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How to Build a Minimal Viable Product (MVP)

The journey of many successful tech companies began with a simple yet effective concept: the minimum viable product (MVP). Take Dropbox, for instance, which started with a basic video demonstrating its file-syncing concept, enticing early adopters before a full-scale launch. Similarly, Twitter evolved from a rudimentary social media tool, initially named ‘twttr’, focusing on the core functionality of short messaging. Amazon, now a colossal e-commerce platform, began as a modest online bookstore, testing the waters of internet retail.

Embracing an MVP approach helps companies navigate product development with agility and foresight. By launching a product that is “good enough” to satisfy early customers, businesses can gather valuable feedback from user interviews, refine their offerings, and avoid the pitfalls of overinvestment in unproven ideas. In this article, we delve into how building an MVP can be a game-changer for startups, propelling them towards success.

What is a minimum viable product (MVP)?

A minimum viable product (MVP) is the most basic version of a product that can be released to test a business idea. This concept, popularized in Eric Ries’s The Lean Startup is part of the lean startup methodology ethos. This framework focuses on efficiency and learning from customer feedback with minimal initial investment.

When developing an MVP, businesses face a critical balancing act: the product must be simple enough to not overcommit resources, yet comprehensive enough to clearly demonstrate its value proposition. Founders need to ensure the MVP does enough to attract early adopters and provide valuable insights, without the complexity and cost of a fully developed product. This approach allows businesses to learn from real-world feedback, adapt quickly, and steer towards a more refined and market-ready offering.

A useful MVP analogy

One of the most useful insights into how to build an MVP comes from Henrik Kniberg. The famous MVP skateboard car image is a visual metaphor that illustrates the concept of developing a minimum viable product in stages, each stage providing a functional, albeit basic, solution to the user.

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It starts with a skateboard, representing the simplest form of transportation that still serves the purpose of moving a person from point A to point B. This evolves into more advanced forms: a scooter, a bicycle, a motorcycle, and finally, a car.

Each stage adds more features and capabilities, but even at its most basic (the skateboard), the product is usable and delivers value to the customer. This progression demonstrates the essence of the MVP approach: start small, validate, and improve incrementally, ensuring at each step that the product is providing real value to its users.

Of his famous skateboard analogy, Kniberg writes “In product development, one of the first things you should do (after describing what problem you are trying to solve for whom) is to identify your skateboard-equivalent.” He continues, “Think of the skateboard as a metaphor for the smallest thing you can put in the hands of real users, and get real feedback.”

The benefits of a minimum viable product

Exploring the benefits of an MVP reveals a strategic approach that goes beyond mere cost savings and speed to market. It’s about smart, customer-focused development, where each iteration brings a product closer to the heart of what users want. Here are the several benefits of building an MVP:

Validate product hypotheses

MVPs offer a direct way to test hypotheses. By focusing on building core features, an MVP helps to validate the market’s response to a product. This process helps founders refine their business model with real-world insights rather than assumptions.

Minimize capital investment

Developing an MVP requires less capital than launching a fully developed final product. This approach aligns with the lean startup methodology, emphasizing the importance of using just enough features to map the concept without overextending resources. It allows startups to allocate their budget more effectively and mitigate financial risks.

Secure investor confidence and funding

Presenting a well-developed MVP often proves crucial in attracting investor interest and raising venture capital funding. Demonstrating a functional MVP helps angel investors and venture capitalists visualize the potential of a business idea, making it easier to secure startup funding. This approach offers tangible evidence of a startup’s capabilities and the viability of its business model.

Refine towards product-market fit

Refining towards product-market fit is a dynamic process, and an MVP is an ideal tool for this. It enables startups to align their product closely with market needs based on user feedback. This iterative process ensures that the final product resonates well with its target audience, increasing the likelihood of success.

Gather customer feedback

Gathering feedback from customer research is key to the success of a business. An MVP, with its focus on core features, provides a platform for engaging early adopters and gathering valuable feedback. This user feedback is crucial for startups to understand customer needs and preferences, guiding product roadmap prioritization and the development of the product towards greater market acceptance.

Real-world examples of minimum viable products

MVPs have been the launching pad for numerous successful companies, providing a practical approach to test and refine their business ideas. Here are real-world examples that showcase the value of MVPs:

Spotify

Spotify, initially a simple technical prototype, was built to test fundamental assumptions: people’s willingness to stream music, artists’ readiness to allow legal streaming, and the technical feasibility of instant playback. This early version, stripped down to basic functionality, played only a few hard-coded songs and lacked polish, but it was crucial for validating the concept. By putting this basic MVP into the hands of friends and family, Spotify’s team quickly learned that instant, stable streaming was not only possible but also highly desired, laying the groundwork for the service’s future success and evolution.

Zappos

Zappos, now a major online shoe retailer, started as an MVP that didn’t hold any inventory. The founder, Nick Swinmurn, simply created a website with pictures of shoes from local stores and purchased them at retail price when orders came in. This approach validated the business idea of selling shoes online without the need for significant upfront investment in inventory.

Groupon

After an initial business pivot, Groupon was launched in a month as a two-for-one pizza offer sent out to an email list of 500 people. “The first version was still not pretty,” says founder Andrew Mason. However, the idea worked, evolving into Groupon’s model of daily deals. This MVP approach helped Groupon to quickly test the market’s interest in group buying, leading to its rapid growth and success in the deals space.

