Are MVPs for us?

Lean Startup book cover

The use of the phrase ‘Minimum Viable Product’ has spread well beyond the start-up community, since it was popularised in Eric Ries’s ‘The Lean Start-up’.
However, that doesn’t mean it’s always accepted – there are supporters and critics in companies large and small.

What’s going on with MVP?

From our discussions with hundreds of people on our courses and in our product management reviews we know people have widely different views on what it means.

Proponents of MVP value the intent behind the approach – which is to deliver product as quickly as possible to customers, so you get genuine feedback from them on what they value (as shown by the fact that they use it and maybe they’ll pay you for it) and they get a useful product as quickly as possible.

And we agree, that’s a great intent so why do some people hate the idea of MVP and others love it?

What’s an MVP in your market?

One common issue is that most people focus on the minimum part of the term and neglect the viable part. But aside from this, there are other challenges.

A key challenge on which we’ll focus is that what is considered quick (minimum), valuable and useful (viable) in one market is considered risky, valueless and underwhelming in another. This confusion causes uncertainty over whether companies should aim to deliver MVPs and if they do, how fast can they really get at delivery.

To explain further, let’s contrast two different businesses.

One is a new SaaS business delivering an application that allows consumers to manage personal action lists and reminders. The other is mature business with a Financial Management application that is normally deployed ‘behind the firewall’ (i.e. on customer premise infrastructure) who are moving to a cloud-based SaaS product.

The consumer SaaS business wants to focus its efforts on rapidly delivering their view of what their minimal application should offer to be valuable to their customers. They deliver it, market it, get feedback and iterate the product through incremental developments. They deliver a product that is pretty reliable. Sure, its functionality is limited but what it does is useful for their customers. The app isn’t critical for their customers so problems with it won’t be too painful for their newly found customers.

The mature business delivering the Financial Management application want to get faster at delivery of valuable stuff to their customers as well. However, their customers use the product to manage their company finances, to bill their customers and to pay suppliers. Its operation is critical to their operation. Because it’s so important to the operation of their business the customers taking this product have extensive training for their staff. Also, despite demanding a high-quality product that works first time they’re risk averse and have in the past run extensive tests on every new release to minimise risk to their organisation. The supplier has a reputation to protect with these customers so they also value delivery of a high-quality, high-value product.

What kind of release works for you?

What works for these different companies in these different markets is different. This diagram will help think through what’s ‘viable’ for you and for your customers. We ‘ve kept it simple and it highlights just 4 characteristics of your situation:

  1. the level of product quality needed,
  2. your release process,
  3. the customers product acceptance process and
  4. your development approach.

Against each of these you’ll see a couple of short descriptions of the situation.

If the descriptions on the left-hand side align with your situation then a lightweight MVP will probably work for you. If, the descriptions on the right-hand side resonate more for you then a heavyweight MVP is a more realistic thing to aim for.

What we mean by lightweight MVP is that releases can be frequent e.g. every few days or weeks and you can be successful by adding very small incremental functionality.

What we mean by heavyweight MVP is that you’re whilst you’re still getting to market as quickly as possible it may be many months between releases.

MPV viability diagram

Of course, you may disagree that the term Heavyweight MVP is a Minimum Viable Product at all! It’s not aligned with Eric Ries’ vision for quick, incremental releases. But, in some markets what is minimum and viable for you and your customers does require considerable product investment.

If you’re on the left-hand side of the table, then it’s likely your products are going into markets at relatively low cost and that they’re low risk for the customer. For example, one of my (somewhat bizarre) bookmarked sites is ‘Ian’s shoelace site’ that provides guidance on the best knots for different types of shoelaces. The site has limited functionality, is updated frequently and if it breaks the consequences aren’t a big problem.

If you’re lining up on the right-hand side, then it’s likely that failure would be more impactful on you or your customer. This would be the case with products such as those handling people’s money, safety or security. Many of our customers are pharmaceutical companies, banks and Telco’s – if they make mistakes with people’s money, the direct costs and reputational damage would be unacceptable. Typically, customers using these products are more risk averse.

Is it OK to have a slow release cadence for some products?

Regardless of what MVP currently means for you and your customers the pressure is on to deliver more value more quickly and that pressure is only set to intensify.

It’s a bit like a quote from Jeff Bezos, the head of Amazon, which I’ve paraphrased as saying “I don’t know what products customers are going to want in 10 years. What I do know is that they’ll want more selection, want it cheaper and want it faster”.

Whilst we (and probably you) don’t have the resources of an Amazon, you need to acknowledge the truth that improving your speed of delivery and your speed of learning from the market are going to be increasingly important and maybe a key differentiator in the future.

Some of the attributes in the table can be changed by internal investment in systems, tools or processes or by working with customers to shift their position.

Insight from the market and working in partnership with your customer is key – they and you need to be on the same journey. This means prototyping to validate functionality. But it’s more than that, it also means talking to them about how it gets delivered and working with them, so you have a delivery model that works for you and for them.

You need to be thinking now about the tools, processes and approaches that will move you to the left and be working with your customers to keep them engaged on that journey!

Are you facing this challenge and if so, what are you doing about it?

Tags: ,