Today, everyone is talking about Minimum Viable Products, or MVPs. Startups are planning their first MVP to bring to market. Established organizations are deciding when the MVP of a new initiative will be ready to launch. And even individual teams are wondering how many sprints it will take for them to reach their MVP.

But despite the number of people talking about MVPs, the entire concept of an MVP is often misunderstood.

The biggest reason for this is that we too often think of MVPs only as products. And this should come as no surprise, after all, since the name Minimum Viable Product even has Product in the name. But, in actuality, an MVP doesn't have to be a product, at all.

Identifying an Opportunity

Often, we think of MVPs as validating whether or not a product will be successful in the marketplace, but MVPs can actually come into play much earlier than this.

Great product managers know that before you can have a successful product, you must first identify an addressable need. An addressable need is merely a gap in the market that your organization is well-equipped to fill. Often this is done in the discovery phase of our product development lifecycle, but these findings can occur throughout the lifetime of your product.

But how do you validate whether not you've identified an addressable need? Luckily there are many ways to do this. The easiest way is to sit down one-on-one with the individuals whom you believe represent your target demographic and share your vision with them. To help facilitate this, you can share wireframes or paper prototypes of the product you envision, slide decks describing the needs your product will fill, or simply bring a list of questions designed to help you better understand the problems your target demographic is facing.

None of these techniques require you to write a single line of code, because none of these techniques require a functioning product. However, in every case, the artifact that helps enable that conversation, whether it be a napkin drawing, a slide deck, or even just a list of questions can be considered an MVP.

That's because the job of an MVP is not to validate a finished product, but instead to validate your next hypothesis, in the simplest way possible.

Addressable Needs, Prototypes, and Deep-Fried Dough

To better understand where an MVP might fit in your own product development lifecycle, let's look at an example.

Imagine that you've just moved to a new town and discovered, to your horror, that there's not a single donut shop in town. But, being the enterprising individual that you are, you sense an opportunity. You could open your own donut shop and bring donuts to your own corner of the world.

But where do you start? Well, as tempted as you might be to immediately build the donut shop of your dreams and stock it with your favorite flavor: A Triple-Strawberry Frosted Donut with Cream, you take a breath. Maybe there's a reason there's no donut shop in this town already. Perhaps the townsfolk don't care for donuts, or their stomachs can't tolerate fried dough. Or, perhaps the key ingredients are simply too expensive to import to this out-of-the-way borough. Whatever the reason might be, before breaking ground on your brand new donut shop you decide first to test whether there's even a need for donuts here.

Validating the Need for Your Product

How do you do this? Well, a donut is nothing more than a mass of fried dough. So, you first need to test whether your town has an appetite for fried dough, in the first place. The easiest way to do this is to simply create a ball of fried dough and offer it to your townspeople.

This ball of fried dough is your MVP. It's not a donut and certainly bears no resemblance to the donut you envision, but it does test the essence of a donut: deep-fried dough.

In this case, your MVP for a donut shop is not a donut but rather a device that tests the need for a donut, because without first validating the need for a product there's no reason to move on to validating the actual product in any form.

This is where an MVP really shows its value since MVPs are most valuable at validating the need for a product, rather than the product itself.

Filling the Need

After a short test, you discover that your MVP was successful…almost. While your customers loved the taste of fried dough, you made an unexpected discovery. The majority of townsfolk simply can't tolerate gluten; therefore donuts as you traditionally think of them are not an option.

However, this obstacle isn't insurmountable. With only a slight tweak to your favorite recipe, you discover that you can create gluten-free donuts. The result is a ball of fried dough that's not only tasty but also accessible to your entire customer base. What's even better, is that you discovered this before creating hundreds of your favorite, gluten-rich donut.

But as much as the townsfolk love the taste of your new gluten-free fried dough on their lips, you can't build a successful business on fried dough alone. You need a real product. You need a reason for customers to come through your doors. You need a donut.

But is now the time to bring your Triple-Strawberry Frosted Donut with Cream masterpiece to the world? Not quite. As encouraging as the results of your MVP were, you've only validated that there's a need for fried dough in your town. You still need to validate whether a donut is the right product to fill that need. So, in the spirit of taking small steps to maximize your potential for learning, you introduce the most basic donut you can think of: the Plain Glazed.

This Plain Glazed donut is your Minimum Marketable Product, or MMP. The MMP is often confused with the MVP but, in practice, they're actually quite different. While the MVP most often validates that a need for your product exists, the MMP validates that your product is the right solution for that need. However, as the name implies, rather than being your top-tier offering, your MMP is the simplest product that can validate that your product might be successful.

To design your MMP, you must first consider what the essential qualities of a donut are. They are made of fried dough, they can be held in one hand, and they have that oh-so-sweet donut taste that can't be found anywhere else. Your Plain Glazed MMP checks all of these boxes, so it's an ideal candidate for filling the need identified by your MVP.

Unleashing Your Product on the World

Once again, your MMP was a hit with your customers…almost. While your customers loved the taste of the donut and the ability to eat the donut with one hand, you discovered that most of your customers indulge their craving for donuts on the way to their workplace. Therefore, they can't risk the sticky glaze getting stuck on their fingers before an important meeting. But luckily for you, there's a simple fix. By simply removing the glaze from the outside of your donut, your customers can enjoy your delicious treats anytime and anywhere without the risk of a sticky mess.

Now that your MMP has proven successful it's time to move on to your product and unleash your Triple-Strawberry Frosted Donut with Cream masterpiece on the world. This is the moment where your wildest visions for your product can become a reality. And the success of both your MVP and your MMP have paved the path to this moment.

In some cases, your end product might closely resemble the first visions for your product that you had at the outset. However, in other cases, the lessons you learned throughout the entire process are likely to have influenced and helped to evolve your end product along the way. Regardless of where your path leads, clearly understanding the differences between your MVP, MMP, and your product will help ensure that your end product is something both you and your customers will truly love.

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