How much of a product do you need to launch?
None at all, if you ask Joel Gascoigne.
The Buffer founder decided to create a tool to schedule his Twitter posts — but when he “launched,” the tool was nothing more than a spark in his mind.
“I created a super minimal two page website, without building the product at all,” said Gascoigne in a 2013 interview.
Gascoigne was obsessed with the idea of the MVP. No, not the “Most Valuable Player.” In this case, MVP stands for “Minimum Viable Product.”
A minimum viable product is a time-tested formula used successfully by some of the greatest startups of our day.
The minimum viable product does one thing: it answers the question “Will this idea work?” It lets you test your idea against the cold, hard reality of the market. Gascoigne used this model to build Buffer, and we can use it to build our own products too.
Why Use the MVP?
The traditional product development process takes a lot of time and a lot of money. Think of some of the biggest commercial flops in history — say, the Ford Edsel. Ford spent millions of dollars on development, research and engineering. They set up production facilities to make the Edsel. Once vehicles started rolling off the line, it became obvious that there was a problem: nobody wanted to buy them.
That failure cost the company $250 million. Ford was big enough to absorb the loss. Not every company is.
The Edsel example illustrates the problem with traditional product development. A long gestation period means more time for feature bloat. You can become a slave to the sunk cost fallacy.
A “sunk cost” is a cost that can no longer be recovered — for example, replacing the alternator in your car. The “sunk cost fallacy” is making decisions based on costs you’ve already incurred instead of looking to the future. If you no longer wanted to sell your used car because you spent so much money on the alternator and you wanted to get your money’s worth out of it, that’s the sunk cost fallacy. It’s the difference between cutting your losses and throwing good money after bad.
Buffer’s process was the opposite of Ford’s. They avoided these challenges by creating a landing page where people could sign up. As Gascoigne started to get responses, he built a pricing page where he could see if people would pay. Then he built a bare-bones version of the product: all it did was let you schedule Twitter posts. Nothing more.
The answer to “how much of a product do I need,” as Joel Gascoigne found out, was “probably less than you think.”
Obviously Ford couldn’t go as lean as Buffer could to start — automobile development has a higher intrinsic cost just by virtue of its complexity. The principle still applies, though. Test whether people are interested in the minimum product that will get a response. An MVP is about PROMISE, not a fully-formed product.
How Do I Get Started?
When you build an MVP, there’s a repeatable process that will allow you to progress with the least risk possible.
First, build. Create something that will get people interested. Get a test group of consumers and let them try out your iterations.
Then, measure. Figure out whether there’s enough interest to make your idea worth it.
Learn from your measurement. If it didn’t work, go back to the drawing board and build something different. Dissect what worked and what didn’t.
Finally, repeat. Build on what you’ve learned. Start small and go through the process as many times as it takes to create a commercially viable solution.
Developing a product may involve many of these cycles before you actually get something viable. Be patient with the process.
What is the DNA of an MVP?
Three factors make up the DNA of a successful MVP.
1: Defined goal
An MVP is designed to do one thing. That’s what the “minimum” part means. In Buffer’s case, the first generation of the app was made to do one thing: schedule Twitter posts.
Whatever your business, the MVP approach works. Maybe you’re a bakery. You want to branch out from bread into sweet pastries. Your goal is to test whether your client base will buy sweets. Start small — simple cookies, and only a small production run to test interest. You test, iterate on it, and figure out what people want.
Maybe you’re a copy editor who wants to sell your services. Start small — offer an edit on something up to 500 words for a small fee. Send an email to your subscriber base and ask if they’re interested, or push it out on social media if you don’t have that. That’s the MVP. Work up from there. Don’t start with a ton of effort when there may not be interest.
Ruthlessly cut. Avoid feature bloat. Keep a SINGLE goal in mind. Trust the idea and commit to it long enough to know whether it will work.
2: Narrow audience
When you create a MVP you’re not looking for a mass-market audience. You’re not looking at everyone who you’ll eventually sell to, just a small subset.
When Buffer started, it was a barebones scheduling tool that only worked for Twitter. Gascoigne knew he could expand it once he had it up and running, and today it packs many more features.
The audience he captured at the start was one particular group: early adopters with a specific need for the product. He started with just enough to get their appetite whetted. Buffer’s MVP, like all MVPs, was about promise: the idea that it would do the thing you need effectively. He built the main feature they were looking for, then expanded.
Early adopters will forgive rough edges if the product does what they need it to. Seth Godin’s old admonition of “find your tribe” still holds true. Keep them in mind when you’re designing it.
3: Adjusted risk
An MVP lowers risk. MVP product development takes less time and resources than traditional startup models. And you have less sunk costs up front.
Gascoigne could have pivoted at any point. If he hadn’t found interest at the start, he could have made a page for a Facebook-focused scheduler. At any point he had just enough resources and time in the project to judge whether there was interest.
Your MVP lets you manage your risk effectively. Use it as a “canary in a coal mine” to figure out whether people will buy your product.
Your Idea vs. Reality
The best idea in the world means nothing if nobody is interested. The MVP lets you test your concept against hard reality.
Don’t start building castles in the sky before you even know if people are interested. Failure is a part of business, and entrepreneurs fail more than most. That’s how they succeed. That’s how YOU can succeed. Fail small and fast. Need help figuring out your own MVP strategy? Know that you don’t need to go it alone. We’re in this with you. If you need a little help, just drop us a line, anytime.
Rainmaker Digital Services