A Beginner’s Guide to Minimum Viable Products (MVPs)

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By Cliff Gilley

Let’s say you want to create a wedding cake for someone, but you’re not sure exactly what they want that cake to be. There are far too many variables involved to just jump into creating a full three-tier, fondant-covered, fully decorated cake, right? You’d have to choose what kind of cake, filling, and frosting, what colors should be on the cake, how the cake should be structured, and so on.

So how do we know what the customer wants, and how we can delight them with the perfect cake for their perfect occasion? It’s simple: We start with a cupcake. It’s small, easy, covers all the necessary bases, and confirms what the customer wants before we fire up the bakery and decoration team to create the final product. That cupcake is our wedding cake MVP.

The term MVP, which stands for “minimum viable product,” is widely used throughout the product development world. The term dates back to the early days of Agile product development and was coined in 2001 by Frank Robinson, now CEO of the product development firm SyncDev. It has since been popularized throughout the industry by such authors and thought leaders as Steve Blank, Marty Kagan, and Eric Ries. As such, it’s become somewhat of a buzzword — and like many such buzzwords, it is often both misused and misunderstood.

The basic concept of a minimum viable product is simple — it’s the smallest amount of work you can do to deliver something of value to your market. It’s something that can be used to validate (or invalidate) a specific set of assumptions, to derisk potential complications in your go-to-market plan, and/or to test one or more specific hypotheses about your target users. Keep in mind, though, that the more you’re trying to do with your MVP, the less likely it is to really be an MVP.

Understanding what an MVP really is and why it’s important is critical to the success of most startup businesses and for the career trajectory of someone who wants to be a product manager. Product managers must have laser focus and ruthless dedication to focusing their organization’s efforts of achieving its MVP before iterating on it, and ensuring that each subsequent iteration is itself an MVP.

An MVP Is “Minimal”

The easiest-understood aspect of an MVP is that it is, in fact, “minimal” — meaning it reflects the smallest amount of work needed to test your hypotheses or solve a user problem. However, this is often difficult to achieve in practice — during the product development process, nearly everyone involved will want to add to the MVP, but nearly nobody will be willing to subtract from it.

Product managers must be able to mercilessly cut scope and fight feature creep in order to keep the product team focused on delivering the MVP. I once read a great thread on Quora that addresses this by imagining hypothetical discussions with the product manager for Dropbox — in my opinion, one of the best examples of a true MVP. You put files in a folder, and they synced to the cloud. That’s it. Some stakeholder probably asked about user rights — and the PM probably answered, “It doesn’t do that.” Someone probably asked about syncing multiple folders, and the PM answered, “It doesn’t do that.” Ruthless dedication to delivering exactly the minimum set of features needed to delight its users really allowed Dropbox to have exceptional success in a market that many had tried previously to conquer.

An MVP Is “Viable”

After we establish the minimum set of features we should be building into our product, we have to make sure the product is actually viable. Essentially, this means that it solves an actual problem that people have, and the product is constructed in a way that’s useful to those people.

If your MVP can’t stand up for more than a few hours without manual intervention, it’s not viable. If your MVP has such a poor user interface that people can’t intuitively figure out how to use it, it’s not viable. If your MVP takes longer to solve the problem than the method that people are currently using, it’s not viable. If your MVP can’t be used by more than five people at a time, it’s not viable. All of these things might start to sound like “scope creep” — more functionality that is absolutely necessary to achieve your goals. But the important thing to note is that security, user experience, and scalability are not features to be cut to reach your MVP; rather they are fundamental aspects of your product that you simply have to implement in order to actually have an MVP.

An MVP Is a “Product”

Finally, an MVP must actually be a “product” — that is, it has to be something that solves a valuable problem across a wide enough market space to be feasible as a moneymaking proposition. If you’re making an MVP that suits a small number of people, it’s probably a tool rather than a product. If you’re making an MVP that nobody is actually willing to pay for, you’re doing charity work and not building a product.

Now, keep in mind that the user doesn’t have to be the one paying for it — Facebook makes billions of dollars on the backs of its advertisers while its users engage regularly for free. But you do need to have some concept of who will be willing to pay for your product, and evidence that this path is sustainable.

MVP at General Assembly

At General Assembly, understanding the concept of MVP is a core component of our part-time Product Management course. Students engage in coursework and exercises that force prioritization decisions, backlog management, and stakeholder negotiation. The course’s final project is a pitch for an MVP solution to a valuable market problem, which sums up all of the skills and capabilities developed over the 10 weeks in class.

Meet Our Expert

For nearly 15 years, Cliff Gilley has been a product manager and Agile coach at a wide variety of companies across many different industries, and is currently working as a technical product manager for the K2 corporation in Bellevue, Washington. He teaches General Assembly’s 10-week, part-time Product Management course, as well as shorter-form product management workshops at GA’s Seattle campus. He also blogs regularly as the Clever PM and is an active board member with the Pacific Northwest Product Management Community.

“GA’s courses are highly collaborative and outcome-driven. Leveraging GA facilities and programs around the world provides alumni with an ever-expanding range of opportunities to connect and learn from experts in the field."

Cliff Gilley, Product Management Instructor, General Assembly Seattle