6 min read

Minimum Viable Product

In this essay, I explain how a minimum viable product works and what the requirements are.

Why do startups need a minimum viable product (MVP)? How do we define the features for a MVP? What are the principles that we can use to move the team towards building that MVP which can be subjected to a lot of distractions in the market?

What is a minimum viable product?

The minimum viable product or MVP in short according to Eric Ries, author of “The Lean Startup” is the version of a new product which allows a team to collect the maximum amount of validated learning about customers with the least effort. Notice that it’s not being (a) minimum only which you will create bad products that no one want to use or (b) just being viable where you require better resources like those in a multi-national corporations to build good high quality products that hope to roll out with maximum impact to the market out there. In a startup where you are straddled with limited resources, the need to focus on essential features in bringing the MVP to market is an important component.

Why do we need a minimum viable product?

Essentially most startups would fail. Hence understanding the reasons why they may fail allude to the notion of adopting the MVP development strategy. In a startup, we are dealing with two unknowns: (a) the product roadmap – “what is the final business objective of the product” and (b) customer discovery – “how do we know whether the customers really need this product to solve their pain point?”.

The allure of a good plan, a solid strategy and a thorough market research for a major corporation mapped to a startup is a perfect trap to the failure of a startup. It does not mean that you do not plan at all. It just means that you have to plan with two frames of reference: survival and long term. The first frame of reference is survival which pushes the entrepreneur to work with limited resources and build a product to attract a customer base for the company (and hopefully, the customers pay too). The survival mode requires short term thinking and forces the startup team to think within a timeline of 3-6 months. The second frame of reference is strategic long term thinking which takes the entrepreneur off the survival mode and imagine an ideal world of unlimited possibilities, i.e. how we can build this product to a final form that enjoys customer success and disrupt the entire industry. Startup failure usually culminated in either the entrepreneur too entrenched in a short term or long term thinking. The trick is to be able to switch between this two modes of thinking. Hence a minimum viable product means that you have to build a product with the least amount of features and achieve maximum customer impact. Minimum viable products require discipline. Do not mistaken that to be launching crappy or irrelevant customer products which some startups alluded to. The product must work flawlessly for the small set of features advertised and allowed the business team to collect enough customer data to validate whether the business can be scaled. For a good set of misconceptions about the MVP, this article should suffice.

Lack of focus and execution also constituted why some startups fail. Bad product managers usually displayed the following traits: (a) when they cannot sell a product to the customer, they blame the product for having less features, (b) they crammed too much features without developing a set of working hypotheses to test whether the customers would use the features. It is painful to work with bad product managers and I have my fair share learning the trade of building and shipping products at a rapid pace. Learn to say no to product managers who keep insisting that we need more features, because chances are, they don’t have a clue. A good product manager is able to map business requirements to a small set of features with the engineering team and willing to take the risk of being too accommodating to customers.

How do you decide features in a MVP?

To guide a product manager and his engineering team, here are seven simple and robust principles which I have adopted:

  • Less is more in product development: Being disciplined about features is not the responsibility of the technology team, but the same with the product and business owners. The first rule of thumb is to brainstorm and kitchen sink all the features for an ideal product that you want to build. Once you have the ideal list and together with your team, start to reduce the set of features down to the minimum set that are subjected to two constraints: the shortest amount of time to take the product to market and the product having the capability to allow the business team performing experiments on customer discovery & validation.
  • The most Boring feature is the most Important one: The trick to customers loving a product is not to have too many or new features, but the quality of the feature. Most business owners, particularly in Asia, dissed the quality argument and ended up with a product that embedded too much features and not able to achieve their business objectives. The best example to demonstrate the argument is Instagram. There are many photo sharing mobile applications in the landscape but Instagram attracted the largest number of users and growth because they focused on making the most boring parts in a top notched form. The killer feature is the most boring feature: the uploading of the photos to their server and push into different social networks are remarkably fast as compared to other apps in the same category. Signing in can be simple but to make it flawless without attracting “404s” is a different ball game, and that comes to my next point.
  • The path of least resistance or Minimise Friction: In Dave McClure’s pirate metrics in growth hacking, the first three stages: acquisition (user awareness), activation (user sign ups) and retention (generate usage activity) are core steps to drive initial growth to your platform. The key is to ensure that the steps involved in activation and retention phase have to be flawless and minimise friction for the users. If you observed most new emerging digital services whether web or mobile, the sign up process typically uses Facebook, Twitter or LinkedIn connect as a single sign on system. The reason is to minimise the friction to create an account using an email, username and password. These social platforms allowed you to extract information about the user such that you can fill up the fields automatically without much hassle. At the same time, you can also leverage the social graph from these networks to probe or attract their connections to sign up on your service as well. A simple one click action is far more superior than giving user multiple choices and as different digital devices emerge beyond desktop and mobile such as wearables, your amount of actions are constrained by the screen size of that particular device.
  • Think Scarcity – Demand vs Supply: Scarcity is a fundamental feature on human society where our needs and wants are matched against limited resources. That implies that we cannot have everyone and bound to make tradeoffs in our pursuit of products. This feature gives rise to the fact that you may want to have mechanisms to limit the supply to your product and drive up the demand. The most interesting example is the Mailbox app. In the initial user growth phase, the makers of the app sent out limited invites and demanded that those who have installed the app to a long queue. Here’s what I have discovered upon continuously clicking on the app to check how far I am away from getting my invite. The number towards getting my chance to use the app increased rapidly, and I notice that I was subconsciously drawn to using the app often. Driving users towards an action using the scarcity principle could also create the power of habit with your users.
  • Focus on Closing the Loop for the user: You can drive user growth easily, and what you must always to do is to close the loop for the user. This is a fundamental question to ask, “What is the one action that matters to the user such that it creates that transaction?” The Uber mobile application is a great example. In the sign up step, it has acquired your credit card details. Following on to the phase where you use the app, within three steps of locating you will lead the driver to your location. Upon the driver picking you up and sending you to the final destination, a simple click pushes the payment transaction and close the loop between you and the company. Closing the loop is essential because there is no point in getting user traction without them closing the loop that generates the transactions that matter.
  • Iterate & Refine with User Feedback & Usage Data: Launch the MVP fast and get user feedback & usage data. In the early days, every customer will ask for more features and it is very easy to be distracted. The way to navigate around dealing with the inundation of noise on user feedback is to adopt the following rule: if and only if there is no traction to the first version, do a tally check on all the user’s features request and work out which one to implement first. Always trace the development of a new feature to how it could help to enhance the company’s business objective, and that’s the north star you need to angle your team towards. The best story I like to tell was how Jason Goldberg, co-founder of Fab.com sent a special login to an investor (who he has turned down to meet) and it gave a clear picture of the killer metrics that the company was growing at an exponential rate. In the end, the investor led a round of US$40M to fund them.
  • Be prepared to pivot if it’s not working: Upon a few tries, you still could not build user traction. The best course of action is to pivot, meaning that you work on another idea. It is alright to pivot, and if you do not believe me, Odeo failed and became Twitter.