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Hundreds of startups claim to be building an MVP. But every time someone asks to see it, they are told it isn't ready.
This can go on for months, even years, leaving the startup team frustrated and, eventually, bankrupt.
This article is to help founders learn what an MVP is and how they can build one. By building MVPs the right way, you will save your company months and thousands of dollars, as well as increase your potential for success.
An MVP stands for minimum viable product. While commonly credited to Eric Reis in the book The Lean Startup, the term was first used by Frank Robinson, the founder of SyncDev and many other startups.
The most basic definition for an MVP is a product that solves a problem in the simplest possible way. Usually MVPs refer to digital products, like apps and websites, though the same principles apply to physical products as well as service companies.
For this article, we will define a "problem" as an issue that someone is willing to pay to be fixed. (what is the definition of a problem?) If people don't pay, or pay too little, it isn't a big enough problem to worry about. There are certainly exceptions to this rule (companies with large network effects, non profits, to name a few). However, 98% of companies should be solving problems customers are willing to pay for.
Where the definition gets lost is usually on the word "minimum". To a developer, designer, or founder, the word minimum means different things. To one, it might mean something laughably simple, like a flyer in the mail. Where to another, minimum might mean making an app capable of only supporting 100k users, not 250k.
So how do you get everyone on the same page of what your MVP should be? How do you start
To help guide our discussion, we have created an example of an MVP. Feel free to steal our idea.
Example: Custom Furniture for Newlyweds
Lets pretend you have an idea to build a company that allows newlywed couples to build custom furniture online. Your team is a designer, a developer, and a furniture maker. You are well funded, and have a year to get this idea to make money.
Immediately your developer and designer got together and have the whole thing ready to go. They want to build a drag and drop VR experience where you can customize the furniture as it sits in your room. Not only that, the product will have an AI interior designer give you recommendations on what would look best. Best of all, we will run the whole thing with micro-services so it never crashes and can support the entire state population of Kansas.
All of these can be good ideas at certain points of a business.
But, this is exactly how not to build an MVP.
First of all, none of those things are minimal. At all. Every feature we listed, while super cool to develop and design, takes a lot of time and money to create. But more importantly, we haven't even asked any questions about our idea. We don't even know if newly married couples want to order custom furniture. We don't know if this idea is viable. If the problem does exist, we might be missing out on a faster and cheaper way to build a solution.
So lets go through the example together.
For any business to succeed, it needs to solve a problem. The first goal every founder or team member should have is figuring out what the problem is we want to solve.
First: Write a problem statement
Lets define our original idea as a problem. People will often call these problem statements.
Lets try a few:
Married couples want to buy furniture that is custom
Not quite a problem. That is more a statement of what someone wants. But it doesn't have a problem
Married couples can't buy quality, affordable furniture that lasts multiple moves.
Much better. That is a problem statement. Specific. To the point.
Second: Prove this is a problem
Before you start to build a product, let other people read your problem statement. Talk to your future customers and ask them if they experience this problem. If you can't find anyone who agrees with your problem statement, this might be a sign the problem isn't worth solving.
The next step is to design some "thing" that solves the problem in the simplest way possible. We want to challenge you to stop thinking about MVPs as apps. That way of thinking can end up costing you thousands of dollars for an app that doesn't solve a problem.
Our original idea of a VR that you can place furniture in your house is really cool, but it is not an MVP. We are going to try to make it smaller.
Our new idea is to build a beautiful, custom E-Commerce store that quickly allows our customers to buy furniture or work with a designer. The store will have custom designs and be built to really hold a lot of traffic.
Our team at Alpine Studios can build a custom E-commerce store in about six weeks. Pretty fast and pretty minimal.
But pretend we realize that custom is what people really want. How can we make it custom? An E-commerce store doesn't allow us to be truly custom. Custom. Custom. Custom.
I can already hear the designer and developer's minds turning. Stripe integrations. Full CMS backend. Custom interactions. Hundreds of prototypes. The full 100% experience.
Maybe they are right. Maybe the only way to truly test your idea is to build something extremely custom.
We have found that is rarely the case.
