Minimum Viable Product

New innovators and budding entrepreneurs often imagine Innovation happens as we see in the movies. A flash of brilliance and a few weeks hard work might see us propel our ideas into the limelight and bring riches.

Maybe if we could just find the next cool technology then its cool factor will make people want it and pay for it in ever growing numbers. Movies tend to have some part to play in this but reporting on big industry success tends to focus on overnight wins and not talk about the years of early work people might go through to get to that one high value solution. If you spend the time to look closely most of the success stories that appear to happen overnight are actually the tail end of struggle and effort for those involved but that makes for less interesting news articles.


With Industry 4.0 , Big Data and the Cloud all driving massive uptake in Digital Innovation it seems like there is no end of people trying to find the next ‘disruptor’. This feverish drive for breaking new ground generates an incredible number of ideas and potential businesses. Unfortunately these ideas are full of assumptions about what people really want and what could be successful in a given market place. Assumptions which may or may not be true.

Eric Ries of Lean Startup fame tells us that these assumptions contain two distinct types:

  • Value assumptions – that what we intend to make will be of value to other people; to the point they will pay money for it
  • Growth assumptions – that a form of growth will drive our products forward and help other people discover them

These assumptions can make or break a product or company; some are so big they become for leaps of faith which must be proved true for a company’s strategy to pay off. It’s clear that proving these assumptions (and conversely removing the risks) has to be the highest priority for any form of innovation.

Value don’t come for free

At odds with industry ‘buzz’ finding a valuable Product or Service is rarely simple and typically requires finding lots of Products that aren’t valuable first. The Lean Startup movement describes a process of identifying the assumptions being made in a company’s strategy, devising ways to quickly prove or disprove those assumptions, gathering qualitative data from those experiments and then reacting to the learning (Pivot or Persevere). This constant testing of assumptions de-risks the leaps of faith and gives a stepwise approach to finding what is really of value to our customers without having to invest huge amounts into development.

Experiments are MVPs, too

A confusing aspect about MVPs is that there seems to be no end of differing opinions on what they actually are. Each industry and domain seems to consider MVPs as products of varying maturity. One of the most common descriptions seems to be that an MVP should be the smallest Product that we can sell to customers. Even this seemingly straight forward description causes board room debate as to when to release a product and how much to sell it for.

Going back to the Lean Startup description of the most important activity an Innovation project can do (proving or disproving assumptions) a better description of an MVP would seem to be that it’s the smallest Product customers could get value out of AND that could validate our assumptions. These validations must be in the form of quantifiable metrics by observing how customers behave using the MVP. Eric Ries goes on to describe what metrics to actually record (another blog post!) but suffice to say it involves observing the behaviour people have with the product and not tracking revenue or customer counts.

The minimum viable product is that version of a new product which allows a team to collect the maximum amount of validated learning about customers with the least effort.

Eric Ries

Some unlikely sounding MVPs can include:

  • A marketing “Smoke test” where a new idea is pitched before it exists to gauge interest
  • A marketing video that shows the idea and ethos in a Product
  • A news letter 
  • A small Product that would be part of the larger overall vision

Only after we have proved an idea is of value do we start to bring in the big guns of a Software Development team and create our full vision. Hopefully it’s obvious that running marketing tests, creating videos and wireframes are all far lower in cost and risk than spending months making a Product. No matter how many value assumptions we disprove the only time we ever fail is delivering a Product that no one wants!

MVP vs Prototype vs POC

Even more confusing than the debate over MVP is that Software Development has its own set of terms and understanding about them which initially seems at odds with the Lean Startup description:

  • POC – can the idea actually be achieved technically? This generally involves experimenting with technologies and data wrangling to see if a concept can be made reality
  • Prototype – can include wireframes, use cases and specifications. Essentially prototypes define how the product is going to look and feel when its done
  • MVP – a solution that has just enough in it so we can sell it to our customers. This is the a way to answer the questions “Will people buy it?”

Although slightly at odds, and more prescriptive, than the Lean Startup descriptions they are all in-fact talking about different levels of maturity in MVP. As a company pivots and perseveres through validated learning MVPs get larger and more complex the closer they get to a sustainable idea. During this journey the deliverables pass through each of the Software definitions above until one becomes Market Fit.

When talking about MVPs it helps to be very clear what definition you are using. Nothing can waste time like debating over the terminology when the focus should be on finding value from the customer perspective. Using the simpler description of MVP – that its anything which gives value to customers AND provides learning for us – allows a way to focus on Design Thinking and User Experience and find the Product we should be making. 

Need some help in navigating through this landscape to your MVP? Drop us a line on the Contact page above!

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  1. Pingback: Creating a Product – Astar Digital

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