How to build and test minimum viable product

Building and testing an MVP combines innovation with practicality. Navigating this path requires a clear understanding of both your product vision and the market landscape. Here are seven steps to guide you through this process:

1. Define your ideal customer

An MVP starts with a clear understanding of who your ideal customer is. Founders should meticulously construct a profile of their target user, considering various factors that influence purchasing decisions and product use. This profile should include:

  • Industry: Identify the specific industry or sector your product serves.
  • Demographic details: Age, gender, income level, education, and location.
  • Psychographics: Interests, hobbies, values, and lifestyle choices.
  • Pain points: Specific problems or challenges your product aims to solve for them.
  • Buying behavior: How they make purchasing decisions and their preferred shopping channels.
  • Usage scenarios: Contexts in which they would use your product.

By gathering this information, businesses can tailor their MVP to meet the precise needs and preferences of their target market.

2. Hone in on your value proposition

Clearly define what sets your product apart and why customers should choose it over alternatives. To refine this value proposition, start with a competitive analysis; identify direct and indirect competitors and analyze their offerings. Understand their strengths and weaknesses and pinpoint gaps that your product can fill.

Next, focus on your product’s unique benefits and how it solves problems differently or more effectively than existing solutions. Ask yourself: What specific needs does my product address that others don’t? How does my approach differ from existing solutions in the market? What unique benefits can my customers expect that they won’t find elsewhere? Your value proposition should succinctly encapsulate these unique selling points, making it clear to potential customers why your product is the best choice for their needs.

3. Set a budget

A well-planned budget ensures that resources are allocated efficiently, preventing overspending while achieving the MVP’s objectives. When crafting a budget for an MVP, consider including:

  • Development costs: Expenses related to software or product development, including hiring developers or purchasing necessary tools.
  • Design expenses: Costs for designing the user interface and user experience.
  • Marketing and promotion: Budget for initial marketing ideas and marketing tools to attract early adopters and testers.
  • Market research: Budget for conducting research, including incentives for customers participating in interviews or surveys (e.g. gift cards, product discounts).
  • Operational costs: Daily operating expenses, including hosting services, domain registration, and any required licenses.

By clearly defining these budget categories, you can maintain financial control and focus on building an MVP that delivers value while staying within financial constraints.

4. Select a time frame

Set a clear deadline for building your MVP, typically ranging from a few weeks to a few months, depending on the complexity of your product. This finite period forces focus and prioritization, ensuring that only essential features are developed. A defined end date also facilitates a shift from development to gathering feedback and iterating, preventing the project from languishing in perpetual refinement.

5. Create your MVP

Creating an MVP differs from creating a prototype. While a prototype is often used to explore a concept or design internally, an MVP is designed for external validation and testing with real users. It’s important to understand that creating an MVP doesn’t always mean intricate building or engineering. The point of an MVP is to test your business hypothesis with the least effort and resources.

An MVP can take various forms, each tailored to gather specific feedback from your target audience. Examples include:

  • Basic version of the product: Such as a simplified app or website, with only the essential features to fulfill the core value proposition.
  • Landing page: A simple web page describing your product idea to gauge interest and collect email sign-ups.
  • Explainer video: A brief video outlining your product’s concept, used to observe viewer engagement and interest levels.
  • Concierge test: Offering the service manually behind the scenes, like a human-powered version of the proposed software.
  • Crowdfunding campaign: To assess market demand and acquire initial funding.
  • Mock-up or wireframe: Basic visual representations of the product used for early feedback on design and functionality.
  • Survey or feedback form: Directly asking potential customers about their needs and interest in your proposed solution.

These forms of MVPs allow for testing key assumptions about your business idea with real users, providing valuable insights with minimal investment. The goal is to learn and iterate quickly, not necessarily to build a fully functioning product from the outset.

6. Get feedback from early adopters

Once your MVP is in the hands of early users, gather as much insightful feedback as possible. This feedback not only validates your business idea but also guides the direction of further development. When seeking feedback, aim for specific, actionable insights. Here are key questions to ask your testers:

  • What is your overall impression of the product?
  • How does the product fit into your daily routine or workflow?
  • What similar products or solutions are you currently using?
  • What prompted you to try our product instead of sticking with your current solution?
  • How does our product compare to other options you’ve tried?
  • Are there any aspects where you feel competitors are doing better?
  • What features did you find most useful?
  • What features did you find least useful?
  • Can you describe any difficulties or frustrations you experienced while using the product?
  • If you were to stop using our product, what would be the reason?
  • What improvements or additional features would you suggest?
  • How likely are you to recommend this product to others?
  • What would make our product indispensable for you?

7. Iterate, build, or abandon

An MVP is inherently temporary, a stepping stone to gauge market interest and gather critical feedback. The final stage is deciding whether to iterate, build, or abandon. Based on the insights gained from early adopters, the next steps should be carefully considered.

  • Iterate: If the feedback indicates potential but highlights areas for improvement, iteration is key. This involves refining the MVP, enhancing features, and possibly adding new functionalities that align with user needs.
  • Build: In cases where the MVP receives overwhelmingly positive feedback and clear signs of market demand, it’s time to build. This means scaling the product, investing more resources, and fully developing the concept that the MVP tested successfully.
  • Abandon: If the MVP fails to generate interest or the feedback consistently suggests that the product does not meet market needs, it may be wise to abandon the project. This decision, though difficult, saves resources and time that can be redirected to more viable projects.

The MVP process is about learning quickly and responding appropriately to what the market tells you. The learnings from this experience are invaluable and can guide future product endeavors

Build beyond your MVP with DigitalOcean

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