The problem with a Lean Startup: the Minimum Viable Product.

I’ve been struggling lately. I’ve discovered that others are struggling with the same problem too, so I needed to write about it, for me, and for those whom I’ve discussed this with.

I’ve been reading, discussing, and learning the Lean Startup Methodology for the last 3 years now. When most people hear the concept of Lean Startup, they think bootstrap startup, ya know lean on funding. While this isn’t always true it’s suprisingly still prevelant thinking. Perhaps Eric Ries should have done an MVP of the movement’s name and received some user feedback on it before writing the book.

The basics of the lean startup philosophy are to get user feedback, do user testing, and discover if people are willing to use (and pay for) the product you are creating both before and throughout the creation process. It’s called lean not due to lack of funding but due to efficiencies inherent in the process. It’ll cost well over $60,000 to build anything of value (app or physical product). Most often ideators (co-founders) will donate their time to the development which brings down the hard costs, but does not effect the cost of those hours given. Lean Startup philosophy asks: What if you found out that people didn’t want this product after only spending $500 versus spending $60,000 (in time and money). That’s where the lean (efficient) comes in. Lean Startup: Minimum Viable Product

So the theory of Minimum Viable Product (MVP) is born. We all understand what Product means, and Minimum makes sense: what is the bare essentials that you can get away with?

But Viable. That is the issue.

Eric Writes:

“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 those 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.” source

How much do you need to solve of the core problem to be “viable”? For example to solve a dating issue by creating the next match.com:

  • Do you need profiles?
  • Do you need a matching algorithm?
  • Do you need a date idea generator?
  • Do you need user feedback/ratings/reviews?

At what point does this become Viable? When do you have the Core built to say yes our early adopters will forgive us and we can hold up a tent with these poles we have. Who is the judge of this?

The key with MVP is that you iterate and test. You need to get a feature out in the wild and find out: Do people want this? Does it solve an issue? Will they use this? Find out the answer and either fix/improve the feature or add on another feature that continues to solve the problem. Do this cycle a few times and perhaps then you have a viable product? How many cycles till it’s viable, and haven’t you already been launching MVPs, yet they’re not “Viable.”

When is an MVP Viable?

That is the question I have been struggling with on ThingShare all summer. We built an MVP to test if people would want to use it, if they’d like it. Yes we invested more than $500 in both time and hard costs, so perhaps we went to market with more than a minimum viable product, but I’d argue that we went to market with smoke and mirrors.

I’ve been waiting to write this post until we had two more features implimented (just last week) because as Joe (my co-founder) and I often discussed there’s a cliff in the process inside ThingShare and we’re pushing our users off this cliff. “Oh you didn’t have your own parachute?… Sorry.”

That’s what MVP means to me, smoke and mirrors.

Can you sell a product to people before building the product? Can you convince people to use a car with no brakes or no steering wheel?

Yup, we’ve done that.

Success! We’re a Lean Startup.

And somehow I’m not okay with this. Strangers who use ThingShare to rent video games are now my friends and I have had to appologize to them for our lack of product completeness. Then it gets even richer: The users suggest features which already are on our roadmap but were cut due to the word minimum.

Rubber meets road in Lean Startup:

An Example Minimum Viable Product Process

ThingShare is a peer to peer video game renting platform. At least that’s the vision for it. I could argue that it still doesn’t “work.” But I’ll let you push it around and find the dark alleys of where the site breaks down.

The first MVP we launched with was a signup form, could we get 10 people to signup.

Check

Next iteration was being able to list your video games and gear, could we get 10 people to list their video games and gear.

Check But how strange, we now have over 30 users and yet you could do nothing more than list video games and gear you owned… some rental site this was! It could be argued that our initial users signed up because they felt safe showing their Games & Gear to their friends. Check and fail. You couldn’t even rent a game yet. So how was this site viable? I argue that it was indeed not viable. It was an iteration, a test in the Lean Startup style, but viable it was not. Yet users were still signing up and listing their stuff.

So we added the ability to rent something (and a bonus wish list, public profiles, and all kinds of other goodies) We asked the question again: Will people actually use this?

Check! they sure enough did, about 20% of our user-base tried renting something. Can I emphasize that they tried, but we pushed them off a cliff. You see we were testing if they would try to rent a game, We weren’t testing a user to user messaging system, or an item checkin-checkout process, just “will users actually try and rent a game?”

Thus if in those days you tried renting a game you’d receive an email saying “Congrats! your rental of Assassin’s Creed 3 has been approved! Connect with the lender via Facebook to work out the details.” User? Meet cliff, here let me help… *shove*

Turns out Facebook has a spam filter and if you try to send a message to someone whom you’re not friends with it ends up in their “other” box and they never see it :(

So our earliest adopters, the people who trusted us, we pushed off a cliff in the name of Lean Startup. What am I supposed to tell them… “Sorry it was an MVP?”

