I remember the first time I saw my company’s subscription service. It was clunky and utilitarian. The colors didn’t match our brand palette, the UI was glitchy, and I even caught a few grammar mistakes in the copy. I quickly understood why we buried this offering at the bottom of the accounts page. Who even owns this? I wondered.

Fast forward two months: Due to layoffs and team reshuffling, I now owned the subscription service. I did my best to quickly onboard, understand the scope and severity of the issues, and start to prioritize and execute improvements. This became more challenging because we didn’t have any analytics tagging in the experience or a designer to help with the UX. We got a few big improvements deployed, but in the end, I was reassigned to another team three months later (I moved around a lot). 

It’s been four years since I worked on that subscription service, and it looks like no features or enhancements have been made since then. I reflect on my time on this product often, wondering if there was anything I could have done differently to bring our subscription service into the limelight as a first-class, prominent product. 

In the end, I believe that the subscription service was the victim of a mishandled MVP process.


What Is an MVP? Why Should We Use It?

A minimum viable product (MVP), is the least amount of work you need to build to test an idea. It’s a useful tool to gauge interest from your customer and, with time, learn if it’s worth investing in. It can also become the greatest trap in product management.

Frequently, organizations will be lured by the simplicity of an MVP to try out lots of unfocused ideas without a clear definition of success. This was the challenge with our subscription service. It was originally developed as a proof of concept by two contracted engineers in a couple of months. The initial response was positive: Lots of customers clicked on the new feature, and many even enrolled! The project was declared a success and the original team moved on to their next MVP.

By the time I got to it a year later, we faced a monthly churn rate of 50 percent, stagnant growth and a whopping 60 bugs in our backlog. To make matters worse, the subscription service had earned a terrible reputation internally, and no stakeholders or business leaders wanted to touch it. One of them said to me, “Do your best, and try to not make it worse.”

What happened? The organization fell into the great MVP trap: misinterpreting users’ fleeting interest in a new product offering as a fully functional, intuitive and delightful experience.

The CounterargumentWhen MVPs Hurt


How to Know If Your MVP Is Successful

Before planning your MVP, you need to answer two questions:

  1. What problem are we trying to solve? 

  2. How do we define success? 

While MVPs lend themselves well to experimentation, you still have to build a product that is necessary for your customers to use (and pay for). Likewise, your definition of success should be a quantitative measure of solving your customer’s problem. 

For our subscription service, leadership deemed the product a success because lots of people clicked on it and signed up in the first month. Engagement is a useless success metric — anything bright, shiny and new can grab a user’s attention. Some may even try it out! But in the case of our subscription service, how many of them stayed on after the first month? How easy was it to navigate the experience? Was it enjoyable to use? These questions fell by the wayside.

To validate the success of the subscription service MVP, my primary KPI would have been the monthly churn rate: the percentage of users who cancel their subscription each month. The value of a monthly subscription service is for the customer to be able to “set it and forget it,” creating increased convenience for the customer and a steady source of revenue for the business.

If the service stops delivering value for the customer and becomes an inconvenience with a clunky user experience or lost and canceled orders, then the MVP cannot be considered a success. Conservatively, I’d want to see the first three month’s churn rate below 30 percent, with a goal to lower it below 10 percent with a focused list of enhancements.

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How to Prioritize Enhancements for Post-MVP Work

Once you’ve proven your MVP’s value, it’s time to work on your long list of product enhancements. These enhancements could be ideas that didn’t make the MVP or based on feedback from users after release. When I approach post-MVP work, I categorize enhancements based on my “Three Product Success Principles” framework.

3 Criteria for Evaluating Product Success

  1. Core functionality: Work essential to making the product function as expected. Mostly, this will be major bugs.
  2. Intuitive user experience: Enhancements that make the product easier to use and navigate. Frequently, these tickets will come from watching customers use your product and finding opportunities for improvement.
  3. Moments of delight: Enhancements that make the user go, “Wow!” This could include personalization, playful graphics or non-essential features that make the experience enjoyable and memorable.


The Takeaway

So what happened to the subscription product? Once I started investigating, I learned that this product had the potential to be great. Despite a 50-percent monthly churn rate, new monthly enrollments were strong, indicating demand for the service. The top subscribed items were all highly used consumables, like coffee and paper, which customers need to replenish regularly. This was also when retailers like Target and Amazon were launching their monthly subscription services, so I saw a strong opportunity to clean up this product’s issues, capture our impressively loyal customer base and create a stable source of revenue for the company. 

Using my framework, we cleaned up the majority of the bugs — some of which were triggering order cancellations — and improved the messaging and usability of the experience. In those three short months, we reduced customer churn by about half, which is one of the proudest accomplishments in my career. Once I was reassigned, the product bounced around between a number of overworked product managers. Since I left the company, it doesn’t appear that anything has changed since the last time I worked on it. Our subscription service was the victim of a mishandled MVP process. It didn’t have to be this way. 

Successful MVPs are not a completed product that you can move on from; they are a jumping-off point to validate a potential solution to a customer problem. With a clear definition of success and a tight list of prioritized enhancements, you can save your MVP from obsolescence.  

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