My little product
or how to start with an MVP
If you have ever asked Uncle Google what an MVP is, you probably ended up being very confused, looking for the connection between NBA, Michael Jordan and application development. Then you go to ask Auntie Wikipedia and become even more disoriented, finding out that there is not only the Most Valuable Player, but also ones like Microsoft Most Valuable Professional, Model View Presenter, Mitral Valve Prolapse and even Montel Vontavious Porter, an American wrestler. But the MVP we are going to talk about translates into Minimum Viable Product.
Googled that phrase already? Ok, so you have probably already seen the famous image showing two possible ways of developing a product based on the car metaphor (we didn’t chose the car theme, the car theme choose us). The first one is building the car step by step, starting from the wheels, the chassis, through the car body and voila, the whole car is completed. No test drive, no checking out functionalities, no place for users’ response. Then there is the second way, where you begin by constructing a skateboard, scooter, bike, motorbike and finally — a car. It was supposed to show benefits of using an MVP while developing a product. Well, that image may be popular, but it is also slightly misleading.
A Minimum Viable Product can be defined as the minimal usablity of a project, so a set of the most crucial features without which the product wouldn’t serve its purpose.
An MVP is the basic form of your product that you can already put on the market and show to your customers. So it is neither the prototype nor the mockup, but also not a fully developed creation. Now you may be wondering — what’s the point of a procedure like that, then?
Go bold or go home?
Every good product is a solution — it is supposed to answer a question the customer asked. At the very beginning you can only assume your users’ desires. Without their feedback you won’t be able to meet their expectations in a more exact matter. The idea itself is probably going to be at least a little revised, in order to match up with clients’ needs in a more effective way.
Remember that it is not you that will be using your product on daily basis. So even if you find your idea extremely cool, usable and innovative, it may not be the case when it comes to your potential customers.
A lot of people think that the idea of an MVP completely misses the mark. Why should you put any effort in creating something like that? What’s the point of spreading oneself too thin? Shouldn’t we rather focus on making our product fully functional from the very beginning? Not to mention putting this ridiculous thing on the market. This way you are decreasing the level of the so-called wow factor drastically — when the fully-finished product will be finally released nobody is going to be amazed anymore!
The problem is — nobody can assure you that your idea, no matter how great it is, will work out in practice. Users can love it or not, even the most experienced inventors cannot fully predict their target’s reaction. What it means is that it’s really risky to invest your time and money in something that may be a spectacular disaster.
Try to think about an MVP as a process of learning. It is all about investing a minimal amount of time and money in order to find out if your idea gets along. However, minimal viability doesn’t necessarily equal low quality — remember that your project will be based on your MVP. But don’t worry if it is really simple — there will be a lot of place and time for everything in the future. Reid Hoffman, founder of LinkedIn, said that “If you are not embarrassed by the first version of your product, you’ve launched too late”.
What about some examples of MVPs done right? It sure will help you get the idea. You may be surprised how many big companies started as humble little projects and start-ups.
Praising the simplicity: Apple
Although it may sound like a joke today, the idea behind the first Apple computer was to keep its construction inexpensive, fast and simple. When Steve Wozniak, cofounder of the company, built the first computer called Apple I, he made it plain and typewriter-like looking. It didn’t even had its own screen -it shared it with the TV. Later, Wozniak explained that his goal wasn’t to create something every inventor should look up to, but to show everyone that a computer can be made cheaply, with little resources, as long as you are creative and clever.
Asking the customers: Dropbox
When Drew Houston, Dropbox co-founder and CEO, wanted to built his application, he was aware that there was already a huge competition on the market — there were a lot of start-ups offering cloud-storage services. Instead of believing in his idea blindly, he posted a video on the Hacker News, explaining how Dropbox works. And since none of the already released competitive products met all of the users expectations, people showed their interest in Dropbox. The team received enormous response, collecting not only helpful comments, but also over 75 thousands of email addresses in just one day. This way they were sure that their product will have an audience, and also realized which features should be developed, and which didn’t find any use.
Socialising employees: Twitter
Globally known blue bird started internally — within Odeo, the podcasting company. The idea was simple: to allow people to share short text messages within small groups. Odeo employees were literally obsessed with the product, to the point where they began racking up “monthly SMS bills totaling hundreds of dollars” (as reported by Business Insider). Their reaction encouraged the team responsible for development of twittr — because that was the product’s first name — to start thinking seriously about their project. It morphed from a little social networking service into a tool allowing you to not only communicate with friends and strangers, but also to have continuous access to news and information. When released to the public, the platform became a huge success.