Last week we added a messaging system, and a check-in/checkout process. The next iteration. Our users have already thanked us, and have suggested the next couple of features (which we had already listed on our internal road-map).

At what point does our product become viable?

  • When we reach critical mass?
  • When we have no other features to build? (ha that’ll never happen, I’m a visionary don’t you know)
  • When we bring in revenue?
  • When we make profit?

Definition of Viable: “capable of living” source. Uh, well I don’t exactly want Frankenstein’s Monster. So at what point can a platform sustain life? And did we “launch” too early?

No answers, just questions. Questions to test and iterate on.

  • https://www.sliqr.com Allen Hong

    Thanks for a very refreshing read. As a founder myself, I’ve always thought the \M\ in MVP was problematic because it was at odds with the \V\ like you said…I never believed doing the minimum was actually viable, and it’s ludicrous to expect early adopters to fill in missing features with their minds. I fully expect early adopters to be the complete opposite of forgiving when something doesn’t work the way they want (though I very deeply appreciate when I’m wrong).

    Perhaps the M in MVP should be the point where all known cliffs that we’re pushing our users off of have been addressed.

    • http://www.paulkortman.com Paul Kortman

      I think if we address all know cliffs it no longer is an MVP, we still have significant cliffs in our product today. It’s just that you have to travel further down the rabbit trail to fall off of one.

  • http://www.blogspot.com/planetralph Ralph Galantine

    When you are pushing users doing essential functions off a cliff you don’t have a Minimum Viable Product you have a \Friends and Family Release\. Users will be either people you know such as employees or friends of employees or people so eager for your product they will help you build it by using it when it is not yet viable. I would say your friends and family release is going really well. You have identified users, they are thanking you for the product, and they are giving you feedback. Congratulations! When you have a Minimum Viable Product that fills a need without pushing users doing common things off a cliff, you should plan on launching it. Your friends and family users will help you with word of mouth, success stories, and ideas about what potential customer segments are the most eager for your product.

    You should be clear with your users and your marketing what you are doing. Calling your product Alpha, pre-release, early access, etc. and giving free access to things that normally cost money implies friends and family release. Calling your product \release 1.0\, charging for it, or having a product launch implies that you have at least a Minimum Viable Product.

    • http://www.paulkortman.com Paul Kortman

      This is not at all the teachings of the Lean Startup movement. This is your idea (albeit a good one) it is not the true Lean Startup method.

      • http://www.blogspot.com/planetralph Ralph Galantine

        I can’t take credit for the Friends and Family release idea. It’s from some source in the Agile development community that also uses the Minimum Viable Product idea. I think the Friends and Family release concept is pretty widely used with Agile. If you are following the Agile idea of releasing early and often, you need some release vehicle before your brand new software is a viable product, even a minimum viable product.

        • http://www.paulkortman.com Paul Kortman

          Thing is do you push out each new feature to the friends and family group? when do you take it from that group to the public (in alpha or beta form) — the MVP as discussed in Lean Startup is not well defined imo. Sorry I’m only loosely familiar with the Agile method and have not read up on it.

  • Jonah

    I think a product is “viable” when it provides value to its users. Revenue is a great way to measure how much value your users see in the product but you might have other options.

    Not all of your experiments need to be a MVP. Signup form conversion rates might be a good experiment to run but they are not a “product” and we don’t need to wrap every activity in the “MVP” label. It sounds like you started by running a couple experiments to try to test a hypothesis about the market for your proposed product without building any sort of product, minimum, viable, or otherwise. That’s a great place to start and building a MVP seems like a logical next step.

    I think your service, as launched, should have been a MVP but from your description it probably fell short of “viable”. Why was there a cliff for users to fall off of? Instead of asking your users to finish that rental process themselves you could have done the work, all of it, transparently to the user.
    “Paul and Joe arrange video game rentals for you” could be a product that delivers value to its users by making the process effortless for them. That’s also a product you could have provided without building much of anything. It wouldn’t scale very well but that doesn’t matter if the goal was to run an experiment to see if this product was actually valuable for your users. Instead of building an email alert system you could have learned more about how well this product fit your market and what challenges your users were going to face negotiating transactions with just the two of you sitting in front of a Facebook account, email client, and a spreadsheet.

    Thanks for sharing your experience so far.

    • http://www.paulkortman.com Paul Kortman

      Yeah, I didn’t make it clear, the software (product) had a cliff in it, Joe and I definitely followed up with users as best we can ensuring that the transactions went smoothly.

  • http://nn Florian

    Hmm,

    there is a service here in germany doin nearly the same thing. Maybe they already solved your probs and you only need to adopt…. http://whyown.it/www/en/

    Thanks for the insights!