If you look at the first version of many products, they are embarrassingly simple. This is dating us a bit, but we remember using Facebook when you couldn't post pictures. And guess what?We still loved it and used it every single day. Actually, some might argue Facebook back then was even better than it is now.
So instead of building a super ultra lighting app, can we propose something simpler?
What about just a website with a phone number?
Too simple? Maybe. But it is also super easy to build. Your designer can build something that looks amazing. Your developer can make it bullet proof. Secure. Everything. And they can probably have it done by the weekend.
That is the way we need to think about products: solutions to problems. Try and build the simplest possible solution so you can get results quickly.
Ok, so we have our MVP and we believe it is solving a problem. Now comes the real test: get a customer.
One single customer.
This might seem too easy at first. You can call up friends, family, or your mom and probably have a customer tonight. But we aren't talking about family or friends. We are talking about a customer that finds you without knowing you before hand. A customer that needs your product to solve a problem.
Often times, finding customers is the crux of any new idea. Founders spend years building the full vision of their product, only to eventually fail without ever finding a customer who actually experienced the problem.
To determine how to find your customers, the biggest question you need to answer is your long term budget. If your first year budget is less than $5k, we highly recommend you focus on finding customers through unpaid channels. Google, Instagram, Facebook and other ads are usually expensive and difficult to scale without a large budget.
You might ask yourself: can I use Google to find my first customer, even if I am paying too much?
Of course you can... you are an adult human being. But please realize what you are doing. If your idea can grow with advertising, but you can't spend the money, your idea won't grow. Simple as that.
For those with larger budgets, scaling through advertising can be effective, so long as the potential sales are more than the cost of advertising.
For unpaid channels, focus on creating content. Post relevant content to your blog to rank higher in search results. You can use YouTube as well if you are skilled with video. Social media can also be great for B2C ideas, like our idea for selling furniture.
In addition, you can absolutely sell your idea using conventional sales methods. Find businesses on LinkedIn and cold call them. Knock doors. Whatever it takes to find your first customer.
For our furniture idea, we know that young married couples are on social media. So we created an Instagram page to start. We went to houses of everyone we knew and took over 100 pictures of our furniture in use. It took one full day of work, but now we have content for over three months of posting everyday. Not bad. We carefully research hashtags and start posting.
Once you have a finished MVP and have started looking for customers, you need to be able to measure whether it is working.
For our example, we now have a simple, one page website with a phone number and email address to contact our furniture designer. We decided to focus on the organic route and not spend any money. So we created an Instagram page with our furniture and have been posting.
At the beginning, there is only one decision you need to focus on: should we continue to improve our current MVP or should we try something different?
This decision goes back to the first step. Does this idea solve a problem people are willing to pay to be solved?
If you made one sale, then congratulations, you solved a problem for one person! That is massive! Most businesses never get to that point. The question you need to ask is: Was that effort worth the sale? Only you as the founder can make that decision. If it was worth it, what could you do differently to make it easier?
If you didn't sell, you need to try to fix one thing in your process. Then try it again.
For our furniture store, we made one sale for $400. Not too bad. We profited $200 even with the costs of marketing. However, it took us three months of posting everyday to find that one person. Was that worth it? If we had to do that every time then no, it wouldn't' be. We would find a new idea. But we feel like there could be a snowball effect starting. We are going to continue that strategy and see what happens.
But we still want to make the experience better. We found our customers had a hard time communicating with us. Many of them requested more information, but stopped responding after three emails. They need a better way to communicate and visualize the ideas of the designer, without having to spend so much time on the phone/email.
And now the process starts again.
Fixing one problem reveals hundreds of other problems. As you continue to fix them, you continue to build your business. That is how an MVP works.
MVPs are a founders most valuable tool for success. They allow you to make small bets, spending almost no money to prove whether an idea is worth your time and money.
We love teaching this concept because it is so distant from the normal idea of how to build a business. It requires a change of mindset and a little humility to do right. But when it does work, you will join the ranks of thousands of companies that used simple design practices to build something amazing.
Want more ideas like this one?
Twice a month, I send an email teaching startup founders and employees to use design to improve their companies. It is a ton of fun!