Bringing your minimum viable product (MVP) to life is one of the most exciting moments of running a startup. After months of conducting market research, meeting with investors, and honing your business plan and branding, it’s finally time to build on that hard work and create a product to send out into the world.
But the MVP process can also be a major early stumbling block for many startups, as the reality of bringing all your ideas together into a working product can make the whole endeavor seem more long-winded and expensive than it necessarily has to be.
That’s why it’s crucial to make this process as lean as possible, so you can get your MVP out there and into the hands of potential customers without it burning up your time and energy — and, more importantly, your funding.
There’s No 1 Path to Creating an MVP
Part of the reason the MVP process can easily balloon out of control is that, unfortunately, there isn’t really a defined set of steps to follow. There are some actions that will have to come before others: You shouldn’t start building your MVP before having some validation of demand, for example. But when it comes to actually getting your MVP ready to go, the path you’ll need to take will be unique to your business and your product.
That’s part of what makes startups so special. Startups create something that’s never been done before and challenge the status quo. So the approach each business takes in developing its product is going to be individualized to the problems it’s trying to solve and the team behind it.
The key is finding the right process for you. That isn’t always easy, particularly if you’ve got a large team with a variety of preferred ways of working or a huge list of features and ideas that all feel too vital to be left out of the MVP. But there are some helpful tools and approaches you can use to nail down the right way of making your MVP.
Getting Past Idea Paralysis
One of the trickiest hurdles a lot of startups face in the MVP process is simply figuring out where to start and what needs to be done. It’s a lot more common than you might think. You’ve got a ton of great ideas for features and user experience, and you’re full of passion for what your product can be. But when it comes to stripping things back for the MVP, all those ideas feel too essential to be left out of the initial build.
Before you know it, you’re looking at a development time that’s stretching further and further into the distance, and you’re wondering how you’re going to spread your funding around to cover it all. Without a focus on making your MVP process as lean as possible, this is an easy trap to fall into.
When planning what’s going to go into your MVP, it’s important to take a step back and remember that it doesn’t have to be the full bells-and-whistles product. It is only a minimum viable product after all. The point is to get the core functionality of your idea into early users’ hands, so that their feedback and validation can help you make more informed product decisions in the future, to help you secure the investment you need to scale it up to its full potential.
Take Duolingo, for example. Today the language learning service is known as a multimedia app that enables you to learn 39 different languages (including Esperanto and Klingon), using text, audio, and video translation lessons, with game-like elements like weekly leaderboards to keep you on track.
But when Duolingo launched publicly after its beta in 2012, it offered just four languages (English, Spanish, French, and German), and its lessons were limited to translating snippets of vocabulary. But that was enough to get the ball rolling with investors and early adopters.
Finding the Most Efficient Way Forward
Just because there isn’t always a clear and defined way to produce an MVP doesn’t mean you have to figure out all the answers yourself.
One way of radically trimming down the MVP development time is to use a design sprint, a process of testing ideas that was first developed inside Google. This is a five-day process in which you identify a problem, produce a rapid prototype of the solution, then test it in the hands of real users by the end of the week.
The design sprint method is about breaking the deadlock of coming up with idea after idea to align everyone around a common goal and produce something that can get you real test results.
The Power of a Workshop
If paralysis over what does and doesn’t need to go into your MVP is an issue, it might be worth discussing in a workshop as opposed to a meeting. Rather than running through an agenda, workshopping is about your team working collaboratively to bring ideas forward, prioritizing what needs to be done, and moving forward with a more aligned goal.
While meetings are made up of conversation — potentially endless conversation too — workshops are quite different. In a workshop, everyone gets involved. You no longer need to worry about that person who always shouts over you or about the quieter ones not getting their great ideas on the table.
Start by spending 20 minutes just getting all of your ideas for product features and future additions out on the table, then categorize ideas together by what role they play in achieving your product’s goals.
It’s a Matter of Ease and Impact
Once all the ideas are out there and categorized, the next step is to prioritize them. Your ideas should be presented on a board or in some other physical format. Give everyone a limited number of voting dots that they can put on the ideas that they believe are most essential to your product. They can put multiple dots on the same idea, but the important part is that no one has enough dots to vote for everything.
The next step is to place each feature on an ease and impact chart (plotting the impact on the product’s goals and the customer’s usage against their ease of implementation). That way you can visually see which are the strongest ideas. Ideally what you’re looking for are the features that will have the most impact on how your customer uses and values your product, for the least amount of difficulty, time, and money to produce. This will be your MVP.
Before you finalize everything, it’s useful to collectively share knowledge about how easy each element is (for instance, it might be easy for development but not sales) so you understand how it affects everyone.
What’s special about this whole process is that every voice gets heard. Everyone’s ideas went into the pool and everyone has said what they think is best. And because you came up with the solution together, not only do you come up with a better solution, but everyone is a lot more aligned on it too.
Still Too Complex?
For some products, the most important elements might be inherently complex or costly to develop, but there are still creative ways to produce a lean MVP around this.
Dropbox is a famous example. Faced with a significant amount of technical development just to create a working prototype, the founding team instead produced a video showing how Dropbox was going to work when it was ready. The result was over 75,000 sign-ups to its beta waiting list before the software had even been fully developed.
If there are features that are too costly to include in the MVP, try putting landing pages in their place that offer customers the option to sign up to know when they’re ready. These kinds of trapdoor tests might not work in every scenario, but when they do those sign-up numbers are an excellent proof of intent to take to investors — and you’ll gather the perfect collection of people to try out the beta version of your product.
Ultimately, the key to finding your leanest MVP process is remembering that the product doesn’t have to be perfect. The point is not to build the “right” MVP (there are always too many assumptions at play for this to be possible), the point is to set up an effective feedback loop between your users and your product decisions. The sooner you get this set up, the sooner you learn from your customers, and the sooner your assumptions about them are dismantled.
An efficient way to deliver an effective MVP is out there. All it takes is the right methodology, some pragmatic thinking about how best to use your resources, and a little creativity.