In my last post, I explained what a Minimum Viable Product (MVP) approach is and how it can reduce risks for startups and companies developing software products.
Putting something of value into customer’s hands sooner (rather than later) achieves one of two outcomes:
- Fail fast and cheaply: You’ve spent the minimal amount of effort to develop a product that matches your vision. If the idea proves unviable with real users, at least you haven’t wasted years to learn that fact. You may be able to redirect your money and energy towards a better idea.
- Build a better product: If your concept proves viable, that doesn’t mean it’s perfect. You’ll benefit from grassroots input from users early in the process. Business (and software) doesn’t become less complex the bigger you grow. It becomes more complex. A solid foundation built upon thoughtfully means less effort, disorder, and major overhauls in the future.
Building iteratively on your MVP allows you to develop a full feature-set and refine your product over time to achieve a solution that people actually need and are willing to pay for, not the product you think they want.
But how do you develop an MVP effectively?
Start by finding people who care
You need to narrow your audience for your product and engage targeted users to get feedback that’s meaningful.
Marketing guru Seth Godin famously said that rather than ‘find customers’ to buy what you’re selling, success comes when you ‘find products for your customers.” An MVP is literally building the product for your customer.
But to do that, you need to know your customer. As Godin also cautioned: “A product for everyone rarely reaches much of anyone.” As much as we’d all like our app to be the next Facebook, in reality, most solutions won’t have this kind of broad appeal.
It’s unrealistic to be everything to everyone, so don’t try.
Hone in on what makes your startup idea distinctive, the specific problems you want to solve, and the specific kinds of people that might benefit.
Research and start conversations with these people before you invest a cent in software development. Your target audience knows their problems better than anyone.
Gather this information from your target audience/users before you build:
- Does the problem you are trying to solve actually exist?
- How big is the market of people experiencing the problem you’re trying to solve?
- Is it an urgent enough problem for people to spend money to solve it?
- Is there an existing solution? What are the barriers to switching to your solution?
- Does your idea actually solve the problem in a remarkable or compelling way?
Define the core problem and solve it well
Once you found and researched your audience, the next step in developing your Minimum Viable Product is clarifying: what is the minimum work required to deliver something of value?
Deciding what development work to direct your efforts toward is critical.
The 80/20 rule is a useful yardstick in business and software development alike. The rule, also known as the Pareto principle, states that 80% of the effects flow from 20% of causes.
For example, research has shown that the vast majority of software users use just 20% of product features frequently, while most features are rarely, if ever, used.
Most of the value, for most people, comes from a small set of features. That being the case, why would you wait until you’ve developed 100% of the features you think are important to put your product into market?
Focus on the core 20% of features and get your product into the market as soon as possible.
How to find your 20%? Categorise and prioritise:
- Break down your idea into a comprehensive list of features.
- Categorise each as ‘must-have’ or ‘nice to have’ features: ‘Must-haves’ are features that must be present to solve the core problem of your users. ‘Nice-to-haves’ are the features that are not necessary to solve the core problem, but would be considered part of a polished product.
- Prioritise your features and take another look—can you tighten the ‘Must-haves’ list? Leave your ego to one side and ask: will the product solve core problems without this feature? Is the cost of building this feature truly outweighed by the value it delivers?
- Remove the ‘Nice-to-haves’ from your scope and build only your core ‘Must-haves’.
- Keep your prioritised list as backlog features to be worked on for future development and release.
Yes, you have a vision for what you think your completed product or app is going to look and behave like, but in reality, quality products are never complete. Quality software solutions continually evolve and iterate and respond to market changes, consumer preferences, and competitor threats.
Build, ship, test, and iterate
Whether you have in-house developers or you outsource your development work—ensure your ‘Must-have’ features are skilfully built so you can get a high-quality MVP in front of your users as fast as possible.
This means you need a team that is organised, experienced and skilled in being able to work in a way that supports identifying and quickly shipping high-value features in a cost-effective manner.
What you do next will determine the success of your product.
You have to allow users to have their say, and act on what you learn.
The value of having an MVP is the ability to become more in tune with your users needs so you can enhance your product—that will help you retain beta users, attract new customers, and ultimately develop a successful product.
To do this you need to:
- Engage with users: Use a variety of techniques, over time, to understand how people interact with your product and their pain points, likes and dislikes. Talk to users and analyse their actual behaviour. Rinse and repeat as iterative changes are made.
- Refine and enhance: Week by week, take what you learn from customers and decide what changes or improvements need to be made. Incrementally perfect the product. Prioritise work to be implemented and adjust your list of ‘Nice-to-have’ features you descoped from the MVP.
Once you get user feedback, you might be surprised by how unnecessary some of the ‘Nice-to-have’ (or 80%) features really are in the grand scheme of things. You might discover some of your ‘Must-haves’ miss the mark and uncover new ‘Must-haves’ from your audience’s perspective.
You’ll see that building 100% of the features you first envisioned would have been a waste of time and money, and likely compromised your product.
Your product is never complete
Iterate, iterate, and iterate again. Once your startup is operational, or your company makes its new product available to paying customers, you’ll develop a keen sense for the cost-benefit of investing in new features and optimising existing features.
Your bottom line will become the key indicator of success, so focus on software development efforts that:
- Help unlock new market opportunities and attract new users to your product.
- Improve the experience and solve the pain points of your existing customers to maintain their business.
- Introduce features (or complementary products) that solve adjacent problems in order to upsell your current and prospective customers.
Knowing you’re on the right track to a profitable product begins with carefully and expertly building a minimum viable product. An effective MVP minimises the time, effort, and cost required to launch a product, acquire users, and grow your market.