I wrote a business plan in 2017 and realized that my market was very saturated, and the numbers did not look so good. We needed to select a focus and a way to differentiate ourselves. In addition to validating your idea, building your minimum viable product early on helps you figure out how to set yourself apart.
We made many mistakes during our business's minimum viable product stage, especially spending money on stuff we didn't need because I mimicked a corporate structure. However, through that first version of our process, we learned to be leaner, reiterate faster, and build scalable teams.
So, I get it. I’ve been there.
Launching a startup is no small task. Founders may quickly realize that hard work alone is not enough to succeed in today's competitive market when launching a startup.
Here’s what I’ll cover in this foundational guide:
In this guide, we’ll look at what a Minimum Viable Product is and what it means for startups. We’ll also discuss the differences between an MVP and a prototype if your startup needs an MVP and how you can start building yours.
At the end of this chapter, you’ll understand everything you need to know about how to get started with MVPs, from defining what they are to how to gather MVP requirements.
What is a Minimum Viable Product?
A Minimum Viable Product (MVP) is a basic version of your product with a few essential features necessary to make it valuable for your customers. An MVP aims to get early feedback to help test or validate your startup product idea.
As a company that develops and builds MVPs for other businesses, we know firsthand that a crucial step in your strategy that can make your product a hit or miss is the Minimum Viable Product (MVP).
Only the core functionality matters for your MVP because you’re testing and validating hypotheses on your product.
So, since it’s just a test, what is the point of a Minimum Viable Product?
Well, validating some of your assumptions before launching a full-scale app can save you tons of resources, like all the money and time spent building a platform the market isn’t interested in. Statistically, 34% of startups fail due to not finding a proper product market fit.
Your MVP plays a critical role in finding and achieving product market fit. It takes most of the guesswork out of wondering how your product does in the real world.
To sum up, your MVP is like the skeleton of your product. It contains all the features necessary for your first few users (early adopters) to test your product and tell you what to keep and what needs to change.
It also makes it easy to adapt, meaning your team is learning and iterating to provide the most value to users by implementing feedback.
As long as you note your main objective behind using the MVP approach, you can be specific about the assumptions you’re testing and how you choose to build your MVP. This guide will look at the different ways of making an MVP later.
A Brief History of Minimum Viable Products
It appears incomplete to talk about the history of MVPs without mentioning arguably the most significant initial Minimum Viable Product ever: Amazon. Jeff Bezos launched Amazon as an online book-selling service, and it has become a pillar in the shopping world.
The term Minimum Viable Product can be traced back to 2001 when SyncDev founder Frank Robinson first introduced it. According to Robinson, an MVP results from synchronous development, which he described as product development and customer development executed in parallel.
And much later, in 2011, Eric Ries popularized Robinson’s MVP concept in his book—“The Lean Startup”. In it, Ries emphasizes how important it is to learn something in the product development process.
“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.”
The MVP helps founders and product managers start the learning process more quickly. It’s also the fastest way to get through the build-measure-learn loop with the least risk.
Even though a minimum viable product mainly refers to actual products, there’s a variety of MVPs, from a simple waiting list to track how many people want a product to full-fledged MVPs. Let’s look at what an MVP is for startups.
What is MVP for a Startup?
A startup’s first task is proving their assumptions on what their target audience wants the most. The fastest way to achieve this is developing a minimum version of their product that saves time and funds and is also low risk.
For founders, this would mean using the lean startup methodology to promote value-producing activities and minimize wasted efforts as much as possible. So, using the three pillars mentioned earlier, Build-Measure-Learn will help eliminate spending resources on anything that does not create value for your end-user.
The worry for some founders is creating a product that seems too bare and won’t excite early adopters. However, focusing on developing so many features without knowing how the market will receive your product can hurt the success of your startup.
It’s often better to create something a few users love than what many users are just okay with. Unlike heavy product management (following a top-down or waterfall approach), the adaptability of MVPs lets startups develop more functionality based on how well the initial product/test is received.
What is not an MVP?
Now that we’ve seen what a Minimum Viable Product is and what it means for startups, let's talk about what an MVP isn’t.
It’s easy to get lost in the specifics of what an MVP is and build too many or too few features. However, by staying true to the key traits of an MVP, product managers and founders can ensure they create an MVP that properly tests the startup hypotheses and demonstrates a demand for their product.
