Most legendary products out there start with a minimum viable product (MVP) that expands and blooms into a feature-rich solution. But not all companies get the MVP stage right. Learn what a minimum viable product is and how to build it the right way.
An MVP is a release of your product with a minimum set of features enough to validate your main hypothesis.
In other words, an MVP is a product that solves your users’ core problems.
Eric Ries says a minimum viable product “allows a team to collect the maximum amount of validated learning about customers with the least effort.”
An MVP is a low-risk way to answer the below questions:
To do that, you don’t need fireworks and dozens of sparkling features — you need the core functionality that gives you answers to the above questions. Glitter and complexity will come later, in the next iterations.
It’s worth keeping in mind that you don’t need an MVP at all to confirm a hypothesis or check if your idea is viable. You can first look into building a proof of concept (POC) or a prototype.
For a detailed discussion of the differences between a proof of concept (POC), prototype, and MVP read our article.
In short, the purpose of building MVPs is to validate your assumptions quickly and improve the product, pivot, or abandon the project before losing any more resources.
The most important business benefit of MVP development is cost-effectiveness.
Building a full-fledged version of your product, with all the features you want it to have from the get-go will take hundreds of thousands of developer hours to complete, which equals two to three years of development (that’s how long it takes to complete big projects).
You can also use your MVP to attract investors and get funding for expansion.
Once your MVP is out, you can start getting early adopters who hold invaluable feedback regarding your product. This feedback is critical to the roadmap of your product.
Because an MVP takes a lot less time to develop (especially with the Agile and Lean methodologies), you can seize the market opportunity faster.
The MVP development process can be split into five actionable steps.
You need to make sure that what you’re offering your users is the answer to their needs. And — even more importantly — that what your product delivers is a better solution to what’s available out there.
However, sometimes a product introduces a completely new way of doing stuff that transcends what the user needs and becomes something they can hardly live without.
In this step, you also figure out who you are trying to solve for. Being very specific about your target audience is the key to achieving success with an MVP.
How to chisel out the problem?
Start conversations about your product by asking people on LinkedIn, discussion boards, or searching online.
For example, ask if it bothers them that an activity consumes x amount of time and resources. Prod further if they would appreciate it if there was something that brought the time and resources down.
Apply variations of these questions to your product. Always remember to ask more questions to uncover the core of the problem. Discover customer challenges, habits, routines, and preferences.
A good MVP never starts without solid research of what’s already out there that’s doing the same or similar thing your product does.
Researching your competition will give you plenty of research into the profitability of the niche and engagement of its users.
Ask yourself questions such as:
All of these questions will help you figure out if the niche is lucrative and scalable enough to be pursued.
If your competitors fail to adequately solve the problem your mutual audience is experiencing, it’s your chance to jump in and snatch that chunk of the userbase that wants something done better.
Do a due intelligence on your competition or similar products via online reviews left by customers. They can yield plenty of valuable insight into both the good and bad of your competition’s products.
Use tools to gauge how the competition is faring traffic-wise (SimilarWeb, Alexa). For acquisitions and mergers check Crunchbase. Perform an in-depth analysis of mobile applications to get granular insight (AppAnnie).
Things get a bit more tricky when your product has little immediate competition. It can either mean there’s no real market for what you want to offer, or that there’s plenty of opportunities to be had there. That’s why the first step — narrowing down the problem and the target audience — is so important.
Designing user flow is nothing else than defining how users will go through your app to solve their problems.
Let’s say your product is health-oriented and can tell users when their most productive time of day is.
A simple user flow would be: a user enters their personal information about diet, exercise, heart rate, sleep patterns, and daily activity (each question on a different screen) and the app outputs a result along with time slots for most productive working hours.
Many product owners hit a snag when deciding on the features that go into an MVP. Product owners have an altogether common craving — to include a bloatload of features into the minimum valuable version of their product.
The flaw lies in thinking that every one of the dozens of features is critical and can’t be omitted in the MVP.
This thinking is downright wrong.
Features need to be directly related to solve for the user. But to be able to focus your efforts only on the features that support the solution to that problem you need to have a very clear idea of what the problem is.
If you diligently completed the third step, you should have a pretty good understanding of the features that need to be implemented into the app to help users get their solution.
If you still have difficulties and end up with too many features, try going after the must-haves and nice-to-haves methodology.
If a feature is a nice-to-have one, cross it out. Leave only the must-haves.
Don’t forget, your MVP is supposed to validate your main assumption. And do only that.
Note: While pursuing core features is the key to good and fast MVP development, your product should also delight your users. Make sure to implement at least one delighter — a feature that gives users pleasure. This will improve your product’s chances of becoming loved and wanted.
You build an MVP to validate your main hypothesis. So once the MVP is ready, ship it out to your early adopters.
These early adopters will have plenty of highly valuable feedback regarding your app — feedback is the fuel for the next iterations of your product, no matter if your MVP is internal or external.
Also, start collecting data and analyzing it from the moment your first user launches your app. Data analytics together with user feedback from tickets and reviews will be the foundation for further development.
Once your main hypothesis is validated and your product gains traction, don’t throw whatever money comes in into rapid feature expansion.
Make new feature assumptions based on the feedback and data — the next product iterations should now validate these.
As a founder, you are most likely in love with your idea. Naturally, you want your product to be perfect and shiny. But an MVP can never be that.
Trying to put as many features as possible in an MVP is one of the biggest mistakes product owners make. While you might think that every feature on the feature list is critical to the success of your app, it’s not necessarily so.
Again, sift out the features that are redundant for the first release of your MVP — if it’s not a must-have, it’s out.
