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What is a “Minimum Viable Product”?

07.15.2012, Business, Journal, Tech, by .

I decided to write this because I see two basic camps forming when it comes to the idea of creating a Minimum Viable Product (AKA MVP) for your product or service. Bear with me as I proceed to make some broad generalizations that nearly everyone will take some sort of issue with.

The Static HTML Page Camp

The first camp is comprised primarily of people who read books, but does include plenty of people who execute as well.  (The sets of “people who execute” and “people who read books” are not mutually exclusive.)  This group uses the definition provided to us by Eric Reis in his book The Lean Startup to argue that a good MVP is usually comprised of one single, simple, static html page + some google ad words.  Now, let’s look at the definition that Eric proposed: “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 is a pretty good definition of what a new startup should be doing at the beginning of its life, but is a static html ad-words landing page a minimum viable product?

The Minimum Viable Prototype Camp

The other camp is comprised of people who have usually spent a significant amount of time building or enhancing products and services.  This group understands that you need insight but thinks that, in most cases, a single static web page does not meet the “maximum amount of validated learning” portion of that definition.  They have typically picked up the terminology of Minimum Viable Product from someone else (potentially well before that book came out) and imposed their own definition based on the fairly intuitive nature of the wording.  They have looked at what successful companies are doing, looked at the time they have available, read numerous blog posts and comments extolling the virtues of a lean prototypes, and have determined that a 1 – 2 month prototype is the way to start a new venture.  They then call this prototype “their MVP”.

 Build, Measure, Learn... repeat.

So, who is correct?

Like everything else in life, both camps are partially correct, it’s just a matter of what you’re doing.

Yes, you want to do an extremely tiny amount of work to validate base assumptions at the outset of any venture.  Yes you want to be lean and agile while getting your prototype to market as quickly as possible.  But whether or not you need a functional prototype for people to use or something as simple as said static landing page is totally, completely, and utterly dependent on the core assumptions of your business.

There have been many books (one, two, three) written that explain how important it is to do your initial validation testing with what amounts to more than a single day’s worth of effort.  This helps prevent you from needlessly venturing down an inefficient path and incurring a huge opportunity cost during a time period where your assumptions aren’t very strong.  But, that acronym “M.V.P.” does include a V, as in viable.  We are validating assumptions, and what if your core assumption is that users will see enough value in a product, once they’ve used it, to share that product with their friends?  Good luck validating that assumption from a static landing page because it actually involves the behavior of a user once they’ve actually used the product.  Similarly, throughout Eric’s book he writes about gathering data from users and using that data to inform your future decisions.  How much data can you gather, that is related to your core assumptions, on a static landing page other than sales conversion statistics?

Many “get rich” books are written with the idea of listing and selling products primarily utilizing Google Ad Words for traffic.   The people who read these books (including the 3 I just linked to) start to think that an MVP is always about measuring the sales conversion rate for a hypothetical product through an Ad Words landing page.  These people also tend to frequent entrepreneurial blogs/message boards and run into people who are creating other types of companies, for example the ever-present, cliché San Francisco Tech startup.  These other companies often times have more involved products, services, and business plans.  They have businesses requiring more than just a high conversion rate on Ad Word traffic, and they need to validate much more complex assumptions.  (Remind me again, what’s your static HTML page for validating the viability of Instagram?).

In the end, when I see good, contributive, common sense blog posts like this one over at techcrunch, it frustrates me that the top few comments are all “well, that’s not really how to build an MVP”.  It’s certainly possible for a static HTML landing page to be an MVP, but it’s not a one-size-fits-all approach to building anyone’s Minimum Viable Product.

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