Make sure that your MVP is really minimal

· 4 min read
Make sure that your MVP is really minimal

I made a post earlier this week about why you might not need MVP at all. That post was poorly titled and my intended idea wasn’t very well described. So here’s a follow-up post that clarifies my point.

MVP stands for the minimum viable product as we all know, and typically a product is understood as an application or another form of software that end-users can use. Of course, there are other non-software types of businesses that will have different kinds of products, but I know nothing about that and never worked with non-software startups. I also wanted to post a disclaimer that I’m no expert in launching businesses. I’ve been working with startup founders for last 15 years within many roles — as a developer, team lead, CTO, co-founder, consultant and CEO of a consulting agency.

The reason why I started posting to this sub is that I see common patterns in how founders approach their projects, both those that lead to success and those that lead to failure. I’m not theorizing but sharing my experience, because it’s really painful to see how good projects fail again and again. One of the common patterns I unfortunately see is building products that nobody wants to use. Products that are considered minimal but take six months to develop. Products that drain founder’s bootstrapping budget and there’s nothing left for pivot or next iteration. And I don’t think that it’s because no proper research was done, but rather product built wasn’t minimal and by building team learned too little. Again, I see examples of multiple approaches, so I make my judgment based on that.

One of the most common thing that happens is building an MVP that almost nobody cares about. You’ve probably seen this kind of products and worked for this kind of startups. A product is built, lots of features have been cut out, lots of effort have been spent on having great designs and overall quality, but when it comes to users, there’s not enough of them to call it a success. In the end, nobody doesn’t know how to reach customers and do the marketing and sales thing, and there’s no understanding of what customers want because there are no customers. I think the problem here is that MVP is treated as the beta version of the app, and only after building it real questions about the product are being asked, and real marketing and customer development experiments are conducted. Mostly because there’s no way of postponing them anymore because the product is already built and you have to do something with it.

I’ve been working with another type of projects, and they treat MVP differently. They start with a very simple hypothesis and validate it early on without building a product. They create a landing page and set up some ads with different wording to drive traffic to them. They measure if there are any conversions and collect emails from people who sign up. Then they contact them personally to figure out why they decided to sign up and what their pain points are. That's not something new, ideas of Lean Startup have been around for about seven years, and Eric Ries and Steve Blank have been preaching about it even longer. But it’s all hard work, and it’s so much more boring than building something.

In his talks, Eric Ries emphasizes that MVP is not a product, it’s a tool for validated learning, and it’s different for every iteration of your business model search. First, you need to test market demand, then you need to interview customers, then you need to onboard early adopters and build a product for them to use, and then iterate over features to get mainstream customers. And for every step MVP will be different.

But you shouldn’t start your startup journey from building a software product. You should do it only after you have some validation of the idea, you know how to reach your early users, and you know what they want. It doesn’t mean that you won’t fail in this case or won’t have to pivot, but at least you will save yourself a lot of time and money by not building software to realize nobody wants to use.

I know, this all might look like common sense to a lot of people here but even judging by questions in this sub I see that a lot of founders think that they need to start from building something. And sometimes you do, but it’s a very rare case. We all know that most of the startups die within the first three years. Why not learn that your idea is not going to work and switch to something else early instead of wasting time and money. Or pivot and do another iteration.

I don't think that it's the only way to run startups and that if you're doing it the other way, then you're doing it wrong and will fail. But if you are building a product and still not running any customer interviews or marketing experiments, this might be a sign of a problem. Because you will have to do it anyway, and the sooner you start, the sooner you will begin to get valuable information about what you should do next. And if you're thinking about where to start then maybe this post will give you some food for thought.

Also, check out this video from 2009, it's the very first talk on Lean Startup Eric Ries gave.