The Minimum Viable Product (MVP) term has outlived its usefulness. Since “MVP” was first popularized by Eric Reis’s book The Lean Startup in 2011, it’s become a catch-all term that means both far more and far less than it once did.
This happened gradually, as the term was first picked up by anyone attempting to launch a startup company. Then the success of some startups made the term sexy for large companies looking to innovate.
This has led to its overuse and clouded the idea behind MVPs. The concept wasn’t developed for every new product situation. It’s an approach for building something new when you face a lot of unknowns.
I believe it’s time to retire the term altogether.
What an MVP Isn’t
People act like an MVP is a magical method to get them everything they want without spending very much money. It is not.
An MVP isn’t cheap.
The misconception that it should be is most prevalent among new startups, who are focused on the word “minimum.” They’re interested in how they can spend the least amount of money on their project.
An MVP does not include everything you want.
Many people believe that unless every feature is included, the MVP won’t be complete. The worry is that failure will ruin their brand. They’re forgetting the value that failure provides in learning. Failure does not have to be fatal, especially if you start small.
In large companies, “MVP” is often confused with the terms “proof of concept,” “pilot,” “research and development,” or “prototype.” Exactly where does MVP fit with those terms? If a company’s current development process is focused on safety and risk reduction, the MVP concept is a scary proposition. While they understand the benefits of Agile, they can’t wrap their minds around MVP.
What an MVP Is
The MVP concept focuses on six things:
- Testing Your Idea (hypothesis) – You may think you have “the next big thing,” but how do you know for sure? It’s easy to become blinded by the conviction of our own worldview. Good research and design reduce the possibility of building the wrong thing, but there is no substitute to testing your product in the marketplace.
- Accelerating Your Learning – Creating a new product is a journey that requires you to learn and adapt as you go. This means we have to open our minds to accept the feedback we are getting. The faster you can do this, the less money you will waste building your product.
- Focusing on the Core Value of Your Product – Disciplined focus is a key to success in any endeavor. An MVP forces you to define the value proposition of your product clearly and narrowly. This requires you to be explicit about your vision and define the value being provided to your customer. An MVP keeps you focused by avoiding the trap of traveling down feature bunny trails. It’s not uncommon for products to become feature-bloated and lose their way.
- Reducing Waste in Your Software Build – Engineers are vulnerable to overbuilding in a pursuit of technical perfection. However, technical perfection does not exist! I’ve seen this happen more than once in my career. There are no guarantees that new tech will really make life easier for everyone. Building just enough to test your product idea means that if rework is necessary, the amount of rework is minimal. When you keep your product release minimal, you’ll be able to stay more nimble and responsive to the marketplace.
- Creating Relationships with Your Customers – No product will succeed if customers don’t get it…or don’t like it. In their early life, MVPs are more apt to connect with visionaries or early adopters. These customers have the chance to become your fans. When leveraged correctly, they can provide you with feedback and marketing power as your MVP evolves.
- Reducing Risk – This idea sits at the heart of MVP. When you have so many unknowns, you need a way to call out and manage your risks. A proper MVP does this through the learnings it generates and by properly managing the financial investment over time. A big-bang approach fails terribly in this regard.
A Better Alternative
The Agile methodology is becoming a mainstream process for developing new digital products. It’s no longer that weird thing used by the cool kids. In fact, Agile is now expanding into large corporations to help them manage their product portfolios through the Scaled Agile framework. The mainstreaming of Agile provides one reason why the MVP term is so over-used and misunderstood.
Recently, it has become much easier technically to do continuous delivery as part of the development process. All the development tools and advances in cloud solutions have made this possible. As such, delivering incremental change to products is becoming natural to development teams.
This means the mantra of “Think Big, Go Small, Learn Fast” is easier to accomplish. The trick is recognizing when you have something that you can put in the hands of your early adopters. Maybe this is your MVP? Or maybe it’s just an alpha version?
I believe we should put the MVP term behind us and instead focus on a digital product development process that allows for continuous delivery. If you are in a startup, testing your ideas across your business and in your development practice is critical for success. If you work in a company, you should promote proofs of concept and prototypes as ways to experiment and test ideas. And your IT department needs to be comfortable with Bimodal practices to succeed.
Incremental delivery of small changes will give you the best chance to learn without putting your product at risk.
In The Startup Way, Eric Ries expands clarifies his thinking on the MVP concept. He outlines the process of generating *many* MVPs to test different hypotheses. Many folks build only a single MVP and call it good. That is a recipe for failure. You wouldn’t do a single science experiment and claim victory, so why do it in business? Discovering Product-Market fit requires many experiments and differing approaches to generate enough data from which to build a profitable enterprise.
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