What Is a Startup MVP & How to Build One Properly
There’s a lot of jargon to conquer when you’re building your first startup. You want to learn everything you can about how to develop your business idea into a successful company, but it can feel like there’s a language barrier if you’re not familiar with the startup world.
For instance, you might have heard about MVPs, or minimum viable products. Maybe you’ve heard you need one, maybe you’ve heard you don’t — odds are, you’re feeling a little confused about the concept in general. Today, we’re going to attempt to demystify minimum viable products and answer your questions about how to build one and where it fits into your startup model.
What Is an MVP in Business Terms?
A minimum viable product is the very simplest functional version of your product you can create. However, that’s not to say that an MVP is just an unfinished product — it’s a strategically lean first version that includes only the very core functionality, but it’s essential that it actually works.
The MVP’s viability — its ability to actually deliver the product’s core value — is what separates it from a prototype, which is more of a mock-up used to visualize the product and validate the design concept.
What Is the Purpose of an MVP?
The overall goal of the MVP approach is to release a skeleton version of your product as quickly as possible so you can test the market. Think of your MVP as a tool with which to investigate an initial hypothesis about whether or not your product is marketable to your chosen user persona, and why. Having an MVP allows you to assess whether you’ve found product-market fit before you pour more resources into developing the product further.
In other words, the MVP stage is when you want to find out what your early adopters wish was different about your product so you can make the changes before you’ve fully committed. By gathering plenty of feedback now, you’re protecting yourself against the risks of investing large amounts of time and money into an untested product.
In addition, it can never hurt to have a functional MVP to show investors. They would usually rather see a working product, even if it’s crude, than just hear your idea for a product. An MVP also allows you to show investors real customer testimonials instead of relying only on hypothetical market research.
But, the bottom line is that an MVP is not meant to make money for your startup — it’s meant to validate your product and your business model with feedback from real customers.
How to Define Your MVP
One of the most challenging aspects of building a minimum viable product is simply defining its scope. It’s easy to go too far and add more features than you need for an MVP, but if you keep it too simple, it may deliver no real value and end up validating nothing.
First of all, it’s crucial to make sure that your plan for your MVP aligns with your overall business objectives and your target audience. Ask yourself what you are currently trying to accomplish. Are you trying to increase revenue from your existing customers? Are you trying to expand your reach within your current market? Are you attempting to break into a new market altogether?
Your answers to these questions should inform the direction and scope of your MVP. Once you fully understand what you’re striving for big-picture-wise, you can build an MVP that will deliver just the right type and amount of functionality to solicit the feedback you need to steer the final product toward meeting your goals.
The Startup MVP Approach
The best way to validate your product (or in other words: ensure it’s providing the intended value to the intended group of people) is to actually get it out on the market and see how it does. Customers can’t tell you whether your product solves their problem until you actually put a working version of it in their hands.
Building an MVP will allow you to get your core solution to market as quickly and cheaply as possible so you can start learning about how to improve it. Once you’ve done this, you can use what you’ve learned from customer feedback to build the next iteration of the product.
If your MVP has done its job well, your final version will probably look a bit different from the original idea you had in your head. That’s to be expected; while the development stage starts with your initial vision, it should be flexible and ultimately driven by user input.
Gathering feedback and building the product in tandem is cheaper and more efficient than blindly developing a full product your users don’t like and then reworking it significantly after the feedback comes in. The cheaper and simpler you keep each iteration, the lower your losses if you miss the mark and need to adjust.
MVP in Software Development
The MVP approach is most commonly used to build software and technology products because an iterative development process naturally lends itself to software or app development. In many cases, an MVP for a software product could be as simple as a landing page or a demo video (like in the famous case of Dropbox).
What Is MVP in Software and Technology?
The MVP approach is commonly used in software development because it’s perfectly compatible with the agile software development methodology. The agile development philosophy and the MVP approach both prioritize customer input throughout the development process, not after it.
MVP in Product Management
It’s important to remember that the goal of releasing an MVP is not to make money — it’s to manage the release of your product. The MVP is the very first, incredibly simple (yet functional) version of your product that you can use to target your first users. Those users’ feedback can then be used to manage the next production iteration, and so on and so forth. This helps create a very manageable production cycle that minimizes the risk of overextending producing resources in the wrong direction.
When Do You Need a Minimum Viable Product?
If you’re a founder of a tech startup, you should start building your MVP as soon as possible. It’s important to get something functional out into the world so you can start attracting users and gathering feedback. Better to release a rudimentary version now and learn from it than to put off launch day for months or years while you sink more and more resources into a totally untested product.
As soon as you know what problem you want to solve, how you’re going to solve it, and who you’re going to target with your solution, you’re ready for an MVP.
Here’s more on timing your MVP from one of our mentors.
Before Creating an MVP
Before you get started on your MVP, you should talk to someone who’s already had success with the MVP approach. Our mentors can give you tailored advice about building your MVP so you can cut down your learning curve.
The MVP Stage
Your MVP isn’t really a separate product from the final version. It simply represents one step in the product life cycle. Eventually, your MVP will grow into the final product with all its features, but that comes later. Releasing an MVP early in the process is necessary to bridge the gap from the idea stage to the feedback stage.
You can see how the MVP stage fits into the overall product lifecycle in this graphic:
There’s nothing particularly complicated about the MVP process itself. It's a simple iterative workflow within the product development cycle that starts with an idea, which is then turned into an MVP. The MVP is then released to users, who provide feedback. That feedback is then channeled into improving the product and releasing an updated version. Rinse and repeat.
