A short while ago, we wrote about the difference between validating your startup idea and creating a minimum viable product.

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

For most products, there can be a step between idea validation and MVP that often gets missed in discussions of lean development – the prototype.

We’ve recently worked on a number of prototypes which have helped our clients to visualise their MVP, test assumptions and gather feedback that will inform product development.

In this post, we’re going to look at the differences between an MVP and a prototype, as well as a real life example from one of our investments.

Firstly, let’s get some definitions straight…

MVP vs prototype

In his blog post Your MVP is Minimal, but is it Viable?, entrepreneur and VC, Alex Iskold, points out the difference between an MVP and a prototype…

“If a product is too simple, and falls below the bar, it won’t be well received, and not likely take off. If the product is too simple, and doesn’t solve the problem, and doesn’t activate and retain the customers, it is not an MVP. It maybe a prototype, and there lies the difference.”

An MVP needs to be both minimal and viable whereas a prototype can just be minimal.

A prototype can be used to test your product’s main functionality in a particular environment. It might be a series of pen and paper mockups, a static version of your app which allows users to click through and provide feedback on the UX, or it could be a stripped back bare bones version of your product that proves a hypothesis.

A prototype will help you test hypotheses and while it may (or may not) be functional, it is a version of your product (or one of it’s features) that is not ready for launch.

In his blog post Throw your prototype in the bin, developer Gareth Shapiro, compares the prototype to an architect’s model and an MVP to a show home:

“The reason for building a prototype is to start discussion. It’s much easier to get people engaged with an idea if there is some way they can see it or even better interact with it. You can’t live in an architect’s model but you can pick it up in your hands and look at it. Your imagination can transport you into what the corresponding space might be like in an actual building and more importantly you can do this with other people in real time. All from clever use of cardboard and glue.”

You can’t sell your prototype, but you can use it to test assumptions, prove the concept for your MVP and gather feedback.

Let’s take a look at the most recent prototype we’ve worked on as an example…

Example: Ordable

The latest addition to Simpleweb’s investment portfolio, Ordable is a digital gateway for people to order and pay in advance at their favourite cafes and coffee shops – beating the queue and earning loyalty rewards.

While the concept seems simple, the technology is a little more complex. Not only does there need to be a customer facing app that will allow users to order coffees, there needs to be a vendor app to allow coffee shops to receive orders. On top of that, the two apps need to communicate with each other efficiently so that drinks are prepared and ready on time.

Before diving into the MVP, we built basic prototype versions of both the customer facing app, and the vendor app, which connected to allow us to make test orders in real coffee shops. The prototype was nowhere near ready to be released to the public; it was messy, difficult to use and key features like payments and push notifications were missing. It was definitely minimal, but it was in no way viable.

Instead, the prototype allowed us to test the process of ordering a coffee from an app, outside of the coffee shop. It allowed us to validate our approach to the development by seeing if the two apps could communicate effectively in a real-life situation. The prototype wouldn’t work as a finished product, it’s just not viable, but it did validate our assumptions around the best approach for development, setting us up perfectly to create the MVP.

Note: It’s worth mentioning that Ordable have since been using the prototype as a sales tool to get coffee shops on board in time for launch. Another of our investments, OLIO, used design mockups to demo the product to potential users at local events within their launch area. While in both cases the prototypes were created to test assumptions, they ended up playing a crucial role in early customer acquisition.


A prototype doesn’t have to involve building anything. There are plenty of ways to test hypotheses around your product’s functionality. Take food-waste fighting startup OLIO, who set up a Whatsapp group that replicated the app’s main features before getting us in to start work on an MVP.

Remember that a prototype is not the same as an MVP, but rather a means of validating assumptions for your MVP in a truly lean fashion – quickly and on the cheap.

To find out how Simpleweb can help with your MVP, get in touch today.

Related Stories