Early Stage Insider: Defining Your MVP…

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On a recent Early Stage Insider post, I received a comment from J. D. Farmakidis asking my thoughts on the most effective way for a startup to channel the market research they do into defining their M.V.P. – the minimal viable product they need to develop to go to market. It’s a great question – one I’ve been asked before – and I felt the best way to answer it was with a new post.

So how do you go about defining your MVP?


The first thing to remember is that releasing a minimal viable product is NOT the same thing as releasing a minimally working product. In any product you release, quality still matters. If you put out junk, any feedback you get back will be marginally useful and won’t help you focus your efforts where they need to be. Avoid this at all costs.

The MVP you develop should distill the the core value to are looking to bring to market down to its most elemental form. At the same time, it still needs to address a real market need at a professional level of quality and usability, in a way that is distinct in some value-added way from existing market solutions.

This starts with getting a deep dive understanding of:

Needs->Workflows->Solutions

These represent the context of the existing market that any new product will need to operate in. From that, you should be able to enumerate the areas where existing solutions fall short as well as where they do well. Both are important. (A spreadsheet app like Numbers or Excel is a great way to capture and organize this detail into a working outline.)

With that as a guide, create an outline of what capabilities your product will need to include, those you are consciously deciding to omit, and some potential ways to integrate your product/service into existing market workflows. Socialize this with trusted people in your target market, and use that to further refine what you are looking to do. This process should give you a more refined and focused definition of what your MVP should include.

From this, you should be able to estimate how much time it will take to develop your MVP, and line that up against the amount of time you know you have left (given your available funding, resources, burn rate, etc.) to execute on it. These need to be honest time assessments – and even then you will almost always underestimate the time it will take to develop something. In all of this, you really need be thinking MINIMAL. Keep trying to identifying the basic elements of value that you should try to deliver vs. the minimal version of some grander vision you’d ultimately like to achieve. Don’t be afraid to prune anything you find isn’t a necessary part of your key value proposition. Both your potential customers and your competitors are always in motion, so minimizing time to market is very important.

If your product is in a technical area, development should be built around an agile process, composed of short sprints that result in usable functionality. You want to be getting market feedback on various capabilities as soon as it comes out, so develop a good relationship with some people in the market that will be willing to test and comment on these early builds. Use their feedback in defining the goals of your next sprint. Keep in mind that if you can’t find anyone willing to do this with you, its possible that the opportunity you are looking to address might not be as significant as you think it is. If so, it may require more thought before moving ahead.

In addition to giving you incremental feedback, this “early engagement” process can also help you figure out when your MVP is finally ready. When the people you are working with begin to integrate your sprint releases into their daily workflows, you are probably there.

Package it up and make a release!

Keep in mind that defining an MVP isn’t a formal process – it is an organic mix of assumptions, validations, and feedback – all refined through iteration with the market. You won’t get everything right, but that’s OK. The goal is to deliver an initial product that provides some core values that are compelling enough for people to be willing to overlook any areas where it falls short. It can get better from there, guided then by real world usage and feedback.

The harsh reality is that no matter how much thought and planning goes in at this stage, you’ll never be sure that you’re building something viable until you have enough people in the market using it. And to do that, you need to ship. Don’t be sloppy, but don’t over think. Your strategy should be to research intelligently, ship quickly, learn incrementally, and iterate often.

This can’t be done in a vacuum. You can’t approach this as an intellectual exercise – it isn’t about servicing a market in the abstract. To be effective, you need to become a part of the market – and engagement and understanding need to be the cornerstones of everything you do.

I’m sure many of you have gone through this process at some point. Please feel free to share your own experiences around developing new products, and any lessons you think might apply.

My thanks again to J. D. Farmakidis for motivating this post. Hopefully this did a reasonable job of answering your question! If not, let me know…

Early Stage Insider: Taking Advice…

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Starting up a new company can be daunting, and is tough to do alone.

As the euphoria around the initial ‘big idea’ starts to transition into a more sober assessment of what needs to be done to actually execute on it, you will probably start reaching out to key people in your network for validation and advice. This is a critical phase in launching a business, challenging you to fully think through the premise of your venture and the details of what you’ll need to do to make it happen. If not approached with the right mindset, a lot of the value you’re looking to get from it will be lost.

Probably the single most important thing you can do when approaching this step is to avoid selection bias when seeking advice – picking the people that you think are most likely to say good things about what you are doing. You want to talk to people that will give you honest, constructive advice. This isn’t about getting told how great your idea is -even if it is. It’s about understanding where your weaknesses are, and what you can do to address them. Maybe the team you’re putting together isn’t right. Maybe some of your assumptions about market size are off. Maybe the technology you’re using isn’t ideal. Whatever it is, talking to people that can identify these things right up front is critical.

The closer you can get to doing the right things in the right order, the sooner you’ll be able to get your first minimally viable product into the market. The longer it takes to find the gaps in your planning, the harder it will be to deal with the issues that arise. Boosting your chances of success is more important than boosting your ego, so talk to the people that can really make a difference.

Now assuming that you are talking with the right circle of people, the next thing to remember is how to listen to what they are saying critically. Understand what biases they have (everyone has them), and factor that in. Try to validate any important points they make with other people you talk to, and don’t be afraid to get back to them later with follow-up questions if something doesn’t make sense or isn’t clear. Remember that things are constantly changing, and the approaches that worked great for them may not work as well for you. Of course, you should always respect the time and effort they are putting in to help you and truly consider their advice. But when it comes time to set your course, you should still be willing to go your own path if you think that’s the better choice.

The goal of seeking advice at this point isn’t to put together a plan based on pieces and parts of what everyone has told you. It’s to put together the best version of your plan that you can – a plan challenged, iterated, and refined by this process. Don’t worry about hurting anyone’s feelings if you decide to forgo the advice they offered. If you’ve been talking with the right folks, that won’t matter to them – they’ve been where you are and will understand.

In the end, success will be a combination of a great idea, great timing, excellent execution, and – of course – a little luck.

Do whatever it takes to maximize all of them.

If you have any experiences – good or bad – with taking business advice, please share them in the comments.