The term MVP (minimum viable product) gets thrown around a lot, and it seems to mean something very different to different people. Some people refer to landing pages as MVPs (this famous post from Buffer is a good example) and some entrepreneurs have been known to spend £500k or more on what they considered to be their minimum viable product.

Mark Pincus, founder of Zynga, gave an interesting interview at the Web Summit 2014 in Dublin. Pincus started the social network tribe.net before Facebook and MySpace, and had this to say about its failure:

“I had an instinct around social networking… but I didn’t have the right idea. Because I pursued just one idea I did myself and my users a disservice. What I should have done was try a few dozen ideas in that zone. My lesson was… how do we all figure out what it is that users really want, what resonates with people, and use the least number of engineering days to get there.” – Mark Pincus

You can watch the interview for yourself here:

There are two distinct parts to Mark’s learning that relate back to the concept of an MVP:

  1. Figuring out what users want
  2. Using the least number of engineering days to get there

In other words, validating your idea by figuring out if anyone wants it, and building the most basic set of features (in the least number of days) to turn your idea into a working product.

Idea validation is establishing if there’s a market for your idea, whereas an MVP allows you to test your implementation of the product as quickly and cheaply as possible.

You might argue that it doesn’t really matter what the difference is, but it really does. In order to create a great product quickly and efficiently, you probably need to validate your idea, and build an MVP. There’s certainly ambiguity, and not every successful business has taken this approach, but there’s no doubt that understanding what you’re testing and why you’re testing it is massively important to your startup.

In this post, we’re going to look at different ways of validating ideas and developing MVPs and how you can do both to grow your startup quickly and efficiently.

Idea Validation

Before testing your product with an MVP, you need to test your idea to see if there’s a profitable market for it and, if there is, gain an understanding of the market before you start working on your product.

A landing page is not a minimum viable product. A landing page is a means of testing your idea and gathering leads. Are people interested enough to give you their email address? Are they keen enough to refer friends and family in exchange for early access to your product?

Take OLIO as an example. OLIO is a startup aiming to connect people so that they can exchange surplus food.

To validate their idea, founders Saasha Celestial-One and Tessa Cook set up a landing page to collect email addresses from interested people.

olio

They included a postcode field, so that they can find out where people are the most interested, and roll the app out to the those areas first.

Saasha and Tessa also decided to run a trial using WhatsApp, connecting 12 neighbours and 1 local health-food retailer and allowing them to swap excess food.
IMG_1155By testing their idea on WhatsApp, they learned that their users didn’t want to give two-way feedback, but wanted to leave feedback anonymously in case they bumped into neighbours in the street. Without this trial, Saasha and Tessa would have spent unnecessary time and budget building a feature that would turn users off. Additionally, the trial users loved it so much they asked for the WhatsApp group to remain active even after the trial period had ended, further validating the food-sharing idea.

If you don’t validate your idea, you run the risk of invalidating an idea that could have been successful under a different execution. Think back to the Mark Pincus quote from the beginning of this article…

“Because I pursued just one idea I did myself and my users a disservice. What I should have done was try a few dozen ideas in that zone.”

Had Mark tested several ideas in social networking, he may very well have created a product to rival Facebook or Twitter, instead of focussing all his effort on a product that nobody wanted.

MVP

The Minimum Viable Product is the version of your product that fulfils your business goals and tests your initial market research, with the least amount of effort. It can evolve and be iterated upon based on user adoption and feedback. Think of an MVP as a means of validating a product direction rather than an idea.

For example, now that OLIO has proved that there is a market for their food sharing idea, they will build a simple application that allows users to post and collect surplus food. This MVP will be tested in the founders’ home district of Crouch-End, London, where feedback can be used to improve the app through further iterations before it is rolled out nationally.

Setting limits for your MVP

The Curve is a web application that allows businesses to share energy investment data so that they can learn from each other and thus reduce their carbon footprints faster. The Curve had set a budget for their MVP, with the most important features prioritised for the first release. This first release includes the core functionality, so that people can begin using the app and provide feedback that will shape future releases.

