool features your product could offer. Just think about the straight line from problem to solution, with as few steps as possible along the way.
Consider Uber again. Originally known as UberCab, it was first offered only in San Francisco and it only featured a black car service that was more expensive than a taxi. However, it allowed you to grab a ride by simply clicking a button or sending a text message, and that basic functionality proved to be wildly popular. Seeing how well it worked convinced the company to aggressively pursue the idea.
Testing “minimum value” one step at a time
As noted earlier, a proper MVP means something quite specific. But just like an MVP helps accelerate product-market fit, there also are ways to get to an MVP itself faster and with less risk. Here are three approaches to try as you work towards developing an MVP.
Before building an MVP, test your promise and offer
You don’t even have to have a single line of code written to start down the path of creating an MVP. Create a landing page complete with compelling bullet points that sell people on your product’s features and mocked-up screenshots that show them your vision. You might also want to create a video that narrates your screenshots and explains what problem your product will solve.
Include a sign-up field where visitors can add their email addresses to your list. You could even list different pricing plan options and ask people to choose the one that interests them, which will help you understand what they want from your product.
Create an AdWords campaign to drive people to the landing page, so you know which search keywords are creating the most traffic. You might be surprised by the results.
These preliminary steps won’t take the place on an actual MVP, but they can help determine if developing an MVP is worth pursuing.
Use a manual process to deliver your product or service
The trick with this approach is to give the illusion that you’re offering a fully functional experience even when you’re not. As long as you’re giving customers what they paid for, it doesn’t matter if you’re using a clunky process behind the scenes.
For example, when Zappos founder Nick Swinmurn hit on the idea of selling shoes online, which seemed outlandish in 1999, he first tested his concept by photographing shoes on store shelves and listing them for sale on his site. When someone bought a pair, he purchased them from the store and shipped them.
While that wasn’t a viable long-term plan, that simple idea allowed Swinmurn to see if he was correct in his assumption that people would buy shoes on the Internet without trying them on first. It turned out he was right. And as an added bonus, he didn’t have to invest heavily in warehouse stock and risk getting stuck with a lot of unsold shoes.
Use existing apps and services to approximate the experience
There are plenty of ways to use modern technology to create a process that you can later refine with unique software development. You can use existing tools to essentially develop a demo without sinking a lot of money into programming resources.
For example, Groupon started as a WordPress site where founder Andrew Mason and his small staff published deals as blog posts. They used an AppleScript to generate a PDF of a coupon that they emailed to everyone who had claimed a deal. It was a clunky way to operate, but it proved that the concept worked.