Here’s a visual representation of the process:
How to Build a Minimum Viable Product in 2022
We can break down the typical process of building an MVP into five general steps: Funding, developing, launching, marketing, and measuring.
Funding Your MVP
Lack of funding is a common problem for founders at the MVP stage. Unfortunately, the problem is a bit of a paradox; you need money to build an MVP, and you need an MVP to convince anyone to fund your startup. Investors are unlikely to give you money just for your idea. Your MVP is going to provide the incentive for investors to buy into your business model and give you the funding to develop it further. So, for now, you’ll probably have to make do without any external funding. That’s one reason it’s important to keep your MVP as lean as possible.
Luckily, it’s usually very affordable to produce an MVP. If you don’t have the technical expertise to develop it yourself, you could partner with a co-founder who does. You can also hire a developer to build your MVP. Most freelance developers could probably code a simple software MVP for you without breaking the bank.
However you fund your MVP, be wary of sinking too much money into it — if it’s not fast and cheap to produce, you likely need to simplify it further.
Startup MVP Development
The term “minimum viable product” was popularized by Eric Ries in his book The Lean Startup. He suggests that to arrive at your minimum viable product, you should take your vision for your completed product and cut its functions in half three times. You’ll be left with ⅛ of the features you envisioned, but you’ll have arrived at the very cheapest, simplest product that will still provide value to your users.
In similar terms, Michael Seibel from Y Combinator encourages founders to cut features liberally when planning their MVPs. He recommends “time boxing,” or setting a very short deadline for your finished MVP to force you to keep it lean. If you’re not going to make the deadline, “that's okay. Just cut the stuff that clearly isn't important. And if there's no non-important things, start cutting important things.”
The point these two pieces of advice drive home is that your MVP development process might need to be uncomfortably simple. You probably have a grand master plan in your head for the perfect product you want to build, but that’s not the blueprint you should be looking at to build your MVP. The development process will actually involve cutting everything you possibly can from the full-featured blueprint.
Launch day isn’t as important as it feels. It’s easy to keep putting off launching your product because you want it to go perfectly. But, launching your product isn’t the final step — it’s actually one of the first. You should get your MVP launched as quickly as possible because that’s when the real work can begin.
Remember there isn’t going to be just one launch. There’s going to be multiple releases, each incrementally improving upon the last. The end goal of the MVP stage was never to launch a product you think is perfect; it was always to gather feedback that will help you gradually mold your product into the one your customers want. This adaptive process can only start once you pull the trigger on version number one. By delaying the launch of your MVP, you’re not giving yourself more time to make it better. You’re actually holding your product back from entering the next stage of development.
MVP Marketing and Promotion
It’s not easy to sell an incomplete product. That’s why it’s essential for your MVP to be a crude, yet functioning version of your solution. If your MVP delivers that core solution, you’ll have an easier time getting your market excited about the additional features to come. Sell the solution, not the current iteration of the product itself (because the first iteration probably won’t look like much on the surface).
Don’t worry about pulling in crowds yet. You should be targeting specific prospects with your marketing efforts at the MVP stage. You’re not looking for just any customers — you're looking for customers who are willing to invest themselves in the improvement of your product. You want to find early adopters who are passionate about your solution and will act as partners in bettering the product.
Collecting Feedback and Measuring Success
Collecting feedback about your MVP is arguably the most important part of the entire MVP process. Besides giving you something concrete to show investors, the main reason to build an MVP in the first place is to solicit feedback from users. There are a few different ways you can do this.
You can include feedback prompts in the product itself, like an invitation to rate a particular feature or fill out a survey. This is usually the fastest way to get feedback (as long as your request isn’t overly disruptive to the user experience). The less effort required, the more willing customers will be to provide useful insights.
You can also ask early adopters of your MVP to answer some questions before and after using the product. This will help you get an idea of the value they were expecting from the product and whether or not they feel that value was delivered.
If your software is targeted at enterprise customers, consider reaching out directly to your ideal prospects. You may find some of your best early adopters by partnering with other companies who are willing to give your product a try and provide you with feedback.
Minimum Viable Product Examples
The MVP approach to building a startup is tried and true. Here are some success stories from real entrepreneurs to prove it:
The first Airbnb was the founders’ own apartment. There were no searchable online listings, no map view, no payment processing (payment was exchanged in person) — just some pictures of the founders’ home thrown up on a simple, functional website.
The founders didn’t expect the business to thrive, or even get off the ground, in that form. But that wasn’t the point. The point was to prove that people would use the service. You probably don’t need to be told whether it worked or not.
Zappos has a similar story. The founder was frustrated he couldn’t find the shoes he wanted to buy, so he had the idea to sell shoes online (a novel idea in 1999). But, he still needed a simple, inexpensive way to validate the concept.
His solution? He went to his local mall, took pictures of a few pairs of shoes, and posted them online for sale on a website he created. When an order was placed, he went back to the mall, bought the shoes, and shipped them to the customer. It’s almost absurdly simple, yet people liked the idea so much that it grew into an e-commerce powerhouse that was purchased by Amazon for $1.2 billion.
Building and launching a minimum viable product is one of the best ways to validate your product. This might sound like more jargon, but product validation fit is simply your product’s ability to meet a real demand. If there’s no demand for your product (or if there is, but your product is failing to meet it), you’ll need to adapt—and it’s a lot easier and cheaper to adapt an MVP incrementally than to tear down and rebuild a full product.
Above all, don’t be intimidated by the idea of building an MVP. It’s not supposed to take the world by storm. It’s supposed to prove that people are interested in your idea and teach you what you need to build next to make that idea succeed.
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