Minimum viable product, or MVP, is the first functional version of a product that the company offers to its customers. You can imagine, for example, the first version of a new computer game or a sample model from a young designer’s workshop. Thanks to MVP, companies can verify if people want their product and are willing to pay for it, in addition to finding out what they can do to improve it. Since the release of the book The Lean Startup, the term MVP has suddenly appeared everywhere. We asked Petr Šídlo, the founder of the innovation agency Direct People, what is so miraculous about this concept and how to work with it.
What do you think about MVP?
I think the MVP is an important concept, but in reality it gets spoiled. It is supposed to be a product with a basic design that customers will like, but instead it sometimes becomes what the company likes or what seems to be the simplest way for software engineers. MVP is one of the phases to get to the final product, definitely neither the first nor the last. The error is that it has often become the first one, but that only makes sense when making the first functional version of the product is cheaper than undertaking other ways to find out what people want. Another problem with the MVP is that some people confuse it with a small, ugly version of the product. And when people do not want it, they come to the surprising conclusion that people do not want their product and that it will not work.
Is MVP new or did this approach exist earlier?
It’s an approach from the software world that is gradually spreading to other business disciplines. Previously, it worked so that a clever group of people figured out how the product would look like, someone developed it for a long time, and everything that needed to be changed was considered a mistake. The MVP says there is no smart group of people who knows everything. We can have our hypotheses, and at some point it makes sense to produce the product, but in the most basic form, to find out if people are actually interested in it.
Is this a new way of thinking?
Yes, because I have to admit I do not know everything and never will. If I want to think of a scalable product, I have two options. Either I invent it and make it straight away, or I go through slow steps called iterations. We can compare it to the British Cycling Team, which has never won anything and is suddenly winning one competition after another. It was found to be due to the fact that the coach had begun to consistently improve every parameter, including how cyclists slept and ate. This made them the best world team. Not one thought, but a lot of things that broke the critical limit and caused an exponential impact. This is the idea of the MVP: I need to find a point of reference from which to start.
But don’t you ever feel that startups create an MVP, but then most of the money goes into marketing and sales instead of the next product development?
Sometimes yes. It may be that they are at a certain stage when they cannot overcome a barrier on the market. For example, dating sites have to attract a large number of people, and therefore, they necessarily push a lot of money into marketing. On the contrary, I see the phenomenon I have ironically called “We already have the product, but marketing is missing.” Many people say they have a product but actually have only the technology they call the product. For me, the product is something people want to buy and it has some marketing packaging. A laser that can shine on something is not a product but a technology.
Can you explain why these two extremes arise? While some invest only in the technological development of the product, the other only spend money on marketing?
I think it’s because they cannot decide what’s going to push them further in the process of creating a business model. Startups have too many things to deal with – selling, marketing, product development, building partnerships, and creating an organizational structure. When you successfully solve one of these things, you often start from scratch with something else. For example, when you find a customer who has a problem, it’s great, but you still don’t have a product. So you build the MVP, customers buy it, but you still cannot sell in bulk. Once you have scalable channels, you will find that you have never done big marketing. Or, the company will grow and you will find that the current CEO is not experienced enough and has to leave, which is very difficult. You always keep finding out that you don’t know something.
So how should startups work on product development?
This is a very large topic about which entire books have been written. Let’s break it down gradually.
Does the development of physical and virtual products differ?
With virtual products, you don’t have to invest so much in development because you can change it at any time. When developing physical products, especially mass-produced ones, any small change costs big money. For that reason, companies are accustomed to having more discipline in order to ascertain that the product meets all requirements before they start production. I prefer this approach because it is an honest craft. On the other hand, it sometimes happens that designers play around with different things, but ultimately the product is missing important functionalities from the user’s point of view. For example, when you look at office air conditioners, few people know how to control them because they are invented by tech-savvy engineers.
Therefore, it is always important to collect feedback from customers. From whom and how often should companies collect it?
Do you want to know the answer to this question and find out what Petr Šídlo thinks about baking apple pies? Continue reading this interview on the UP21 blog.
Petr Šídlo believes that innovation is not about spells and coincidence, but about the way of thinking and craftmanship you bring to it. He co-founded the Direct People innovation agency in 2010 to help innovative companies bring successful products and services to the market. Among these are Dr.Max, Škoda Auto and Škoda Digital, LMC, Air Bank, Adastra, IDC, WAG, Sazka, T-Mobile, Olympus, Česká spořitelna and many others. Petr Šídlo is the mentor of the StartupYard Incubator, member of jury in the Social Impact Awards and he runs regular workshops on Innovation Leadership within ELAI Institute.