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What the hell is a MVP anyway?

Two hamburgers representing the MVP

Probably the best visual representation of the MVP ever

MVP – which stands for Minimum Viable Product – is a pretty popular term in the online startup world right now. But what the heck does is actually mean? And, more importantly, is it the right approach? Let’s explore.

As you may or may not know, a few months ago we launched PoetryZoo, a poetry-based social network. Well, maybe social network isn’t the right word because in addition to allowing poets (and readers) to network socially (see where the term comes from?), it’s a whole wonderful tool suite for writing distinguished works of art. Or, in my case, illiterate immature dribblings on the subject of disturbed weasels. In addition to undertaking an agile philosophy to development though, we also followed Eric Ries’ popular concept of the MVP and released PoetryZoo in an early beta state. Opinions about this were mixed.

MV-what?

Before I dive into our experience with PoetryZoo, I think it would be worth taking a moment to explain what the term MVP actually means. Well, as the name suggests, the MVP is strategy for developing products that meet the most minimum set of features required to release them. No fluff, no fancies, no superfluous tools that no one needs, just the most basic version you can ship as soon as possible to early adopters.

It’s through this process that advocates of the MVP, particularly Eric Ries, claim you can gain real, tangible, informed user feedback about your project and quickly pivot your business as result (if needed). Instead of wasting time developing features you have no idea people want or creating something bloated when you don’t even know if the core concept will succeed, you instead build fast, release lean and learn quickly. The concept, in a nutshell, is that instead of spending years building something that’s untested or a fortune on market research, you gain direct insight from users to inform your development process as soon as possible.

In theory, MVP fits in nicely with an agile methodology and is a pretty great approach to product releases. Or is it?

Against the MVP

Curiously enough, even in it’s beta form, PoetryZoo never received anything other than positive ego-boosting feedback from its earliest users. Ironically, I think this played a part in our issue of accessing the success of the MVP strategy. Although it’s fair to say that perhaps we could have measured user feedback more scientifically, they seemed a pretty happy bunch on the whole and the debate over the MVP approach was largely internal. Whilst we, Primate, were keen to push the notion of “release early, refine often” approach, PoetryZoo, led by the incredible Richard Saville-Smith and Gillian Ferguson, were much more firmly in the “we know exactly what our customers want so why not just give it to them” camp. In the end, they were more probably right than us.

After some discussion, we manage to persuade PoetryZoo to launch a MVP beta and whilst I still believe it was a beneficial experience, it didn’t really have the dramatic impact that folk like Eric Ries preach about. Aside from picking up an initial user base and receiving positive feedback, the only comments were requests for features that we were already planning, leading to a lot of responses of “yep, we know, it’s coming!”. It’s in that the MVP didn’t really succeed for PoetryZoo because instead of guiding the development process or business direction, it just reinforced what Richard and Gillian already knew about their audience and their needs.

In Scotland start-ups are more likely to starve than to be lean.

- Richard Saville-Smith, Director of PoetryZoo

The resulting worry of the MVP – and something I do agree with to some extent – is that you don’t, unlike Eric Ries suggests, get more that one bite at the cherry. Because we don’t know how many people potentially walked away from the PoetryZoo beta due to it lacking some of the later – and very useful – features, we’ll never know what we lost. Although a negative slant on the whole experience (I prefer to think of the very positive feedback we gained), it’s this unknown quantity that I think pushes Richard away from the MVP strategy. Early adopters, in his thoughts, are not as forgiving as one might believe and a lot more savvy and demanding than they were five or ten years ago.

In fact, Richard has written a very compelling paper on the subject of why the MVP strategy is flawed, systematically and intelligently destroying Eric Reis arguments for it. It’s a good read and one I found myself frequently nodding along to. The reality, as Richard surmises, is unlike the golden paved streets of California, the cobbled streets of Scotland will never offer enough investment to a startup to allow them to even consider the prospect of bloating their software and that the term MVP has become nothing more than a hackneyed sound bite. It’s a good point.

Defining the minimum and the viable

For me, the big debatable issue of the MVP is in the definition of the words ‘minimum’ and ‘viable’. What exactly do those mean? After all, they are incredibly relative and subjective and mean different things to different people.

For instance, one could easily argue that the version of PoetryZoo that’s currently live is a MVP because there are still so many features we would love to enhance it with. Where exactly does the line get drawn between ‘minimum’ and ‘finished’? And when does ‘viable’ turn into ‘realistic’?

Indeed, many people will argue that even though the acronym MVP has the word ‘minimum’ in it, it doesn’t necessarily mean the product should be starkly minimal, basic or incomplete in terms of what it actually does. Some say that whole thing it’s more about a strategy in terms of gaining customer insight and feedback than in actually guiding how or when you produce the product and I think that’s a very a sensible opinion to have.

So, what the hell is a MVP? Well, it seems like more of a guideline than a strategy, a rule of thumb to make sure you get the maximum value for money out for your time and make the most informed decisions possible. Maybe they should change the name.

MVP, in spirit if anything

Overall, the beta wasn’t detrimental to PoetryZoo and I would still advocate the approach. Not only did it allow the site to build up a fledgling audience before the main marketing push but the beta also confirmed the original business intentions which is nothing to sneeze at. Had the feedback been less positive than it was or features requested that we hadn’t anticipated, I have the feeling things would have played out very differently. Whilst easy to overlook, I do think this is a very salient point.

Likewise, I think Richard and Gillian are probably rare amongst product owners in their deep understanding of their target audience. Yes, every feature they planned was proven correct throughout the beta but I’m not convinced other product owners would be so lucky. The whole MVP experience of PoetryZoo was, in my opinion, more of a reinforcement of their excellent industry knowledge and business acumen than a slight against the process.

Finally, although I acknowledge the term ‘MVP’ is really so subjective it’s hard to give any concrete conclusion on, it does drive home one very valuable and fundamental concept: build for your customer not for yourself. Far too many companies ignore this and end up with products full of superfluous and unnecessary bloat.

Image credit: Grant Cochrane

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Author: Gordon McLachlan

Gordon is uncomfortably good looking.

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  1. Gavin Morrice October 24, 2013 at 2:07 am

    We always encourage our clients to develop a MVP first.

    http://katanacode.com/blog/posts/9-what-s-an-mvp-minimum-viable-product

    They always love the idea but still tend to get distracted with throwing in “cool” features before launch.

    Establishing which features are essential and which are not is tricky. Trying to convince someone that their latest idea is not essential to their business model is even trickier.

    • Gordon October 28, 2013 at 10:46 am

      “Trying to convince someone that their latest idea is not essential to their business model is even trickier.”

      This. Although it is hard to balance a supplier opinion vs a product owner’s (as we tend to know less about their target market), it is unfortunately pretty common for someone to fall into the trap of unnecessary feature stuffing.

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