Constraints for MVPs vary but the majority of people set a time, cost or feature-set that limits how much effort is expended. Make sure you set strict limits. Ideas will likely come pouring out of your MVP efforts but it’s important to stick to your guns and not get distracted. The more distracted you get, the more you risk spending extra time and money on a product that nobody wants. Keep track of all your ideas and consider building them into a future release based on feedback.

Designing your MVP

Another consideration for MVPs is how much look and feel really matters. You want to ship something fast, within the lowest possible budget, but does this mean putting design and user experience on the back burner?

While you might be strapped for cash, and time, remember that your MVP should be something people can (and want to) actually engage with. It doesn’t need to be beautiful but it does need to provide a good user experience that allows people to interact with the features. This will allow users to stick with your product long enough to provide the feedback you need for future iterations. A difficult to use interface is going to turn users off, which could lead you to believe your product won’t work, when, with a nicer interface, it could have been very successful. Try beta testing your MVP with a small group of users before releasing it to a wider audience to find out if it’s actually usable.

This brilliant diagram shows how every iteration of your product should provide a great user experience while improving on the last release…

mvp

Ambiguities

While it’s sometimes easy to figure out what’s idea validation and what’s product validation (MVP), there is a lot of ambiguity. While it’s usually best to validate an idea before building an MVP, it doesn’t always happen that way.

When we started working with Social Belly after they won our #GetStarted2014 startup competition, founder Dimple Lalwani had already created an MVP of sorts, although at that stage, it was unclear whether she was testing the idea or the product…

Social Belly is a platform for connecting foodies with dinner parties with the ultimate aim of building communities of like-minded people. On a budget of just £500, Dimple had created a website in Squarespace that allowed her to advertise dinner parties and let users join the table if they wanted to attend. While this is an MVP in that it allowed Dimple to begin connecting hosts with diners, it could also be considered a means of testing her idea to see whether people were actually interested in hosting and attending dinner parties with strangers.

Before she started building, Dimple had discussed her idea with her network, and explored supper clubs to validate her idea and prove her market. Had she dived straight into building her MVP, she would have run the risk of creating a product that no one wanted. This wouldn’t necessarily invalidate her idea however, it would invalidate her execution.

Simpleweb recently spoke to investor, shared workspace entrepreneur and Coherent founder Gavin Eddy, who said he believed a great product was down to great execution…

“I started off thinking that it was all about the idea, but as I invested more and more, I realised that the idea is only a very small element of the success of a business. Now I’m not sure that I really believe in good ideas. What I believe in is good execution.” – Gavin Eddy

You don’t have to validate your idea before you start building your MVP, but doing so could save you bundles of time and money, and protect you from writing off an idea that someone else could make millions off by executing differently in the future.

Outside of the box MVPs

There’s no correct way to build an MVP, or to validate your ideas. What works for one startup won’t necessarily work for another.

Take Coherent as an example. Coherent is an app that allows workspace operators to manage their space and encourages workers to connect and collaborate. While the plan is to roll Coherent out to workspace operators around the country in the future, it will initially be used to serve its parent company, Forward Space, who run several shared workspaces in the South-West, as well as 5 other early adopters.

As a workspace operator itself, Forward Space has molded it’s MVP on it’s own requirements. The first iteration of the Coherent app will serve Forward Space and 5 other workspaces whose feedback will be used to shape future iterations. In this instance, Forward Space is the market, and the worst case scenario is that they will create an app that serves to improve productivity and customer service in their business.

This approach won’t work for most startups, but it just goes to show that there is no template for validating your idea or creating a successful MVP. It is entirely dependent on your business and what you want to achieve.

Conclusion

Most startup ideas can be executed in many different ways, and a lot of experienced entrepreneurs and investors will agree that success is a result of execution over ideas.

When you have an idea, it’s important that you validate that idea. Do people have the problem you think they do? Will they pay for a product that fixes that problem? Is your idea going to fix that problem? Is there a market for your idea?

When you’ve validated your idea, you can figure out how to execute it. Build an MVP to test your product, not your idea. Your MVP failed? That doesn’t mean you had a bad idea, it more likely means your execution was the fault.

If you’d like advice on validating your startup idea or creating an MVP, get in touch with Simpleweb today for an informal chat.

If you’d like to discuss your startup or project, get in touch with Simpleweb today.

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