Here is what an MVP is not:
A product that is not adaptable is not an MVP.
A minimum viable product is the first step in getting to your full-scale product. You want to build a minimum valuable product you can improve on and iterate. So, creating a platform, app, or SaaS that gives no room to build additional functionality makes a bad MVP. Unfortunately, it might tie you into technical debt that’ll require you to do some major refactoring on the backend of your product if you ever want to evolve the product.
A product that is not focused on hypotheses anymore is not an MVP.
MVPs test your assumptions and solidify your idea to create a standard product/market fit. When your MVP stops focusing on the underlying hypotheses critical to validating assumptions—it stops being an MVP. Sometimes, this happens when teams test a random feature set or marketing objective. That’s all good, but your product becomes a prototype rather than an MVP.
A product that is not ‘the minimum’ is not an MVP.
MVPs are often simple versions of a product idea that test a few core assumptions with minimum features. But when the development team keeps increasing the scope and number of features needed to be ‘tested,’ your MVP becomes a full-scale product. It defeats the purpose of saving time and resources with a minimal product.
Minimum Viable Products test traction at the most basic level, so products or methods that don’t contribute to that may also mean your MVP is not an MVP. Examples of invalid MVPs include:
An email campaign
The first phase of projects.
Minimum Viable Product vs. Prototype
A common question in software product development is, “Is an MVP a software prototype?” While a minimum viable product may be confused with a prototype, knowing the differences is essential as they are not the same.
While an MVP is the first version of your product with just enough features and functionality to deliver value to early users, a prototype is just a representative of your product.
Prototypes aren’t products but show how your product works, feels and looks. It’s an excellent tool for pitching your product because you get to communicate your idea, obtain feedback, and refine designs.
Differences between a Minimum Viable Product and a Prototype
Minimum Viable Product
An MVP is a product that can be used and sold.
A prototype is a model for testing and display.
MVP validates the business model and value proposition.
A prototype validates the User Interface and User Experience.
MVPs use accurate data and early customers.
A prototype uses fake data and users.
An MVP is iterated and improved.
A prototype is often discarded or replaced.
Prototypes and MVPs are also often complementary. A prototype is either used to pitch an MVP or improve your MVP after launch. Prototypes can also help test essential aspects of your product, like the user flow or the functionality.
Whatever approach you choose in building your Minimum Viable Product, using the right tool at the right stage of product development will give you a higher chance at a better, more successful MVP and complete product.
What are the Ways to Build a Minimum Viable Product?
Depending on the startup stage, founders can develop two broad classifications of MVPs: high-fidelity MVP and low-fidelity MVP. Fidelity refers to how much a product resembles its final form. So, the higher the fidelity, the closer it is to its intended end product.
Typically, most startups begin with low-fidelity MVPs since they’re cheaper to create while giving founders a general picture of your product's ‘big idea.’ But for later-stage startups, high-fidelity MVPs give you more specific data even though it comes at an increased cost.
Four ways of building an MVP with low and high-fidelity MVPs
Examples of Low-fidelity MVPs
Landing Page MVP:
You can make a simple MVP by creating a landing page to promote your product’s expected features.
Develop your landing page and highlight the benefits of your product.
Drive traffic to your landing page with ads. You can use Adwords for this to try and gauge your audience’s reaction to different landing pages.
Measure conversion rates: You can ask your potential audience to sign up for a waiting list and maybe even ‘buy’ your MVP beforehand. It lets you know how much traffic becomes conversions (customers ready to buy).
Explainer video MVP:
You could also follow the steps of Dropbox and create a video explaining your product and how it works for your potential customers. And even if you don’t have a basic prototype yet for the explainer video, as long as you can express accurately what your product is supposed to do or look like—you can still learn what direction your product should take based on viewer feedback.
Marketing Campaign MVPs
Marketing MVPs are another inexpensive way to get honest feedback from your potential audience for your idea and its different hypotheses. One way to use this MVP method is to create a social media account on X or Instagram highlighting your conceptual product. You can then use an influencer marketing strategy to reach out to relevant influencers within your industry and see what they feel about your idea—and then get them to share your product idea with their community.
Now, let's look at some high-fidelity MVPs that require more intense work:
Examples of High-fidelity MVPs
Wizard of Oz MVP:
The Wizard of Oz MVP approach is just what it sounds like. Like the wizard performs his tricks, you can create the illusion of a fully operational product on the surface that relies on manual efforts to deliver the product. So, for instance, launch an app that matches users to gyms near them, but you’re manually selecting the gyms during the MVP stage.
