Monday, March 23, 2009

Venture Hacks interview: "What is the minimum viable product?"

I recently say down with Venture Hacks for an interview. Part one is up on their site today, in text, audio and slide format. Here are some topics and excerpts of what we covered, edited lightly for how I wish I'd said it at the time. To hear full audio and a complete transcript, click through to Venture Hacks.

Is "release early, release often" enough?

The issue there is, if you just follow the release early, release often mantra, you find yourself running around in circles, because you ship code, you get some feedback from people, you do a focus group.

Customers say,”Give me feature X,” “Give me feature Y,” and sometimes you do what they want, maybe sometimes you’re going to do what you want, and then they get mad at you. Pretty soon you’re chasing your own tail a little bit because you’re not operating against a clear, long-term vision of what you’re trying to accomplish.

The idea of minimum viable product is useful because you can basically say: our vision is to build a product that solves this core problem for customers and we think that for the people who are early adopters for this kind of solution, they will be the most forgiving. And they will fill in their minds the features that aren’t quite there if we give them the core, tent-pole features that point the direction of where we’re trying to go.

So, the minimum viable product is that product which has just those features (and no more) that allows you to ship a product that resonates with early adopters; some of whom will pay you money or give you feedback.

Solving the chicken-and-egg platform problem

Developers don’t want to develop unless there are customers who are there to buy their products, and customers don’t want to come on the platform unless developers are there selling them something useful.

What we did is we took early adopter developers and we told them a story about how IMVU was going to take over the world and be this really powerful product for mainstream customers ... and we gave them an economic incentive that said, the earlier you get on board with the platform, the bigger your take is going to be for derivative products that get created down the road.

We shipped a product that had almost no customers — certainly no mainstream customers — but, because we had told that story effectively and we really understood those early adopter developers, we got a ton of them on the platform developing. They felt like they were in the middle of a gold rush, despite the fact that there was really no evidence to support that belief yet.

Starting with just a landing page

What we should have done, and what we did for a lot of features thereafter, is started with a landing page that promised people that product. Then we should have taken out the AdWords we were planning to take out, drive traffic to that landing page, and offer people to buy the experience that we are talking about.

What we would have found out if we were doing that experiment is 0% of people would have clicked through, which means it doesn’t matter what is on the second page.

The first page is so bad, not because it is badly designed, but because the features are wrong that you don’t need to go through the effort of building out the product. So we wished we had done that, and we did make that mistake really

Overcoming the fear of the false negative

As long as you’re not afraid of the false negative, that is, if you don’t get discouraged because you’ve built your first paper prototype of it and shown it to people and nobody wanted it. That can’t mean that like you give up because,”Oh, forget it, we’ll never make it.” You’ve got to say, "OK, well then let’s iterate some more.”

If you keep iterating at it, you keep making it a little bit more sophisticated, at a certain point after you’ve been through 10 iterations, that you still got no uptake whatsoever, and the feedback you’re getting from customers is still a yawn, you might say to yourself,”You know what? We’re not moving in the right direction. In fact, we’re past the point of minimum viable product. This just isn’t a viable product.”

Read the rest of the interview at Venture Hacks.

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  1. Nice post Eric thanks for sharing such useful information with us. I particularly like the landing page idea. I got a question about it: Say you only design the landing page of your product (but not the product itself) and drive traffic to it to see user reaction and say the reaction is positive (i.e. users are clicking through) what happens if they find out there is NO product yet? How do you deal with this situation?


  2. The minimum viable product lines up with what I've been preaching for a long time about the milestones for monetizing a technical solution:
    #1) Make the first $1
    #2) Make the first $1MM dollars

    The minimum product you've described above is about half way to #2 and really represents the meat of getting the idea out there.

  3. Love the idea of the MVP Eric, it forces you to get out of the office and actually validate your hypothesis around non-critical features.

  4. Hi Eric,

    Just came across an interesting MVP - listed as a comment on the 37 Signals blog.

    "Selling information you research, into well-constructed, content-rich PDF files for $6 is a great way of getting the contacts you need to [get a minimal viable product for SAS].

    Or, perhaps charging doesn't make sense, and offering the PDF as a free download would provide richer learning/discovery.

    I hope this gives readers some ideas they can apply to their own situation.

    Happy holidays to you all! And warm wishes for a successful 2010, filled with lots of MVP's.

  5. Thank you Eric for sharing this.

    I started writing and teaching about shipping imperfect products a few years ago but this is a far better, practical and more powerful presentation. There is a lot to be said about the opportunity cost of perfection, iterative evolution and the difference between shipping a lemon and shipping a band aid.