Start with an MVP: Save Startup Time and Money

The Internet is full of numerous articles on an MVP, explaining what it is, why you need it, and how to apply Scrum and Agile in its development. All of these articles are practically the same. They are full of complicated terms, and they usually leave users with even more questions.

This article addresses an MVP concisely but in the simplest possible way. When do you need it? How to develop it? What do you need to do after you build it? We invite you to take a closer look at examples and world-famous successful cases.

MVP Described Simply

An MVP (minimal viable product) is a version of a product which provides the most for a user, while having a limited feature set at hand.

The most basic example of an MVP is any tangible product. For instance, you are a manufacturer or a distributor of perfect Swiss army knives which tend to be quite helpful at a picnic. A knife includes a fork, a spoon, a tin-opener, and other tools. You spend time manufacturing it, rent a cool loft office, start sales but you do not get the result you were hoping for because no one buys the knives. So, you end up having office and manufacturing expenses and zero profit.

What is wrong? Well, you are so madly in love with your product that you forget to conduct any kind of survey or market research, and you ignore the MVP development stage. You mistakenly assume that the knives would instantly get a huge demand but the reality proves you wrong. And you never know the reason for that until you directly ask a user about it.

In this case your MVP could be a small series of simple knives with a basic set: a knife, itself, a corkscrew, and a bottle opener. Sliced fruits and an open bottle of wine or lemonade together can be called a picnic, right? Only after a product shows its worth, you can ask a user what else would be better added. A fork? A spoon? A built-in Bluetooth speaker?

Perhaps, you don’t even need a real series of knives. Simply make a product prototype, create a landing page, allocate a small ad budget, and conduct online surveys. This way you know if there is any demand for your product; what the audience likes and dislikes; and what they are expecting. 

An MVP is a chance to lower risks of a startup. It helps to discover idea’s value for the audience and to understand if customers are ready to pay for it.

MVP with no P: Idea Validation and Testing

Sometimes a service that you develop provides an answer to an obvious question. You are aware of an issue personally, and you know it inside and out. In this case, your goal is to find people who have similar issues.

But also, you can discover existing issues that are not yet acknowledged by a user. For instance, you have an idea of developing a finance accounting automation service. But the majority of your target audience is used to applying Google Sheets, or they count everything manually and do not feel that something is wrong. What do you need to do in this case? Highlight the issue!

Show your target audience that they are wasting resources: time, money, and effort. Teach them how to solve their issue in an easier and more efficient way, simply applying your product. Demonstrate them the way they can automate their finance accounting and enjoy their lunch while an app does everything for them. Who does not want such a tool? Add a new value: speed, economy, or extra free time. Customers will want to get it, even if they have not even thought about it before.

How to find a product a customer needs without spending time and money? Make a hypothesis, develop a draft of an MVP, determine a testing period, and start. You don’t need to give users a fully-ready product, just show them an idea.  

Dropbox simply started with a video that described the features of the product. People started leaving comments, sharing, and asking when the service would be launched. This way the businessmen got the idea that the product is worth-developing!

Another good example is Buffer, a tool for deferred publication of posts on social media. Its creator, Joel Gascoigne, launched a landing page, describing the main features of the product, and forwarded the traffic there. Users started purchasing the product even before the first line of its code was written.

We believe that one can start developing an actual MVP only following testing of an idea. It may seem as a sales trick but you are not tricking anyone. On the contrary, at this time you are working on the product value that a user will later appreciate. 

How to Develop an MVP

1. Choose a Key Idea

How to determine what exactly you need to say about the product? We believe that having a single MVP you can test only one hypothesis and a key feature at once. For instance, ‘are people willing to tell what they are thinking in a few sentences?’ (Twitter). ‘What is the way to connect taxi drivers with taxi service clients, avoiding calls’ (Uber). And even ‘Is it possible to meet people through a video presentation’ (you will be surprised but it is about YouTube). 

If you decide to have an MVP, ask yourself the following questions:

  • Does a product solve a user’s issue or does it complete a designated task?
  • Are there any similar products?
  • What is a unique feature of a product that differs it from similar ones?
  • Is its value (number of tasks it can deal with) higher or lower than the one of similar products?

You might want to change the concept of a product later, and it’s okay. Remember: it is a brainstorm level and you should not stress over a fail if such a fail happens only in your imagination. Stay brave and positive!

An important question at this level is: should an MVP provide a unique user experience and should its ‘killer feature’ be in demand? No! Any smartphone can basically do everything for a user these days. Products of your choice do the majority of tasks for you and make your life more convenient. Their value might be higher than their price for a particular user.  

But sometimes an app is built around a single killer feature. What was Twitter’s thing when it was launched? It was basically created to ask a simple question: ‘What are you doing right now?’ Twitter’s thing is short posts. A user is aware that there won’t be any posts longer than 140 symbols. This briefness and constant enhancement helped Twitter achieve its goal. As of the date of this article the capitalization of the service has reached 42 billion dollars.

Think strategically: does your product have a know-how? What prospects does this feature have? Is it worth-including into an MVP?