A single-feature minimum product embodies what an MVP is all about. It only contains one feature, which is the core functionality of a product—for example, a task management app with a calendar feature. Over time, startups can expand beyond this one functionality.
Crowdfunding MVPs show the power of prototyping in complementing your MVP idea. You essentially get preorders for your product by explaining how your product works with a prototype or mockup. The pre-order/crowdfunding method guarantees sales and getting leads before your product launches, which will help obtain funding for your startup. For example, if you plan on making an app for biodegradable makeup packets, you can offer free products in exchange for funding. Aside from using prototypes to show your MVP concept, visual designs, and video demonstrations can also explain your crowdfunding MVP.
We also have concierge MVPs where founders can emulate a product by delivering a hands-on, manual service to a few customers. Since this MVP style is practically unscalable—some may not see it as a valid MVP.
But you still learn all you need to know about the demand for your solution and can get to work developing a complete product after testing out a minimum viable concierge product.
Who Needs an MVP?
A Minimum Viable Product is necessary for any startup to validate its idea and iterate quickly to improve the product while minimizing risk. So founders and startups might need an MVP when building software products, an app, a website, or a SaaS (Software-as-a-Service).
Trying to showcase proof-of-concept to potential investors is also easier with an MVP. Once you show them the real-world application of your MVP, they may become interested in funding your product.
And lastly, early adopters need an MVP to know whether to invest time or money into using your product when you’re ready to scale.
What are The Critical Characteristics of a Minimum Viable Product?
The key to a great minimum viable product is not any specific feature—instead, all good MVPs have the same base traits that will prepare your startup for success.
The critical characteristics of an MVP are:
It is small in scale with a narrow target audience.
Trying to satisfy too many customers right from the start can lead to creating a product that isn’t for anyone and is too broad. The narrower the target audience for your small-scale MVP, the easier it would be to build additional functionality based on what the market wants.
Focus on practical functionality.
This step is closely related to having a narrow target audience. Piling on features that aren’t necessary to validate your assumptions will leave you with features no one wants to use. Hence, wasting resources that you could have been used to test a true MVP and scale gradually.
Continuous testing and polishing.
It’s important to note that your MVP will undergo numerous tests as you try to find the perfect product/market fit. Over, you will create multiple iterations of your MVP, so if, for instance, it takes you two years to develop an MVP, that product isn’t minimal anymore but has become a product launch with a sizable frontend cost.
Why Build an MVP?
An MVP takes all guessing out of the equation by validating those ‘guesses’ or assumptions about your product, the audience, and the functionality that matters to them (and you).
Building a minimum viable product helps you minimize all the time and resources that would have otherwise gone towards developing a complete product no one wants. Those are called desert apps.
So, what are the benefits of building an MVP? They include:
Benefits of Building an MVP
Validating an Idea
The main reason for using the MVP approach to product development is that it lets you validate your idea. When you create the first iteration of your software product with only essential features, you can get real-world feedback from early adopters. The feedback will help you know what features you should emphasize, what features need to be changed or refined completely, and what you can add to give you a better launch. Ultimately, you get to learn if your product has wings and if you should be investing heavily in it.
Software products usually take a long time to develop. And there is the risk of wasting a lot of time on an unsuccessful product. When you use the MVP development approach, you mitigate these risks by investing in only the necessary features for your product to be useful when testing with a few initial users.
Cut Development Costs
As we said above, investing in only the essential features helps minimize risk, and it has the added benefit of saving you money. Saving can be vital when working with budget constraints and limited funding. So that founders and entrepreneurs can better allocate their funds.
Iterate and Improve Quickly
An MVP provides user feedback and iterates your software product as you go. This process is vital to creating a great product since you can identify bugs and problems early to make improvements before you get tied to technical debt.
Early Bird Potential
An MVP might also allow a startup to get a foothold on emerging markets as the first entry in that particular market. Your minimum viable products also give your business a considerable share of the cake in a market and help you beat competitors. The only caveat is this could not be of much good for a highly disruptive or innovative product, as your potential customers don’t know much about your product. Also, the competition may win as the market matures if founders don’t proactively solve the problem.
