The Minimum Viable Product
The minimum viable product (MVP), as originally defined by Eric Ries, is a learning vehicle. It allows you to test an idea by exposing an early version of your product to the target users and customers, to collect the relevant data, and to learn from it. For instance, to test the viability of using ads as the major revenue source, you could release an early product increment with fake ads, and measure if and how often people click on them.
As lack of knowledge, uncertainty, and risk are closely related, you can view the MVP as a risk reduction tool. In the example above, the MVP addresses the risk of developing a product that is not economically viable. Since the MVP is about learning, it’s no surprise that it plays a key part in Lean Startup’s build-measure-learn cycle, as the following picture shows:
The MVP is called minimum, as you should spend as little time and effort to create it as possible. But this does not mean that it has to be quick and dirty. But try to keep it as small as possible to accelerate learning and avoid the possibility of wasting time and money, as your idea may turn out to be wrong!
While the MVP should facilitate validated learning, I find it perfectly OK to work with MVPs such as paper prototypes and clickable mockups that do not generate quantitative but qualitative data, as long as they help to test the idea and to acquire the relevant knowledge.
The Minimal Marketable Product
Another concept that encourages you to create a minimal offering is the minimal marketable product (MMP). It is based on the idea that less is more: The MMP describes the product with the smallest possible feature set that addresses the needs of the initial users (innovators and early adopters), and can hence be marketed and/or sold. The MMP is a tool to reduce time-to-market: It can be launched more quickly than a fat, feature-rich one.
Creating a product with just the right amount of features sounds like common sense. Why would we offer more features than necessary? Sadly, I have seen many organisations develop over-engineered products with lots of shiny features that provided little value to the users, but cluttered the product and increased its maintenance cost. And it’s not just the others: I am constantly tempted to add just another cool feature to a product, or to write a few extra lines in a blog post. Using the concept of an MMP helps me focus on what really matters, and remove unnecessary features (and lines).
A great example of an MMP is Apple’s original iPhone launched in 2007. I understand that the first iPhone was a complex product, and that many people worked incredibly hard on it. But I find it amazing how many features the phone did not provide compared to its competitors: no copy-and-paste, no video, and no POP email integration, to name just a few. Nevertheless the phone was still a staggering success. How come?
The key to creating a successful MMP is to “develop the product for the few, not the many,” as Steve Blank puts it, and to focus on those features that make a real difference to the users. To discover the right features, the aforementioned MVP is a fantastic tool.
Combining the Two Concepts
To combine the two concepts, develop one or more MVPs to test your ideas and to acquire the relevant knowledge. This is typically done as part of your product discovery activities. Then use your new insights to create and launch the MMP – a simple product with the right user experience and feature set.
Note that a minimal marketable product differs from a viable one: It is complete enough to be ready for general release, as indicated by the gift wrapping in the picture above. What’s more, launch preparation activities have to take place for an MMP, for instance, creating advertising campaigns, or gaining certification. Some of your MVPs are likely to be throwaway prototypes that only serve to acquire the necessary knowledge; others are reusable product increments that morph into a marketable product.
Post Scriptum 2 November 2017
Since I wrote this post, the meaning of the term minimum viable product has started to change. People like Ash Maurya view it as the smallest offering that can be launched, which essentially equates the MVP with the minimal marketable product.
Whichever definition you prefer, aim to launch the smallest possible product that is still good enough to serve its early market. Then inspect and adapt to achieve product-market fit and growth. This may require smaller changes like adding or optimising features, adjusting the business model, and enhancing the user experience. But it might also require a pivot, a drastic change. Flickr, for example, was launched as an online role-playing game and changed to a photo-sharing website; YouTube evolved from a video-dating site to a video-sharing product.