The Curious Case of Minimum Viable Product


Is the minimum viable product a viable concept or is it a heap of rubbish the size of Hercules-Corona Borealis Great Wall?

Outside of the legendary “would you rather fight 100 duck-sized horses or one horse-sized duck?”, I can’t think of any other question that can captivate the human mind such as this one.

Loved by many, hated by some, understood by few – the minimum viable product, or MVP, the concept has been incredibly polarizing ever since its conception. The yeasayers love this low risk – high reward concept because it’s super agility friendly, while the naysayers are quite pragmatic, claiming that MVP results in, simply put, shitty products. Being a firm believer in lean methodologies, but also being extremely anti-dogmatic, I’m going to play the devil’s advocate here and say that both groups are right and also wrong. Wow, how cunning of me.

It goes something like this. Someone comes up with an idea for a startup. Hard-pressed by budget issues, a prototype is released in to see if everything is on the right tracks. The idea is that a minimum viable product will help determine what’s right and what’s wrong. By testing a product on a small number of dedicated early testers, your aim is to collect as much information about customers as you can with the least amount of money and effort that way the team can successfully pivot if that’s what needs to be done. In theory, this sounds great but it’s the practice most MVPs fail miserably. This has lead many into thinking that this proves the whole minimum viable product concept to be flawed, but is this really true?

How viable is viable?

This is where things usually go wrong and where the naysayers start to get loud. The whole point of building an MVP is to create a proof of concept that also represents a functioning product, or a product that is viable, but what exactly does viability imply? How do we define startup viability at all?

I don’t want to get too philosophical about this, so I’ll define product viability as the product’s capacity of satisfying consumers’ needs. In its primordial nature, it’s pretty simple – if the product can satisfy consumers’ needs, it’s viable. If not, it’s not viable. As long as the desired audience wants to use the product, it’s viable. Unfortunately, it doesn’t always go as smooth as intended. The sad reality of most minimum viable product is the simple fact that they are not viable. Now, this wouldn’t be such a big deal (hey, not every product gets to be viable), had the product been designed to succeed but failed for whatever reason. Unfortunately, as many naysayers pointed out – a minimum viable product is more often designed to fail than not. While it’s most certainly possible to pivot and overcome this obstacle, the damage done can be extremely severe. This is paradoxical as the whole point of MVP is to mitigate the damage, not to amplify it. If a startup is devastated after its MVP failed, it means that the product was a huge failure to begin with. It simply wasn’t viable.

Minimum failure product

In a great article, titled The Tyranny of The Minimal Viable Product, Jon H. Pittman sets to explain why implementing the minimum viable product strategy in the IOT industry has seen its fair share of failures. Somehow, I’m not sure how and why, the concept has been severely mistreated and startups started putting extreme emphasis on the minimalism and “agility”, almost completely ignoring the need for viability. This is problematic, as it not only slows down the progress, but it also breeds the culture of failure. I’m not saying that the products are made bad on purpose, although that could be the case, but it does seem like there is a trend towards adopting lean methodologies just to justify the lack of patience.

This has a lot to do with the fact that lean methodologies are not a set of concrete rules, but a dynamic strategy. By trying to mimic the success stories and overlooking failures, startups often fall into the trap that is survivorship bias. The fact that a certain startup had success in launching an MVP doesn’t mean that we will enjoy the same success, even under the same circumstances. Your average startup doesn’t have the privilege of ignoring the potential disasters that can occur as the result of releasing bad MVPs. At least not in 2016.

In a world where the competition can squash you like a bug and the customers are harder to impress than ever, creating a minimum tolerable product is a catastrophe just waiting to happen. Creating a product that is “okay” and tolerable doesn’t mean anything. Even if the feedback is good, it can lead you into thinking that customers will be willing to use an “okay” product which is extremely risky.

While it’s true that there are startups that can afford to create products that are minimally viable, most of startups don’t fall in that category. The point of MVP isn’t in creating a heap of rubbish, hoping that something good comes out of it. Your modern customer simply isn’t desperate enough to dig through a mountain of shit in hopes of finding a diamond. By creating a minimum viable product, you’re not trying to discover market preferences, you are trying to prove that your beliefs about those preferences are true. If you have a clear understanding of market preferences, that means that you already did enough research and created a product that satisfies a certain need. That’s the true face of MVP. By developing MVPs, you’re trying to test hypotheses, not to create them. You don’t build an app for camper tourists to see if there is a need for a certain service. You are creating it because you know that the need exists. An MVP exists to:

  • Test whether the need is strong enough to justify the production of a certain product.
  • Test whether your product serves does a good job of satisfying those needs.

No true MVP fallacy

If we take a deeper look at how the startup industry works, it’s safe to assume that minimum failure products occur as results of trying to mimic what others have done. Worse yet, this results not just in mimicking methodologies (although that doesn’t always have to be a bad thing), but also in mimicking viability. This is perplexing as viability isn’t a set of universal features. True, viability implies that a product is able to satisfy consumers’ needs, but that’s just one side of the medal, the external one. Viability also has a pretty damn important internal dimension and is defined by your intrinsic objectives. There is no definite answer to this and that makes a quality MVP so important. Deploying an MVP doesn’t just test the product, it tests the whole business model related to it. A product is viable if it:

  • Satisfies consumers’ needs.
  • Proves that your business model is correct.

By building suboptimal features, an MVP serves little to no purpose other than proving that a product is far from finished. The decision to produce a minimum viable product should be based solely on the realization that a certain need exists. Lean methodologies are often brutally misunderstood and perceived as something that gives legitimacy to failure, and, in a sense, this isn’t always wrong. Failing at MVP often yields smaller financial losses, but breeding the culture of failure only results in more failure. As always in life, you will fail a lot along the way. That’s perfectly normal and expected, but successful people try to avoid losses – they don’t run after them.

A minimum viable product should be created for the sake of making life easier, but there is a thin line between making it easier and digging your own grave. A minimum viable product is designed to reduce excess functions, not to create them. The “minimum” part of the equation means that you should use just enough resources to test the hypotheses. If that can’t be done, that could mean that either your hypotheses are bad or the product is too minimal, possibly both. A good hypothesis is holistic and is designed not just to test one function, but a whole set of processes that constitute a single product, both intrinsic and extrinsic.

Things might have changed, but not to the extent that we like to think. To develop a great product you will still need tons of research and meticulous development. If an MVP results in more questions than answers, then something went terribly wrong. In this day and age, it’s no longer enough just to “show potential”. If the product is designed to fail just for the sake of proving that potential exists, then the only point that has been proven is that your product is a failure. This world is just too unforgiving for you to slack off and create products that are “tolerable” instead of “desirable”. Being lean means being smart and thoughtful, able to able to bypass any obstacle using wit and knowledge. Unfortunately, many startups perceive being lean as being thin enough to crawl under obstacles, just to find out they are trapped, unable to move.