Abhishek Anand

@abyshake

The curious case of MVP — The Why and How

We all get bit carried away when building the MVP. Months and months of development gone into it. But is it really required? Or can we circumvent it?

The minimum viable product (MVP) is a product with just enough features to satisfy early customers, and to provide feedback for future development.

Though the term is almost 2 decades old now, it can owe its popularity to two people in particular:

  • steve blank — Author, The Four Steps to the Epiphany: Successful Strategies for Products that Win
  • Eric Ries — Author, The Lean Startup

And all of a sudden, everybody in the startup and venture capital world was talking of MVPs. Investor pitch decks pimped up with details on MVP and the results that came with it. Having an MVP — it made obvious sense. Why spend months and months on developing a full-fledged product? You could now spend a few weeks to get a barebone architecture out there to test out your hypothesis. Having MVPs gave businesses the much needed insight on market validation. It helped them change their approaches way early in their product lifecycle.

Long story cut short, it was all good.

But, no good deed goes unpunished, and no pure thought remains incorrigible and incorruptible.

The notion of MVP too, started to change — at least in the startup community. Primarily, I suspect, because of the fact that people did not really understand what MVP stood for. Let us look at a couple of problems and try to clear the air a bit.

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Read the follow-up to this story here : …[cont] The MVP Saga
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PROBLEM #1 — THE FREE MVP

Today, someone asked me a question. A question I identify to be one of the many problems leading to the misguided view of MVP as we typically see it today.

Should you ever do free trials for customers during MVP? Or should you always charge?

How can your MVP be free if your product isn’t? And lets say you are offering your MVP for free when your product isn’t. Are you getting actionable and insightful intel or data from your early pilot, in that case?

I always have trouble fixing up the perfect knot for my tie. The last wedding I attended, I ended up doing my tie 7 or 8 times before I was satisfied with the knot. Before I was happy with the exact centimeter length of the tie and everything.

(Yes. I want my tie to be correct to the precise cm. I am anal that way)

You can say it is a “pain-point” for me. Now, that’s what startups are all about. Solving a pain point. The important questions here would be:

  • Does the pain-point exist? Yes it does. Any picture of me in a tie is a testimony to the endless effort that has gone behind getting it that way.
  • Does the pain-point exist for a big enough consumer set to make it a viable business? I don’t know. I never thought of starting a business that sells a product that fixes the perfect tie for you. But if you want to get into this business, this is a critical question for you. One that will illustrate market size and potential to scale.
  • Is the pain-point critical enough for the consumer to want to shell money for it? Alternately put, does he have the budget and intent to spend on a solution to fix this pain-point? Now, this. This my friends, is the $5,000 question. The primary question that you try finding the answer to by bringing out a MVP.

Before I wrote that last point, the thought in my head was — I will never pay $99 for a device that just fixes my tie for me. After all, that would be insane. But now? Now I am not so sure.

WHY NOT?

I have paid bellhops a couple of dollars for fixing my tie — just before I enter the main venue. (Yes. A couple of dollars may not seem as much, but where in an economy like India, it is actually a decent tip.)

So we have established I am already spending on getting my ties fixed. In that case, maybe I wouldn’t mind paying for a device that does that in the comfort of my home. Whenever I need, as frequently as I need. How much would I be willing to pay for that device is an altogether different question. A question that would be a part of your optimal pricing discussion and pricing strategy. So, let’s not get into that.

If you look at that whole rant again, you would understand why you just CAN’T offer your MVP for free.

I wasn’t initially willing to pay for THE device — which I inherently resigned as a silly thing to buy for. I submitted to the notion of probably making this purchase once I was confronted with a crucial fact. That I am already paying for this service, in a different form.

Even then, I would — in all probability — be doing the cost benefit analysis. I would access value of a one time larger payment versus multiple smaller payments as and when I need, and what not. But once again, let us not get carried away with that, and stay on point.

But had you offered me the device for free, I would have certainly taken it. Why not? I use neckties, this device fixes neckties, I can use this device, and the device is free. If I like it, great. If I don’t — in a landfill it goes.

Offering a product for free, when it isn’t designed to be that way is counterproductive. It will never give you the market indicators you had set out in search for.