While an MVP shouldn’t be a lousy version of your product, you also shouldn’t waste a lot of time on fixing minutiae details — the time for that will come in the next iterations.
The best solution not to let the scope creep is to simply time-box your development. Set a hard deadline — say, two months — and stick to it. Once you get there, just launch your app.
“In retrospect, I think we did a pretty good job. We didn’t try to make the product perfect — we released it, validated our assumption, and then moved on to developing the next segments of the app,” says Tomasz Niezgoda, co-founder of Surfer, a comprehensive tool for crafting SEO content.
“When the product started growing, however, we had to systematize our process. Using Shape Up by Basecamp, we created new processes that helped us focus on shipping quality work faster.
“When you’re building your MVP with an 80/20 approach — and your product is expanding and growing — having a systematized process is key. But if you’re just starting, don’t get too caught up in processes — just build a product that has maximum value and ship it as fast as possible. Then get people to tell you if your product is good or not.”
An MVP, by definition, won’t suit all people — your goal is to solve a problem that bothers a relatively narrow audience.
Next, retain the existing userbase. Try to make your users the evangelists of your product. Only after you’ve done that can you scale up to serve a larger userbase.
Your goal with an MVP is to first address higher-order needs of a very limited number of people.
Users of your product are an excellent source of information on how to improve the future releases of your MVP. However, when conducting user interviews try not to fall into the all-common trap of asking users what they think your product should have.
Your goal as an interviewer is to ask why a user thinks that feature would be good to have. In other words, what is the problem they are facing that makes them want a specific solution?
Always zoom in on a problem. Discover what the problem is exactly, when it happens, how often it happens, etc. Once you live the problem, you’ll know what the solution should include.
In the rush to release a product, many business owners fail to adequately validate their idea, especially to confirm that there is some kind of problem in how people do stuff. Or fail to check if the solution — and your product — can be scaled enough to ensure stable growth and profits.
A few questions and areas you absolutely need to cover before building a minimum viable product:
It all depends on the industry and app type.
There’s a lot more deliberation included in certain applications, especially those that have to meet lots of regulations. This includes banking apps, medical apps, or industries where a lot of scientific challenges need to be overcome before a product can take shape (deep tech or biotech).
That said, a simple MVP with a few screens and features, and limited integrations can cost upward of $20,000. We’re talking about a Flutter app available for Android, iOS, and web.
More complex apps (e.g., fintech apps) and products where there’s a lot of dependency on hardware and OS features can go upward of $100,000.
Most handbooks about MVP development say an MVP shouldn't take more than four months to complete. Ideally, you’d be looking at three months to build an MVP and another three months to introduce new features, fix bugs, etc.
In reality, an MVP app can be built in a month.
With a good strategy to feature implementation, i.e, knowing precisely who the end user is and what they need to achieve their goals, you can greatly reduce the number of features and development time and cost.
Most certainly not. In fact, when your product requires lengthy research and the production involves multiple teams and specialists (e.g., the automotive industry), your MVP can be something as simple as a website or video that details what you’re trying to achieve.
It seems like not much but a website can actually help you start acquiring investors and funding for further development.
To get feedback and start getting validated learning, you can also give your users simple wireframes with 15 to 20 screens.
Or you can go with a Wizard of Oz MVP, where you create an illusion of features and automation. In the Wizard of Oz MVP approach, humans operate the product and deliver the solution, not the actual software. There’s little to no coding involved.
While a popular timeframe for MVP development is four months, the Lean MVP approach suggests aiming for weeks instead of months.
How can you achieve that?
Be harsh with your feature list.
Make smart and thought-out shortcuts, e.g., limit account setup options for users (via email only). Or make only the administrator of the app allowed to register new users (for internal apps).
All such shortcuts equal less development time.
If your MVP is gaining increasing traction on the market, focus your efforts on two main things: growth and retention.
The two can never be separate from each other. Unfortunately, many product owners pour out all of their resources into growth activities, while neglecting retention.
Your existing userbase is sacred — never forget about them, no matter how quickly you’re growing. There’s always a chance that something happens on the market and your core and loyal userbase will save your product.
Some examples of brands that are dominating their market categories started as simple apps with highly limited features.
Jeff Bezos launched the first Amazon online store on July 5, 1994. In the beginning, Amazon was selling only books.
It quickly turned out that people wanted to buy stuff online. In fact, the demand for online shopping was so high that soon enough Amazon’s merchandise expanded to include software, CDs, toys, etc.
Bezos managed to validate his assumption — that people would use an online store to purchase goods. He identified an underserved need and delivered a solution.
If you look back in time when Stripe was called /dev/payments, their landing page was painfully unremarkable. However, Stripe offered businesses a convenient way to implement online payment processing infrastructure.
Regardless of how plain Stripe’s website looked, the company was delivering value to business owners in the e-commerce sector. By making it simple for online stores of all sizes to enable payments Stripe snatched the untapped niche.
Over eleven years since Stripe was created, the company has received a total of $2.2B in funding.
Back in 2015, we were working on a Berlin-based food delivery startup — Marley Spoon. The MVP was written in Objective-C and provided only basic food delivery options. Still, the MVP validated the owners’ main hypothesis and the company went on to achieve major success.
In March 2016, Marley Spoon received $17M in funding. Less than four months later, in June 2016, Marley Spoon partnered with Martha Stewart. The company now operates in eight countries.
Marley Spoon went IPO in 2018. To date, the company has raised $90M in funding.
Starting a business with an MVP is one of the most effective ways to validate your idea with relatively low risk and predictable financial investment.
The key principles of MVP development to keep in mind:
And remember, success always begins with small steps and simple solutions.