Minimum Viable Product (MVP) is a frequently used term for the Lean approach, yet it is the most misunderstood too.

The Misunderstood Minimum Viable Product (MVP)

The Misunderstood Minimum Viable Product (MVP)

When Stanley McChrystal, former general of the US Special Forces, talks about why they struggled in Afghanistan the reason is often the slow reaction to change. Even the special forces had a rigid, complex system in place that gave the opponents such an advantage that was not possible to exceed with money and competence. The whole purpose of the Lean [Startup] approach is to adopt to the changes of the playground as quickly as possible with the least cost and therefore business risk. This sounds like impossible and in rare cases it is. For some leadership style it is impossible because the style itself: you have to be uncertain enough to question your vision and the direction you specified for your team.

The heart of the Lean Approach is the Minimum Viable Product (MVP) or “Minimum Feature Set” as Steve Blank calls it, but as with many term that is created for non-scientific consumption, MVP has no strict definition. Challenge two Lean evangelists about an MVP for a real problem and they will come up with 3 different MVP… or an impromptu cage fight. The word MVP, Smoke Test, Prototype or Mockup has been seeped into the everyday tech lingo without a clear definition of the borders.

Minimum Viable Confusion

I often see this funny image as an explanation for the MVP:

How not to build a Minimum Viable Product - Original idea by Spotify

I don’t like this explanation because each step of the incremental change gives an answer to a different, incomparable problem.

Let’s say your team want to solve the following problem: “Deliver four adults to 1000 kilometers in 48 hours in a way they can stop and alter the route whenever they want.” For this problem, Spotify’s MVP is not the right example. Frankly, unless the initial problem was “Get from A to B somehow without time or other restriction”, the picture above is a bad example in general.

Let’s see how Eric Ries and Steve Blank, the infamous authors and promoters of the Lean Approach define the MVP:

The idea of minimum viable product is useful because you can basically say: our vision is to build a product that solves this core problem for customers and we think that for the people who are early adopters for this kind of solution, they will be the most forgiving. – Eric Ries

Steve Blank also defines the MVP as an early, stripped down version of more polished product:

This minimum feature set (sometimes called the “minimum viable product”) causes lots of confusion. Founders act like the “minimum” part is the goal. Or worse, that every potential customer should want it. In the real world not every customer is going to get overly excited about your minimum feature set. Only a special subset of customers will and what gets them breathing heavy is the long-term vision for your product. The reality is that the minimum feature set is 1) a tactic to reduce wasted engineering hours (code left on the floor) and 2) to get the product in the hands of early visionary customers as soon as possible. You’re selling the vision and delivering the minimum feature set to visionaries not everyone. – Steve Blank

But Eric also said something different:

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. […] MVP, despite the name, is not about creating minimal products. If your goal is simply to scratch a clear itch or build something for a quick flip, you really don’t need the MVP. In fact, MVP is quite annoying, because it imposes extra overhead. We have to manage to learn something from our first product iteration. In a lot of cases, this requires a lot of energy invested in talking to customers or metrics and analytics. – Eric Ries

A minimum viable product (MVP) helps entrepreneurs start the process of learning as quickly as possible.3 It is not necessarily the smallest product imaginable, though; it is simply the fastest way to get through the Build-Measure-Learn feedback loop with the minimum amount of effort. […] The goal of the MVP is to begin the process of learning, not end it. Unlike a prototype or concept test, an MVP is designed not just to answer product design or technical questions. Its goal is to test fundamental business hypotheses. – Eric Ries, The Lean Startup, p167

Frank Robinson, who is the originator of the Minimum Viable Product puts it more clearly.

MVP is a mindset of the management and development-team. It says, think big for the long term but small for the short term. Think big enough that the first product is a sound launching pad for it and its next generation and the roadmap that follows, but not so small that you leave room for a competitor to get the jump on you. – Frank Robinson

In Steve’s interpretation, the purpose of MVP is to sell the product to what he calls “earlyvangelists”: early adopter internal evangelists. True customers, who envision the product’s potential to solve a critical and immediate problem and they have the budget to purchase it.

Eric emphasises the “maximum learning”. His view is the goal of an MVP is to get more information about the user’s needs and behaviour. These can be unconcious, so sending out a blank survey would be not sufficient.

Frank’s explanation is not contradictory with neither Eric’s nor Steve’s, but focuses on a very different aspect of the product: the well-thought, restricted set of features, that is not yet polished, but can be a good foundation for a mature product.

Other Explanations*

Joel Gascoigne of Buffer:

The thing is, MVPs are all about (and only about) validated learning. […] When I created my landing page for Buffer, the focus was 100% on validated learning. I had lost 1.5 years of my life to not validating ideas before building them. I used the landing page as an initial validation of whether they would go through a long sign up process for the product I pitched on the first page. As soon as they went through that and gave me their email, I immediately sent a very personal email to the user, and often had back and forth conversation about the problem. I sometimes even had a Skype call after a few emails. – Joel Gascoigne

To put simple, Joel built some landing pages with a registration. This is not a working product. This is not even a prototype, this is a measurement of an interest for the product. This does not have a minimum feature set (doesn’t have any feature), not something that you develop further.

