Why Your Minimum Viable Products Probably Are Not Viable nor Even a Product

Founders pay a lot of attention to Minimum Viable Products, or “MVPs”.  However, for all of the attention that’s paid there seems to be just as much confusion about what an MVP exactly is.

Despite the name, MVPs aren’t intended to actually be viable products.  MVPs serve one purpose and one purpose only…to validate a specific hypothesis.  Sometimes that means you need to release a product to the market to validate that hypothesis, but usually not.

cup-of-coffee-and-napkin-sketchWhat this means is that most early MVPs actually aren’t viable in the marketplace.  In fact, they’re usually not even products.

Let’s dive a bit deeper into this.  Often when you first begin work on your product the hypotheses that you’re validating are less about specific features that would be tested with a build and more about your overall product direction or business model.  These are the “would you pay for this questions” that underly all assumptions about your product from the outset.  And, these are the most important assumptions that you need to be validating with your early MVPs.

So, how do you validate these early hypotheses?  You do so with the most lightweight MVP possible…a conversation.  You don’t need a functioning app, or even a prototype, to be able to have an early discussion with a potential customer about the validity of your idea.  Often, you just need a list of questions and a sketch on a napkin.  If this list of questions and sketch helps you to test whether or not your hypothesis is valid then this is your MVP.

Could this list of questions and sketch be considered a product?  Probably not.  Would it be viable in the marketplace?  Absolutely not.  But, it’s well suited to validating the specific hypothesis that you have at that moment because this hypothesis is about your overall vision for your product and where it fits in the market…not about specific features.

Meet the MMP

So, if an MVP is not always viable in the market then what is?  The MMP.

An MMP, or Minimum Marketable Product, embodies what people often think of when it comes to MVPs.  An MMP is the smallest possible product increment that could conceivably be viable in the marketplace.

Is a list of questions and a napkin sketch a viable product in the marketplace?  No.  But the first build of that product containing the bare minimum of features may be.  Often when we discuss adding only enough features into our product to create an MVP, we’re actually referring to an MMP.

All MMPs are MVPs

We use MVPs to prove a hypothesis that we’ve set for our product.  Depending on the nature of that hypothesis our MVP may be a sketch on a napkin, a landing page that collects email sign ups, or even just a cup of coffee and conversation with a potentialmvp-mmp customer.  It doesn’t matter what form they take, as long as they can be used to validate a hypothesis and move your product forward.

Once our hypotheses have matured to the point that we’re now testing actual features our MVPs start to become viable product builds, often in the form of MMPs.  Although an MMP will be more refined than the MVPs described above it can be just as useful for validating a hypothesis about your product.  The point we must remember, however, is that shipping a full fledged product to validate a hypothesis will take much more time and effort than walking a napkin sketch to a coffee shop.  This means that we should always be asking ourselves if we’re using the absolute lightest weight MVP possible to validate that hypothesis.

Choosing the Right Path

In the end, it all comes down to the nature of the hypotheses that you wish to validate and where you are in your product life cycle.   Early hypotheses concerning your vision or market fit can be much more effectively validated using a simple MVP.  This is because their lighter weight and more malleable nature will allow you to get feedback sooner and more easily adjust course if you take a misstep.  Later hypotheses concerning specific features, distribution channels, or platform decisions may warrant the investment in an MMP.  But your goal is to delay that investment as long as possible until you’ve proven as many of your initial hypotheses as possible using other means.

Want to learn more about choosing the right features for each step of your release?  Check out my course Agile Release Planning on Front Row Agile to learn more.

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