PROBLEM #2 — THE MVP THAT’S NOT AN MVP, BUT JUST A SMALLER, SIMPLER PRODUCT

Yes. I know the P in MVP stands for Product, but I don’t think the intent ever was to create a simpler product. The intent was to create a product/solution that is quick to introduce to the market. So that you’re in a better position to gather actionable and live customer data. Things that you can’t figure out for sure, sitting in a board room.

When you are taking a couple of months and a team of 4–5 people to build your MVP, then you are not really building an MVP, are you? You are actually building an entry level product. One that you will add bells and whistles to at a later stage, if things start going your way. Not to mention, if you get the much coveted VC funding — as many entrepreneurs would agree.

Your MVP is supposed to just validate your core hypothesis. And access the willingness of the market to accept and embrace that solution — at a cost.

Let us take the example of a food app — one with a new concept.

Or newish. I am not sure if it already exists.

WHAT SHOULD WE HAVE FOR LUNCH?

That is the typical question we ask ourselves when we are planning a lunch with friends. That is the question mothers ask their kids when they are planning to start cooking.

So how did the answer to this question change from “Let’s have Pepperoni Pizza” to “Let’s go to Big Chill”. #FoodForThought — all puns intended.

It is interesting, isn’t it? All these food-tech startups around you, attempting to bring restaurants home to you. Yet nobody is actually trying to bring you the food worth killing for.

So what if that is exactly what you did?

A simple solution — does one thing. Tells you what are THE MOST AMAZING DISHES on the menu of any restaurant, in any particular locality.

Quite a simple concept really. Let us consider this to be an app. Here will be the steps:

  1. User fires up the app
  2. App detects user’s location
  3. Shows restaurants in the area. Maybe even give some sort of indication as to which are the popular ones and which aren’t
  4. Asks for preferences from users — Vegan, Glutten free and what not
  5. Suggests the exact dishes that a user may love — Restaurant + Dish
  6. Top 10 most popular dishes in that particular area — from various restaurants

The user can make an informed choice now. I want to have Peking Duck, cool — I know where to head out to.

SO. WHAT WILL THE MVP LOOK LIKE?

Well, it will be an app which will…..

Errrr.

Do you really need an app for the MVP? Let’s look at it this way. Our primary assumption asserts the usefulness of this system for foodies out there. Let’s do a quick and dirty test.

Take any locality — I choose Connaught Place, New Delhi, India.

I print a mini brochure — say a 3 page fold one. It has a list of restaurants, and popular dishes in each restaurants — just from that locality. On one page, it has top 10 most popular dishes for different categories. May be just two categories, one for the vegetarians and one for those who live and swear by meat. Next, I print 5 restaurants on the front of the brochure. The brochure is sealed. People can look at the front for free, of course. And if they like the offering, they can have it for — say 30 cents.

  • The price isn’t that important at this stage. The willingness to shell out any money is.
  • I would look at the conversion ratio. Out of 100 people I talked to, how many even wanted to look at the front page. And off of those who did, how many wanted to pay me the 30 cents.
  • What kind of people were most interested for each of those two buckets of the funnel. Were they college kids, couples, working professionals, tourists?

I can list out some more interesting data points you can accumulate here, but you get the idea. And more importantly, you did manage to do a full fledged pilot, without writing a single line of code. And you did it with a MVP that is nowhere close to what your actual product would look like.

Sure, you should be having a website as well. And there are other things that we can talk about in terms of the design of the brochure and its contents. How you leverage the leads that you generate via this experiment, but let us keep all that aside for the time being.

Ola* started out their operations by taking cab bookings on a central number. Did you know that? They started phasing out that process and ultimately ditched it completely. They didn’t do so because it wasn’t working, but because they knew it couldn’t be scaled up. But even that central 1800-number* served its purpose and was a good way to move ahead.

That is what the real essence of MVP is. Having a product that validates your hypothesis and gives you actionable market intelligence. It doesn’t matter whether the MVP is anywhere close to your real product or not.

*Ola is a competitor to Uber, operating in India
*We are just calling it by the generic name 1800-number, it wasn’t actually an 1800-number.
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Read the follow-up to this story here : …[cont] The MVP Saga
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