Note that an MVP aims to validate assumptions by testing them on real users. By confirming your hypotheses are correct or wrong, you can improve your MVP and scale it into a full software solution, or you can decide it isn’t worth it and pivot into another product to save your resources.
When is Your Startup Ready to Build an MVP?
To know when your startup is ready to build an MVP, understand that you must be familiar with the market and the prominent market players (your customers and other competitors).
You’re ready when you comfortably know the answer to the points below:
Defining Your Goals
A startup is ready to develop an MVP when it has defined its test assumptions that need to and who to test them on. When you know the needs and problems of your target market, you can start thinking about how to solve them. Ask yourself vital questions like “What value can I offer customers with my product, and what problems can it solve for them?”
Recognize the Core Features
When you have identified the features you want in the first version of your application or product, you take a step closer to becoming ready to build your MVP. Frameworks for determining the necessary features include the prioritization matrix, with axes for items like effort and impact.
Example of a Software Prioritization Matrix
In the software prioritization matrix above, you can tell that feature 2 should be number 1 on the priority list since it takes the least amount of effort to develop and also has the highest impact. Feature 3 is on the middle scale in development effort and impact. Whereas feature 1 and feature 4 could be ignored for now in building the first version of the product; Even though the development effort is not high, there isn’t a great impact. In the end you could end up with a feature prioritization matrix that looks like this:
Features to ignore for now
Another framework for determining the essential features is story mapping. With story mapping you can have different categories to show each user journey stage on the horizontal axis, and vertically placed features under each arranged in order of priority.
Defined User Flows
A startup should have also defined the user flow, imagining how each user would interact with their product. You can do this by outlining the stages of each user process and then describing how to reach the central objective of each process.
For example, you can think up a simple process like finding a service on a booking platform. Picture where the user starts their search, how they filter results, and everything that happens after that. When you know the starting point and ending point of a user process, you can define that process and understand the most effective way to make it happen.
What are the Disadvantages of MVP?
Even MVPs have issues you want to consider when using this approach to develop your application or SaaS.
More Upfront Work
MVPs require work beforehand to get customer feedback accurately—meaning you may need development efforts for multiple product releases, and these releases will demand revisions every time based on feedback.
Choosing a Technology Stack that is not Scalable
Choosing the wrong tech stack closes the path to future growth and development of your app or product. Even though you might just be creating a bare version of your product using an MVP, you want to give room for future growth—building the right architecture will keep your data pipelines updated, making sure you can add functionality on top of your product whenever it’s time to scale.
Most industries in today’s world are becoming more and more saturated. To develop a software solution that stands out, founders must take due diligence in creating unique ideas or a unique value proposition for their apps. But even at that, the competition is stiff, and while you’re busy testing your MVP, other businesses can work on improving your idea and launch before you know it. The oversaturation of your chosen industry sets the competition bar a lot higher if you don’t have a proactive IT team.
Misunderstanding Core Features
Failing to appropriately define the core features your MVP needs can lead to an overload of features in your product. When there’s confusion over the essential functionality it takes to prove or disprove assumptions, it becomes easy to get lost in the noise of “just add more features.” You may find that you’ve built a complete app or product that is not an MVP and is low on budget and resources. You can solve this by correctly describing the users’ problems you intend on solving and working out the features necessary to solve them from there.
How Do You Define MVP Scope?
Defining a clear MVP scope as soon as possible will save you the hassle of dealing with most of the previously mentioned disadvantages.
The MVP scope relies on project stakeholders- product managers, engineers, and design specialists—to identify the must-have features vital to providing value to your audience and your startup.
Defining the scope lets you separate the necessary features from those complementing your product. Launching the essential features through your MVP allows you to collect valuable feedback to grow your software platform further and add the complementary “nice-to-have” features later.
Here are the three steps to defining your MVP scope:
Step 1: Identify Your Primary Business Objective.
Your primary business objective is your guiding light in defining your MVP. Do you want to socially impact your community or create a product that serves users globally? Knowing ‘Why’ you’re building your website, app, or product is vital for clearly defining your MVP.
Step 2: Map Out the Story
This step is similar to defining the user flows. Knowing your target audience and the process they’ll take to help you achieve your MVP goals will assist you in refining your MVP scope. Story mapping draws the path from them visiting your website/platform to completing an order. Flowcharts can be helpful here in outlining the steps but don’t worry too much about adding too much detail to each step just yet. You can focus on the headlining steps for now.