2. Idea Validation

Imagine that you are planning a match-making service better than Tinder. What are the steps? Involve your acquaintances into idea testing. Collect filled in questionnaires, build up a database and start doing match-making manually. Get feedback: are people willing to pay for it? If yes, then it is perfect! Theoretically they are ready to pay for an actual match-making service like the one you have developed. 

At this stage it is worth-conducting target audience research and online surveys to confirm hypotheses, engaging a large number of people. To find out more, check out this article: 7 Steps to create an effective UX research.

3. Filtering the Features

Following the idea validation, you can play with your imagination again adding new cool features in your product. Then take the Occam’s razor and get rid of everything that is not primary for the product. Keep filtering features, checking if they are relevant for the key idea of the product, people are ready to pay for. Store the ideas, not included into an MVP, in a backlog for future revision.

4. Think through a Monetization Strategy

The Lean Startup author Eric Ries said that an MVP must sell from its very first day. And we absolutely agree. 

We create products not only to solve problems and make the world a better place but also to earn money. It is great if you have investments or savings to pay for designs and developments. But if not, a product should start generating a cash flow as soon as possible.

It is not important how well you do your job. It does not even matter how well your product works. If you ask 1$ a month for your service and no one wants it, then, you have created a useless product. Remember one simple thing: a user will be happy to purchase whatever if its value is higher than the price you are asking for it.

Does it mean that all services get monetized? Surely not! But you still need an idea how to monetize your product in the next few years. Otherwise, you will need to stake on the loyal audience who you will offer a fee-based subscription or extra features later.

Let’s take Telegram as an example. It is a product with a huge audience and value but it is still free of charge (as of the date of this article). Yes, there were huge budgets invested into it but its developers only recently started thinking about creating an ad exchange within the app to pay off the costs of its development and make some money out of it.

You can always come up with a way to monetize a product but it is better to find it as soon as possible to know exactly what you are going to do.

5. Make a Product Roadmap

Until you validate an idea with an MVP and until users say ‘Yes’ to it, your product is only a wild guess and a fantasy. But, if you already have a design, you should then think about what features you are planning to integrate into it and in what particular order. Designate a special place in the interface for updates and additions to spend less time on endless alterations.   

A project roadmap helps. Use a Miro board: write down features, and create a timeline. Separate MVP features from the rest and place them on a timeline before any others. Then, add all the remaining features to the timeline, in compliance with the order of their implementation.

6. Execution

After you create a product feature set, it is time to build up a CJM and a User-flow.

A CJM (Customer Journey Map) helps to understand main journeys users take to come to a product, their motivation and reasons why they might choose your competitors over you.  

A User-Flow shows the big picture of processes that a user goes through within your service. It helps to eliminate mistakes and finish off the feature set.

A User-Flow building process is described in the article From a Cool Idea to a High-Quality Product: Why You Need User Flow.

Then you can create a product prototype, code and test it, engaging first users. You are almost there!

MVP Development Mistakes

It seems that working on an MVP is just a drafting process. You need to think through the main idea and a feature set, filter the existing features, and then it is ready to go! It sounds simple but it is not. We know how easy it is to get overwhelmed with creative ideas letting a project derail.

  • Including too many unnecessary features. Imagine that you are creating a sculpture. Like a genius Rodin cut off everything that does not add value and is not relevant for testing the key hypothesis. You will know when to stop: at some point a product loses its value when a necessary feature is gone.
  • Not considering the feedback that users provide. If you do not conduct qualitative and quantitative research following a launch and first sales of a product, then, it is unclear why you initiate an MVP at all. Sometimes building up a ready product without considering the feedback might be equal to tossing thousands to the wind.
  • Trying too hard. You can polish the same MVP feature a hundred times but unless you test it, you end up spending too much time and money on its development. You will have all the time you need to enhance it. But you get this chance only in case you launch a product when a market needs it. Do not underestimate the phenomenon of multiple discoveries. If you get an awesome idea, other few people could also get it as well.  Someone can be faster than you and even though their product is far from being perfect, it might find thousands of users. While you are trying to make a product perfect, someone can already launch it.
  • Trying not enough. In 2020s it is not enough to develop a poorly designed but okay-functioning app. You might have several competitors but in times of developed UX, there are only few users willing to use an ugly app.
  • Falling in love with a product. There is always a chance that you need to change a concept during a development process. Perhaps, some features will need to be sacrificed. Even though you absolutely love them, users might not need them at all. Do not fall in love, otherwise each change will feel like a loss. Keep a cool head, stay flexible and listen to your users. It is their job to point out issues, errors and new tasks for you to complete.

Something Goes Wrong. What Shall I Do?

YouTube used to be a meeting service when it was first launched. Later its creators realized that it could be more efficient. Following a business model change (a pivot), they ended up having solutions for creation of a video streaming platform.

If you realize that users are applying a product in some unpredictable way, do not be afraid to make changes. If you feel that it might work, do not be afraid to change everything!

You might have a few of such pivots. Critical mistakes are made less often. Yes, in this article we address the way to avoid risks. But you cannot avoid all of them in a startup. The main thing is to be confident of your idea, being assured with a proven interest and engagement of users. That is the answer to the question why you need an MVP.


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