What’s an MVP?

If you ask the average person on the street what an MVP is, odds are they’ll think it has something to do with sports. Or a movie starring a chimp.

But the term takes on a very different meaning in the world of tech startups and Silicon Valley.

At its most basic, an MVP (minimum viable product) is the most basic version of your product vision that lets you test your key assumptions so you can replace phrases like ‘I think’ or ‘I feel’ with ‘the data shows.’ It’s a way to learn what users really want without wasting time.

A minimum viable product allows companies to test a hypothesis while lowering risk. That means releasing a product with fewer features to a core group of users so you can gather data on how the product is used.

This saves time by learning faster, getting to product-market fit quicker and by avoiding building features that sound useful but in reality aren’t valuable to the end user.

The Origin Story

The term was first coined by Frank Robinson, CEO of SyncDev. Authors Steve Blank and Eric Ries helped popularize the term around 2011.

Blank credits Robinson with inventing many of the concepts that would form the basic ideas behind MVPs.

In his bestselling book, Lean Startup, Eric Ries defined a minimum viable product as: “…that version of a new product which allows a team to collect the maximum amount of validated learning about customers with the least effort.

While in many ways it’s true that savvy entrepreneurs have been doing this for ages, it wasn’t until Ries’ use of the term that “minimum viable product” became part of the collective conversation.

Since then, companies have used the MVP concept as a tactic in developing solutions users want.

As the popularity of the term has grown so too has the confusion surrounding what an MVP is and what role it plays in helping companies find product-market fit.

Testing A Hypothesis

In 2006, Andrew Mason became frustrated when he was unable to cancel a cellphone contract. He started thinking there had to be a way to leverage the bargaining power of a large number of people.

The following year he launched The Point, with the aim of organizing people around a cause or goal.

The site failed to gain widespread popularity, but one group of users decided they would use The Point to help them save money. They decided to pull people together to buy the same product and receive group discounts.

Mason and co-founder Eric Lefkofsky decided to pivot the company into a group buying site, creating Groupon. At first, the site was little more than a WordPress template outfitted with the Groupon logo.

“It was totally ghetto,” Mason told Mixergy in an interview.

“We would sell t-shirts on the first version of Groupon. We’d say in the write-up, ‘This t-shirt will come in the color red, size large. If you want a different color or size, email that to us.’ We didn’t have a form to add that stuff. We were just, it was so cobbled together. It was enough to prove the concept and show that it was something that people really liked.”

Those early incarnations of Groupon served as an MVP. An MVP tends to be scrappy and with few bells and whistles. Through their own clients, they were able to recognize something missing from the market, create a hypothesis on how to fill that void, and then effectively test that hypotheses.

By staying scrappy they were nimble enough to adapt the product as they learned more. By having an MVP mentality it was easier to pivot their business when their original idea didn’t get results.

They used the site to test, tweak, and improve their core business. Eventually they became so successful they went public in 2011 in the biggest IPO since Google seven years earlier.

Get Out Of The Building

Data collection and analysis need to follow the release of an MVP. So it’s important to listen to those initial users. But who are these people?

Typically, you want to target early adopters. People who enjoy trying out new products can be more forgiving of any bugs and are more likely to give feedback.

But what’s important is listening to their feedback.

“In a startup no facts exist inside the building, only opinions,” says Steve Blank, in his book The Startup Owner’s Manual. There are many ways to collect data from an MVP.

Customer interviews can offer great insights and validation of your hypothesis.

An effective landing page can gauge different features by seeing what visitors click on the most. While A/B testing can help determine the popularity of different designs.

Online ad campaigns can target the demographic you hope to attract to see if that market is interested in your solution. And Crowdsourced fundraising will give you a good idea of the level of interest in your product.

There are any number of ways to collect the data. But you need to get out of the building and listen to these early adopters. You MVP should be the simplest thing you can show these early adopters that will properly test your key assumptions and hypotheses.

Finding The Right Fit

By testing and evaluating, a company is able to continuously hone in on what resonates most with its customers. Even after you’ve found product market fit it’s important to remember that the product is never finished.

The market is continuously changing which means the product must continuously iterate and improve to meet the users’ needs.

Technically an MVP is successful if it allows you to objectively validate or invalidate the hypothesis it was designed to test. Obviously most founders are looking to not just validate their hypothesis but to see a strong positive response that shows product-market fit.

When you see strong demand and growth for your MVP you’ll have one of the key ingredients investors look for.

Myths

There are many myths surrounding MVPs. Some that can be downright devastating to a young startup if they’re believed.

More features is better — it will allow us to test more

Building an MVP isn’t about implementing every feature dreamed up on the office whiteboard.

Your goal should be to test your hypothesis. You want to see if customers enjoy certain features. By adding more features you muddy the waters and you make it less clear whether or not you successfully tested your hypothesis.

By definition your MVP should be scaled-down from the beginning. It’s much easier to test and refine a small number of features. You can implement new ideas later, as you progress.

If the MVP didn’t find product-market fit then it failed

A hypothesis is inherently neutral. The whole point of an MVP is to test your assumptions.

A successful test is one where you’ve learned something important that forces you to either update your understanding of the customer and their needs or that validates your understanding of the market.

You obviously want to build something people want so that you can have a profitable business but if you introduce that bias into your experiments you make it less likely that you’ll have a marketable product.

Plenty of companies have began by offering a very different product to the ones that they ultimately became famous for.

Yelp is a perfect example. The company began life as a way to email recommendations to friends. Their problem hypothesis was correct (people want recommendations when choosing services and those are hard to find) but their MVP wasn’t a good solution to that problem.

While testing their MVP the company noticed people were writing reviews of local businesses for fun. They then pivoted to focus on this behavior and became the company we know today.

MVPs are always ugly and cheap

The purpose of an MVP isn’t to save money (although that will often be the case). An MVP is about learning as quickly as possible. Sometimes the best way to fully test a hypothesis is to build a polished version of what the user wants.

If design is a core part of your user experience, its important to take that into consideration. A fashion e-commerce site needs to look sleek and be easy to navigate. Their MVP should be fully branded because in cases like these, design is crucial to getting valid feedback.

Looking to build your own MVP? Gigster can help.

Tyler Trumbull

Ty splits his time between Canada and Mexico. He’s been writing for Gigster since early 2016 where he really enjoys learning and sharing clients’ stories. He plays banjo in one of Mexico’s only country bands, wishes he could write like Thomas Pynchon, and is generally a fan of the Oxford comma.