    • http://www.paulkortman.com Paul Kortman

      We’ve been watching Why Own it (I’m a user) and interested to see what happens with them. There are a couple of different players in the market but none focused on the video game vertical. We have set ourselves up to test if focusing on one market will be more helpful. (Many companies serving multiple verticals have come and died, we believe due to the watered down approach)

      • http://nn Florian

        Video games or books is for sure a vertical worth to watch – it would be interesting to see if stuff like esp. “tools”, “cars” or other stuff you don’t use on a daily basis but is laying/Standing around at home works local too…and there is a sustainability in it…;-)…Maybe it’s worth a thought/try!

        • http://www.paulkortman.com Paul Kortman

          Yeah there’s a lot of movement in the collaborative consumption space. Some will win, and believe it or not there is room for multiple winners (see twitter and Facebook)

  • http://twitter.com/georgecollins georgecollins

    I found your article via Hacker News. Often I read stories about people’s startups and the stories are interesting but the product they are trying to make seems like a dumb idea to me. This seems like a good idea. Video game rental will be a big market for as long as games are sold as physical media (3-5 years). Your competition, game rental stores, are ripe to be disintermediated. They will be hit harder by the decline of physical media than you will and go away first. You can own the long tail of game rentals.

    Good luck!

    • http://www.paulkortman.com Paul Kortman

      Thanks for the great words of encouragement George! We think we’re on to something ;)

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  • http://www.sparrowos.com Terry A. Davis

    God is just. It took from Moses’ infanticide birth until passover. NAZIs eventually lost. Be patient.

    • http://www.paulkortman.com Paul Kortman

      True, but while I’d like to think the idea behind ThingShare is on the scale of those examples, it’s not. This is a mere 5-10 year flash in the pan comparatively. A bright, cool, functional, revenue-generating flash, but still a flash in the pan.

  • http://facebook.com/profile.php?id=100002445379271 Hayk Saakian

    For the Facebook thing, if its you posting messages on behalf of user a on user b’s wall as a Facebook app, you should be able to achieve your goal.

    • http://www.paulkortman.com Paul Kortman

      True, but you have to code that up, and we were doing the minimum coding we possibly could… so we replaced the code with a simple “send them a message” and “here’s the link” email. We actually helped a lot of the first trades on the system happen. via email, tweets and the like. (We have since added the ability to post to facebook timelines as well)

  • raphaeldeem

    Hey, thanks for the article! I think you’re product is viable, if it’s working now to let people rent out their video games, under definition 5 from the site you linked to. Maybe you’ll have another kink or two along the way, but this is already unique and functioning; nice work!

    • http://www.paulkortman.com Paul Kortman

      wow, Thanks! We like it and think so, but it’s always nice to hear such great validation!

  • ronaldofs

    In my opinion the Lean Startup defines MVP quite well. But it’s an abstract and subjective idea. Your product is Minimum and Viable when you’ve tested prototypes, got feedback, iterated, and you’ve reached a point in which the core specifications of the product meet the user needs. If your product core functionality is to allow renting games you must have that working for the users, even if it’s a beta release. If you still haven’t got that working, it’s not an MVP and you have to recruit users to test and validate and then build accordingly so you can call it a product.

    • http://www.paulkortman.com Paul Kortman

      Alot of people would disagree with you, that in the Lean Startup Philosophy an MVP can be as simple as a wufoo form that then triggers me the co-founder to do the rest manually. MVP is more about testing assumptions, and building to solve proven assumptions, then launching another MVP to test the next assumption. Similar to prototypes. but if you read the Lean Startup books/blogs carefully you’ll see that they preach that all of these prototypes, all of these iterations are MVPs. None of which are Viable in the real sense of the word, and product can be a very loose term.

      • ronaldofs

        You’re probably right that MVPs in Lean methodology could be really anything you put in front of your users to test. But that being true, as you said, can’t really work well in real world. Because of my background in UX, I address those “MVPs” as prototypes. I don’t think they should be called products if you couldnt sell them as-is. I do stand by the philoshophy of testing early and often to address the question of business viability but a product release should meet customer expectations. In my perspective a half-baked release should be a private/”friends” beta or similar.
        I really like and vividly recommend Lean Startup overall, but I don’t follow it to the letter :)

        • http://www.paulkortman.com Paul Kortman

          Should we shorten MVP to MP, minimum prototype? I like that term much better, then iterate on the MP until its an MVP upon which you iterate until its a VP (valued product) :)

      • ronaldofs

        Oh and congrats on ThingShare. Really nice idea!

