Is your MVP your MVP?

By Danny Nathan

Is your MVP your MVP?

The term “MVP” isn’t new. 

Entrepreneurs have been chattering incessantly about their “minimum viable product” since the release of Eric Ries’s pivotal text, The Lean Startup. And, while “MVP” became the guiding principle underpinning technology-focused entrepreneurship over the last decade or more, there’s still much argument about what exactly an MVP entails. 

Countless folks have attempted to iterate on the MVP ideal by twisting the idea of a “minimum viable product” into whatever fits their trajectory. In fact, there has been so much consternation around this topic to date that one doesn’t have to look far to find articles questioning the validity of a “minimum viable product” vs. the value of some other slightly varied and equally unclear definition of a product, like:

  • MDP (minimum delightful product)
  • MVE (minimum viable experience)
  • SLC (simple, lovable, and complete) product
  • MLP (minimum lovable product)
  • SMURF (Specifically Marketable, Useful, Releasable Feature Set)
  • MMP (minimum marketable product)
  • MMF (minimum marketable feature)
  • MAP (minimum awesome product)
  • MSP (minimum sellable product)
  • MValP (minimum valuable product)
  • MII (minimum inspectable increment)

The list of far-fetched acronyms could go on forever (and, in all likelihood, will do so). 

The underlying issue that causes so many entrepreneurs to question the MVP structure is inherent to the naming. When we refer to something as a “minimum viable product” we expect it to be just that — a product. It is, after all, in the name of the thing! The idea of a product conjures expectations of a complete thing (service, digital good, physical device, etc.) that helps us accomplish a task or solve a problem. 

Ironically, this view is at direct odds with Ries’s Lean Startup Methodology which focuses on applying a scientific-like method to developing a product (and the surrounding business). Eric Ries defines Minimum Viable Product as the version of a new product which allows a team to collect the maximum amount of validated learning about customers with the least effort. At face value, this makes sense. You’re probably approaching a Lean methodology by trying to ask yourself “What’s the least I can build that will have the most impact on my validation efforts?”

But… have you ever heard that you can’t define a term by using that term? 

If a minimum viable product is “The version of a new product which allows a team to collect the maximum amount of validated learning about customers with the least effort.” then it begs an important question:

What exactly is a “product” anyway? 

As entrepreneurs have taken Reis’s idea of an MVP and run with it, along with the experimentation-focused Lean methodology, the clear-cut definition of a “product” — or at least the mass communal understanding of it — has gotten increasingly muddy. 

  • Is a landing page that gauges interest by capturing email addresses a “product”? 
  • What if the customer prepays for something indicating interest and intention — is that a “product”? 
  • Or a paper prototype that demonstrates some future end state functionality — is that a product? 

I’d venture that you’re inclined to answer NO to the options above. Yet I can guarantee that every one of those things has been created under the guise of an “MVP” at some point (in the last week).

What if we remove the “product”?

The tension we’re uncovering here is a tug-of-war between the Lean methodology of doing as little as possible to learn as much as possible as quickly as possible in order to minimize risk vs. the inherent idea that we’re building not only a product, but a business centered around that product (or service). 

A business requires customers and must have something to sell them… a product.
An experiment requires only a hypothesis and some means to test that hypothesis. 

The confusion around what exactly qualifies as a “minimum viable product” is not only not surprising, it’s inevitable. The moment we try to turn an experiment into a product, it’s going to grow beyond the “minimum” required to learn quickly and cheaply in order to mitigate risk. This confusion is further underpinned by texts that surround the Lean Startup — like Cindy Alvarez’s Lean Customer Development. 

In Lean Customer Development — right up front in the preface — Alvarez does an amazing job of boiling entrepreneurship down to its most simple context. “Learn what your customers need, and use that knowledge to build exactly what they’re willing to pay for.”

Slow clap… 

Notice the word “product” isn’t in there at all. (For that matter, neither are “minimum” or “viable”.)

Trevor Owens and Obie Fernandez offer an equally compelling definition of an MVP: “A tool for learning what you need to know at any given moment with the least possible expenditure of resources…The MVP can be whatever you need it to be for the purpose of a given experiment.”

Are you beginning to see a pattern here? 

The focus on experimentation, learning, and risk mitigation is the key. Nowhere in this sequence is there a requirement that a product is involved — only an experiment.

What if we remove the confusion?

So we’ve removed the word “product” from the mix. Feeling better yet? 

No, I didn’t think so. 

We really only find enough clarity to get rid of the alphabet soup by being more explicit about what we mean and when. 

  • Are you talking with customers to discover pain points? Congrats! You’re executing customer development. 
  • Are you building a small feature or POC so you can demonstrate value to potential customers? Great! You’re prototyping.
  • Are you creating a saleable solution to a discovered pain point that you’ve validated with potential customers using a prototype? Fantastic! You’re building a product. 

None of these things work without the others. Instead of trying to come up with a catch-all term that attempts to describe each of these scenarios (and inevitably fails, creates confusion, and stymies innovation), perhaps we should focus on calling things what they are? A modicum of clarity will help everyone involved communicate more effectively and limit confusion around an ever-growing lexicon. 

After all, we’re all entrepreneurs, right? And ultimately it’s your business that will represent your success, no matter how you got there. 

(With all of that said, I’d love to see what a “minimum viable sandwich” might look like.)

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