Joel is not alone with the “fake it ‘till you make it” method. Drew Houston of Dropbox tested the market with video of a mockup. Groupon wasn’t different either. The first version of the deal site was “totally ghetto”. They tweaked a WordPress blog with the Groupon brand. Each day, they manually posted offers for heavily discounted restaurant and live gig vouchers, cinema tickets and other deals around Chicago. They manually generated the PDF coupons and emailed vouchers to customers.

Strangely, Eric Ries mentions these in his book1 as a good example for an MVP, which contradicts with his previous definitions, and this is the root of all misunderstanding: - Some think you need to show up show up a rough but real solution to a problem and analyse how the early adopters using it. This group is convinced in that they have found an elegant solution to solve the problem. This group has the ability to make decisions quickly with confidence and execute the vision with passion. - The other group believes you don’t know anything until you have proved it, so you need to come up with some fake solution and test the “hunger” for a solution and through their mocks reveal them the real painpoints and the desired soltion.

The Criticism of the MVP (and the Lean Approach)

We are entrepreneurs. We are smart, we’ve learnt and gained maybe decades of experience. We want to solve big problems, achieve big things, not messing with some dodgy experiments. You could say, this is just mere vanity.

But ask yourself the questions: - Would you like to experiment with a minimum viable nuclear reactor? - Were you the pupil who earned the minimum viable grades? - Do you want to provide the minimum viable care for your family? - Are the clothes you wear the minimum viable ones? - Do you consider a person passionate about solving the problem if the first idea is to explore the commercialisaton and any approach before that is considered as waste? - Do you need “data” to decide which shirt you should wear on a date or what dish you should make to reduce your hunger?

If your answer is “I don’t think so”, you then you are more likely to agree with Peter Thiel (co-founder of PayPal and Palantir), Steve Jobs and Guy Kawasaki (Apple evangelist and author of Art of the Start).

Would-be entrepreneurs are told that nothing can be known in advance: we’re supposed to listen to what customers say they want, make nothing more than a “minimum viable product,” and iterate our way to success. But leanness is a methodology, not a goal. […] But iteration without a bold plan won’t take you from 0 to 1. A company is the strangest place of all for an indefinite optimist: why should you expect your own business to succeed without a plan to make it happen? Darwinism may be a fine theory in other contexts, but in startups, intelligent design works best.

[…]

Apple imagined and executed definite multi-year plans to create new products and distribute them effectively. Forget “minimum viable products”—ever since he started Apple in 1976, Jobs saw that you can change the world through careful planning, not by listening to focus group feedback or copying others’ successes. – Peter Thiel2

Ben Horowitz said in his Fat Startup article:

Much of what has been written and said about lean start-ups makes good sense. However, that advice is often incomplete, and some of the things left unsaid are the least intuitive.

[…]

If you are a high-tech start-up, your value is in your intellectual property. Don’t stare at your spreadsheets so long that you get confused about that. – Ben Horowitz

Customers cannot tell you what they want. […] On the day that you hear that Apple is using focus groups to decide on his future products, that is the day to short Apple stock.[…] We did our best work in our careers because we were presented with the biggest challenge. Rather than break things down to bitesize, small little things, I think you should give your employees and co-founders a magnificient challenge. Just huge challenges. Because that’s truly why and how to get the best work out people. – Guy Kawasaki, 12 Lessons Steve Jobs Taught

In his book he also wrote:

I’d add two words to MVP and transform it to MVVVP: minimum viable valuable validating product. First, the product can be viable—able to get through the feedback loop and make money—but that’s not enough. It should also be valuable in that it jumps curves, makes meaning, and changes the world. Let’s aim high! Second, your product should also validate the vision of your startup. Otherwise, you may have a viable and valuable product (which is good) but not necessarily one that validates the big picture of what you’re trying to achieve. – Guy Kawasaki3

Summary

The issue with MVP is that there is no strict definition of Minimum Viable Product, even the first adopters of the idea are come up with contradicting explanations. This is a shame because this is just an other word that is on the same way down the toilet with “culture”, “architect” and “hacker”.

You should put the ideas and solutions into context as well. What has worked at the dawn of ther Internet, creating a fancy bookmark (Yahoo!), a blog about vouchers (Groupon) might worked in their time, but the threshold to grab the attention of the users might be different these time and in your region. Creating a fake version of your product might not give enough reason to “sign up” to a beta test programme. The Apple Newton was failure not because there was no market, but because the product was a not good enough. Lamborghini sold 273 cars in the first year because Ferrari didn’t provide good enough road engines. Avoid to make wrong conclusions on not having traction with a badly engineered “bait”.


  1. Eric Ries: The Lean Startup, Part 2, Section 6: Test. eISBN: 978-0-307-88791-7 [return]
  2. Peter Thiel, Blake Masters: Zero to One, p119. eISBN: 978-0-8041-3930-4 [return]
  3. Guy Kawasaki: The Art of the Start 2.0, p62. ISBN: 978-0-698-19363-5 [return]
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