Then, review each step and the necessary features at each user journey point. At this stage, visiting other websites or products you enjoy using can inspire you to your desired user experience. Add as many features and details as necessary to the user journey here. You can always add whatever doesn’t cut your MVP scope’s backlog.
Step 3: Define Your Features
Now that you have outlined all the features of your primary objectives, it’s time to arrange them in order of priority. Prioritizing helps you know what to add to your final MVP scope. To organize your features, you can assign values to each one based on a points system you create.
Here’s an example of some questions you can ask to validate each feature:
How vital is this feature in the user story?
How will users receive this feature (popularity)?
What would impact your startup if you launched the MVP without this feature?
Collate the results for each feature, and there you have it. You now have your MVP Scope.
How Do You Gather MVP Requirements?
You must put together the MVP requirements that we discussed above before they are of any use to your development process.
There are many ways to gather requirements. Some relevant to MVP development are:
Surveys and questionnaires.
Team brainstorming sessions.
Minimum Viable Products have repeatedly proven their value as catalysts for robust and scalable products. The first step to enjoying the benefits of MVP building is knowing what MVPs are and what they mean for your startup.
After understanding the history of MVPs, you also need to know what may look like an MVP but is not. One example is prototypes. Even though they can complement the MVP development process, they are not products themselves but simply examples of what your product could be.
We’ve also been able to look at ways to start building your high or low-fidelity MVP with tools like the lean startup method and Agile development. And don’t forget who MVPs are for: founders and entrepreneurs who want to know if there is a suitable market for their product.
Defining the scope of your MVP based on the critical features and benefits you hope to derive from your product is also vital to understanding when your startup is ready to start building your very own MVP.
Now that we’re through with this detailed introduction, you can learn what building an MVP is all about and the step-by-step process of bringing your idea to life and into a testable product.
Good luck! If you are stuck, we are here to help.
Our MVP Process:
At Dusseau, we take you from ideation to design to development in no time while keeping you involved throughout the whole plan. Our MVP process includes:
Step 1: Understanding your vision: we dive deeper into the problem your product solves, assess the viability of your idea, and develop a roadmap for product success.
Step 2: Shaping the solution: we design your prototype, test prototypes with users, then refine based on user feedback.
Step 3: Building the product: we focus on agility and flexibility during while allowing for a continuous feedback loop using an iterative methodology and process.
Yes. A great minimum viable product will always be scalable to streamline the process of turning your MVP into a full-scale product. This scalability is why emphasis is sometimes put on making your MVP agile—as this will allow you to easily automate processes, iterate, and improve your product while also scaling your team.
Can an MVP be Sold?
Yes, even though it sounds unlikely, you can sell your MVP concept. If you decide to sell your MVP, you need to understand who might want to buy and develop your idea and ensure your MVP has tested the pre-existing hypotheses. From here, it's just a matter of how you pitch your MVP and find an interested buyer.
Is MVP Lean or Agile?
A minimum viable product can be both lean and Agile. Lean and MVP are Agile concepts that optimize product development by minimizing waste and cost. While Agile focuses more on speeding up the time-to-market for an MVP, lean startup methodology tries to satisfy customers’ desires while actively reducing waste by launching only the required essential features.
What is the Most Important Part of the MVP?
The most important feature of your MVP must be that it solves a problem your target users face. It needs to have real-world application. So, the assumptions you’re validating must consider your potential customer’s pain points and goals, focusing on how this translates to the core value proposition of your product.
Is Minimum Viable Product a Prototype?
No. An MVP is not a prototype, but you can use a prototype in MVP development. An MVP is an actual product that tests hypotheses in the real world with real users, while a prototype is a mock-up of your product that shows how it looks and feels—using fake users and scenarios to explain your product.
About The Author
I founded Dusseau and Company back in 2018, initially as a side project. This was after years spent in D.C., where I was immersed in creating predictive models for leading companies and even the Department of Defense. Coming from Oakland and having experienced the foster care system firsthand, the concept of social impact has always been close to my heart. That's why I built Dusseau and Company with a clear mission in mind: to create social impact at a significant scale. When I'm not deep in work, I'm usually found spending quality time with my dog, Buddha, or rigorously training for my next MMA bout. These moments help me stay grounded and remind me of the balance needed in life.