How to Develop a Minimum Viable Product

The concept of the Minimum Viable Product has gained traction as a valuable tool to help improve the probability for success for new product launches and startups centered around a new product or service. But, there are misconceptions about what a minimum viable product is and many questions about how to create one. Building one is not that difficult. Here are a few thoughts on how to do so effectively.

 A True Minimum Viable Product Accelerates Learning

Entrepreneur Eric Ries championed the Minimum Viable Product as part of a concept he calls the “lean startup,” and a central tenet is that you need to start with a Minimum Viable Product:

 the minimum viable product is that version of a new product which allows a team to collect the maximum amount of validated learning about customers with the least effort.

This approach borrows from lean manufacturing, most notably the Toyota Production System. The driving emphasis is on, as Ries recently put it in an interview, “how do we stop wasting people’s time by building things nobody wants to use?” There is a tendency to equate a Minimum Viable Product with a cheap version of a full product. Before we build the next airliner, let’s first build a miniature one. But it isn’t as easy as that. Instead, the purpose of the Minimum Viable Product is to spend as little time as possible to start testing the customer experience (i.e., value proposition) with the customer as quickly as possible. Irrespective of your idea, it can only be made complete by testing it. So the MVP gets it in the hands of customers in order to “maximize as much learning in as little time,” as Steve Blank puts it in The Startup Owner’s Manual.

How to Build a Minimum Viable Product  

In their book Switch, Chip and Dan Heath put their finger on the essence of the challenge in introducing a new product, or idea, to the marketplace:

It’s hard to make ideas stick in a noisy, unpredictable, chaotic environment. If we’re to succeed, the first step is this: Be simple. Not simple in terms of “dumbing down” or “sound bites.” You don’t have to speak in monosyllables to be simple. What we mean by “simple” is finding the core of the idea. “Finding the core” means stripping an idea down to its most critical essence. To get to the core, we’ve got to weed out superfluous and tangential elements. But that’s the easy part. The hard part is weeding out ideas that may be really important but just aren’t the most important idea.

Designing the Minimum Viable Product, then, takes significant effort, debate and revision before you decide what to build. All of this is to push against our natural tendency to add features. We naturally think that to minimize the risk of failure we need to maximize the robustness of our idea. The opposite is in fact true: we need to get to as simple a solution as possible.   To do that, we need to first think through a value proposition hypothesis of our core idea. Most of us develop products and companies as a part of a team, so we can flesh this out in a series of discussions.

Next, we need to get customer feedback, to test whether anyone in fact cares about the idea. We developed a simple tool to help you lead those conversations.   Finally, we need to synthesize our learnings into an updated hypothesis about our core idea, and quickly turn that into a minimum viable product.

How to Screw Up a Minimum Viable Product  

There are two primary ways to eliminate value and waste time building a minimum viable product. The first is to invest too much capital in developing it. Steve Blank wrote an excellent and entertaining example about a startup that didn’t fully understand a minimum viable product. A common, basic example would be the following:

A healthcare startup wants to generate an automated clinical report for doctors. The idea is that a series of inputs go in to an algorithm, and a report is produced, elegantly formatted, with exactly the data that a doctor wants to see.

The minimum viable product is the elegantly formatted report, which can be manually tabulated and put together. It is not the algorithm, which takes engineering effort to build.   You can “hack” your way to the real value for a customer.

The other way you can screw up a minimum viable product is to not learn from it. If you don’t follow up with customers and ask probing questions about how it works for them, you will not gather the information you need in order to build it out effectively.  You need to revise your minimum viable product at intervals of weeks or a month and get more feedback in order to get it right.

By fully understanding and executing a minimum viable product, you can add a powerful tool to your arsenal in order to win hearts and minds of a market.