        • http://www.paulkortman.com Paul Kortman

          Thanks! We’re excited because our target audience loves it, however, potential investors don’t seem to be too wild about it :(

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  • http://facebook.com/profile.php?id=1416224945 Brant Cooper

    It might be helpful distinguish between a “true” Minimum Viable Product and “viability testing.” The latter can be any experiment inside or outside the product that de-risks (market or technical) some element of a business model. This is how Patrick and I distinguish between the two in our next book.

    • http://www.paulkortman.com Paul Kortman

      So would you run multiple viability tests before developing an MVP, and then once proven the business model, and done all your tests then you develop a truly viable MVP? (aka spend 6 months developing (coding and testing) a product.)

      • http://facebook.com/profile.php?id=1416224945 Brant Cooper

        Couple of thoughts: 1) there are no rules. You must weigh resources, level of uncertainty, cash, etc. 2) This stuff isn’t truly linear, though it often appears that way in print. So viability tests might be run concurrently to MVP. 3) I’d never sit down “inside the building” and develop an MVP w/o customer input. Put together a customer advisory board from the outset and have them help inform your MVP along the way.

        • http://www.paulkortman.com Paul Kortman

          Thanks again Brant! I love how approachable you and Patrick are. Super helpful!

          While there are no rules, there are best practices, otherwise you wouldn’t be teaching/writing :) And the best practices dictate testing and customer input throughout the process.

          But at some point you need to build something with polish, and to your point that timeframe will be different for each problem/solution set (aka business/idea) but there should be more guidance for those who read your stuff to know when to do a product launch, when to do an MVP when to do a viability test, or when just a landing page is “good enough”.

          I’ve received countless emails/tweets etc from other entrepreneurs feeling similarly since writing this post… “When do I launch?” “How much needs to be in a product before testing?” and “How minimum is minimum”? I look forward to hearing you speak on this, kinda the next level of LeanStartup, how to know when to make a move.

  • Mary Brown
    • http://www.paulkortman.com Paul Kortman

      That’s a very interesting article Mary, Thanks for the share. The threat of the video game industry dying has been out for years, as well as the threat of the video game makers putting DRM or single use only codes into games has been around for a couple years. However the industry has continued to grow, the last major release (last month) received more sales in the first 24 hours than any blockbuster movie’s opening weekend ever. Also DRM has worked in some industries, but there is a growing force to prevent DRM in Video Games.

  • http://www.burningtheships.com Irwin Dominguez

    Paul,

    Very interesting post; thanks for sharing your thoughts out loud. I currently am in the middle of a Startup and don’t really know what should be in our MVP. I don’t want it to be crappy, but I also don’t want to invest too much time and money if I’m unsure if people will use it. I’m glad I found your blog and I love your idea with thingshare. Good luck to you.

    • http://www.paulkortman.com Paul Kortman

      Thanks Irwin! Have you done any type of market testing? There are fairly simple ways to find out if people are interested in the product you are developing without coding anything. Once you prove interest then it’s the question of how much to build.

  • http://twitter.com/macfowler macfowler

    I think your right Paul, MVP as a term is vague and misleading. It derails people from the core point: minimize investment to maximize learning. I wrote up a follow up post to expand on that idea

    http://macfowler.com/post/36594617133/what-is-your-mvp

    • http://www.paulkortman.com Paul Kortman

      Love it! Thanks Mac!

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  • http://katemats.com Kate Matsudaira

    This is a great post on a complex topic for those of us in the startup world, the MVP. Your take is really fresh and interesting – thanks for sharing your insights!

    Kate
    http://katemats.com

  • http://phonedj.ca Todd

    Have much the same struggle myself.. when to say stop. My particular product is for companies and you don’t find too many willing to risk it to try something new. Seems like I have to make it solid enough before they would use it live. Like I said, struggling myself and plunking away.

  • http://twitter.com/ZachJex ZachJex

    I think you missed what a viable product is, dude. For a renting system to be “viable”, it has to work like a renting system – i.e., you have to be able to all the things that allow you to get to that end result – renting a game from someone else.

    Your first iterations were indeed not viable. Once your realized that people wanted to use your service, you should have built every feature needed to do that one thing – rent a game. No more, no less. That’s what a lean startup is.

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  • Magne Gåsland

    Viable means different things at different stages.

    You don’t build “An MVP”, but rather a series of MVPs. MVP is a strategy, not a one-time single thing. “Product” is actually a misnomer.

    I’ve adressed and tried to clear up the confusion around the terms
    “Minimum”, “Viable”, and “Product” in this slideshare presentation:

    http://www.slideshare.net/MagneGsland/mvp-what-is-the-minimum-viable-product-really

    Hope you find it useful.

    cheers,

    Magne Gåsland,
    Entrepreneur

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  • andreas

    right on – nice post. finally someone points his finger at the obstacles in the lean startup process instead of just howling with the pack of lean disciples. I wish you success!

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