Learning from mistakes: Groupon
Andrew Mason had a great idea — to create a site where people could unite and accomplish goals they were unable to achieve alone. Mason was so confident about his vision that he spent eleven months working on it, and then launched it immediately. But the platform, named The Point, despite being based on a nice idea, turned out to be a flop.
Instead of giving up or making the same mistake again, he quickly rebuilt the website and set up a WordPress blog called The Daily Groupon. Mason kept it extremely simple, with daily deals posted as blog posts. Moreover, head of customer support spending three hours every day on writing emails to the customers personally. Also, all of the emails contained a manually generated pdf with the details of a chosen deal.
Sounds unprofessional? But it worked. Without investing in software, Groupon’s team was able to check out if their second idea would be more successful than the first one. And it turned out to be so. The time for professional development came later.
Through the fake door: Zappos
In 1999, people weren’t so sure about shopping online. Buying shoes without a chance of measurement sounded a little abstract. However, Nick Swinmurn decided to give it a try — and chose a very controversial method of doing it. He set up a website which pretended to be an online shoe store. But for real, Swinmurn just went to the nearest shop that offered footwear and took some pictures. When someone ordered shoes through the online store, he would buy the chosen pair from a real-life shop and send it to the customer. But wait! He made no profit out of this quasi-business this way — you will say. He sure didn’t, but it wasn’t entirely about making money — but about getting information. And information is worth more than solid gold.
What he did is called a fake door testing methodology. Basically, you are setting up a website offering some kind of services. You advertise your website and let users register, then you send them an email saying “Sorry, but this service is not available yet, we will inform you about its availability later”. You don’t make any money out of it, but can clearly see how many people are interested in your services. Fake door testing is quite a risky method. People may feel cheated on and your credibility may decrease. Yet, for some projects it worked. Enough to say that in 2009 Zappos was acquired by Amazon for 1.2 billion dollars.
Of a genius and a fraud: Facebook
Finally, there is a story about the most famous social networking site in the history of the Internet. Though it is not a pleasurable story.
In 2003, nerdy Harvard student of the second year, named Mark, developed a simple website called Facemash. It was a very typical game for an entitled college superstars — it displayed two randomly chosen photos of Harvard students and allowed you to decide which one of them is hot, and which one is not. Yes, it was just as silly as it sounds, but also extremely popular. It attracted 450 visitors in its first four hours online. However, the site was shut down a few days later by the Harvard administration, due to the fact that Mark has stolen photos from the yearbooks, which violated copyrights and individual privacy of the students.
But Mark, or more precisely Mark Zuckerberg, is not the type of person who steps back after a storm. Now known as a talented developer, he attracted attention of Winklevoss brothers, senior year students. They wanted him to help finish the code of their project called HarvardConnection. Highly inspired by the project he was supposed to support, he agreed and started to develop his own product. Then for a few months he was sabotaging Winklevoss brother’s project, continuously delaying the date of its release in order to be first to launch his platform. The same semester TheFacebook was born — database of Harvard students online, so a tool that allowed them to keep in touch with each other, almost the exact copy of the HarvardConnection.
Cameron and Tyler Winklevoss accused Zuckerberg of misleading them and stealing their idea, but he didn’t really care. Only one month after its launch, TheFacebook expanded to universities of Stanford, Columbia and Yale. Later on, it also took over all Ivy League and Boston-area schools, as well as most universities in the United Alteo in California. Renamed as Facebook, the service gained 6 million users in one year.
Its further expansion was fast and effective. Facebook launched a high school version in 2005, then allowed the employees of several big companies to join in, and in 2006 finally opened up for everyone aged 13 and older, requiring as little as a valid email address.
Facebook’s history shows that sometimes genius may go hand in hand with insolence and that big ideas not always have noble motives or estimable beginnings. Whether you admire Mark Zuckerberg’s persona or just the opposite, we do not recommend following his footsteps in this matter.
Most Valuable Practice
As you probably already noticed, creating an MVP is not only a good idea, but also a necessity. It is your first experiment, first simple answer for the user’s question. Moreover, will also be able to see your idea turning into something tangible and decide if it is something you were shooting towards. Maybe there is someone who developed almost the same idea but did it better than you? Or maybe you are trying to solve a problem that doesn’t even exist?
There is a difference between being confident about your concept and blindly believing that it has no flaws and people will love it instantly. Stay open-minded, creative and don’t be afraid of changes.
Learn from the best, and remember — the Rome wasn’t built in a day. And neither was Facebook.