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What Is a Minimum Viable Product

Putting out an MVP in early development buys you time to gather data and gauge consumer interest, as did companies like Twitter, Oculus, and Dropbox.

Remember when you were a little kid and the night before your birthday party a horrifying vision flashed through your mind where no one shows up? Launching an app is kind of the same thing, but more expensive. You have spent months developing and perfecting your product. But what happens when the "final" product is built and you don't have any customers?

To prevent loss of time, money and expectation, a minimum viable product (MVP) can help you find your sweet spot.

What Exactly Is a Minimum Viable Product?

The term, popularized by entrepreneur Eric Ries in his bestselling book, Lean StartUp, is a strategy for gaining critical feedback in the early and most crucial stages of product development.

diagram of minimum viable product development as locomotive

Fueled founder Rameet Chawla says an MVP is particularly useful because it allows products to grow and evolve by challenging teams to test and rework their ideas.

“First-time entrepreneurs are stuck on the idea of perfection," he says. "They will spend months building and perfecting their vision. But, as soon as a product is tested in the real world, I guarantee that vision changes. You’re not building your product for yourself, you’re building it for others. An MVP allows you to observe how people react to the product and if it works the way you want it to work. While the core idea will remain the same, testing a raw product gives you the power of information to improve it.”

Decide exactly what your unique selling point is, present it clearly to your customer and see how they respond. Rather than building a company first around a product that may or may not flop, putting out an MVP in early development buys you time to gather data and gauge relevant consumer interest.

Companies Use MVPs in Different Ways

Twitter

Twitter was originally called Twittr and was developed to help Odeo, its founding company's employees communicate via text messages. The small scale company operated without hashtags, @ replies, or web access at first. Twitter co-founder Evan Williams, believes "any time you’re building a product, there are a million things you want to add to make it better, but the fact is the vast majority of them will not impact your success." It is better to start small and gradually improve features and integrate feedback so you can perfect each one individually.

Zappos

Before Zappos had an e-commerce shop set up they were operating like an eBay store. They would take photos of shoes at a nearby mall and if someone put in an order they would run out and buy those shoes. This was obviously not a scalable strategy, but it did offer proof of interest.

Rent the Runway

The online dress rental company, Rent the Runway, tested its model in person before building the original concept online by providing an in-person dress rental for female college students. Anyone could try on dresses in person before renting them and 34% of the women walked away with dresses, validating Rent the Runway's MVP.

minimal viability product in the case of rent the runway shown as three black dresses
Rent the Runway broke a couple stilettos before getting their stride

Groupon

In an excerpt from Eric Reis' The Lean Startup, Andrew Mason, the founder of Groupon shared the company's MVP, which was essentially a Wordpress blog and hundreds of PDF coupons.

"All we did was we took a WordPress Blog and we skimmed it to say Groupon and then every day we would do a new post with the points embedded. It was ridiculous. 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. The actual coupon generation that we were doing was all FileMaker. We would run a script that would email the coupon PDF to people. It got to the point where we’d sell 500 sushi coupons in a day and we’d send 500 PDFs to people with Apple Mail at the same time. Really the first, until July of the first year was just a scrambling to grab the tiger by the tail. It was trying to catch up and reasonable piece together a product.”

4 Ways to Get Your MVP to Market

1. Use A Landing Page

The more visits a site receives, the more you can be sure there is an interest in your product. On the landing page, ask for an email addresses and respond, “Thanks, we will let you know when it’s ready.” You can even encourage sharing and potential virality by using products like LaunchRock's "coming soon" page. Give yourself some time to see if demand exists before jumping in head first.

Bear CSS’s landing page has a very short and concise explanation of what the product does:

minimal-viable-product
"Helping you build a solid stylesheet foundation based on your markup."

A tagline like Bear CSS’s is an important element; it helps people "get it" quickly and it will become synonymous with your product, similar to its name and logo. TinyLetter is another great example. It's appealing, uncluttered and accessible. The engaging tagline:

"Email for people with something to say"

is in the center of the page, bolded. The site has three bullet points that explain how the email platform works in under 100 words and the sign-up button sits prominently at the top of the page no matter how far down the page you scroll. The page also features a video explaining the product is and how to use it, which brings us to number two on our list.

2. Launch a Product Video

Believe it or not, a product video counts as an MVP. An explanatory product video allows you to tell your audience about your product and show them how to use it. Think of it as a short tutorial or a crash course.

In its infancy, Dropbox used a short animation video with no frills to introduce its first MVP. With the help of some paper cut-outs, a hand and a commentator, the animation begins with a common problem, how Dropbox solves it, then how to use it. That video, along with some sweet viral marketing tactics (free storage space for you!), helped Dropbox grow to 100 million users in five years.

The Los Angeles based startup DollarShaveClub.com used a different approach with its video. It's still short and sweet, but also incredibly entertaining. The founder (who was an actor and comedian before turning to startup entrepreneurship) walks through a warehouse explaining the benefits of his business, which mails razors to you monthly. While he is informative, the background boasts a toddler shaving a man’s head, a bear suit, a leaf blower and a machete. No reason your video can’t be comical and there is a good chance it will be more viral if it is.

3. Try Kickstarter

Kickstarter is a great test of your product’s potential. If people are willing to fund your efforts, you can feel confident in moving forward and will have the cash to do so.

minimal viable product
Test the waters by crowdfunding!

Devslopes is an app that was initially funded via Kickstarter campaign that teaches beginners how to code for various platforms. The company raised $193,000 from 2,149 backers. The app has since been able to grow to over 30 courses aimed at helping anyone learn to program for various phones and computers.

Oculus, the virtual reality hardware and software company, raised money for its Oculus Rift through a Kickstarter campaign. The company raised $2.5 million and in 2014 Facebook bought Oculus for 2 billion.

Defining Your MVP

Paul Choi, CEO of Worry Free Labs, a mobile UX, design and development firm based in New York City says that, “While the term “MVP” is thrown around quite a bit in our industry, we consider an MVP to be when a product is a good enough point to be released and gain traction in the market, so that it can build a user base."

A successful Minimum Viable Product will tell you what features are best, what must be changed, or whether your product has market potential at all. If your MVP does not find success that does not mean failure. At the very start of your product development, you have enormous flexibility, so you are able to continue tweaking until you receive the ideal response. Think of an MVP as bait: you will not be able to attract any customers without something essential at the end of your hook.

With time, and perhaps even with multiple MVPS, you will gain insight and observation. “It’s okay if your app doesn’t land in the app store and immediately gain half a million users,” says Fueled's Rameet Chawla. “Test and then retest. Don’t be afraid to pivot and launch as many versions as it takes for you and your users to be satisfied with the product. It will only get better.”

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