Brant's Rant | Customer Development | Lean Startup

"Intermediate" MVPs

At Eric Ries’ fantastic Lean Startup Conference last Friday, I had the privilege of working the Customer Development panel.  While the translation to video is a bit tough due to awkward dead air while questions were being asked (Sean Ellis thankfully repeats the questions), I’m proud we closed the day off with a full session’s worth of questions from the attendees.   After all, that’s who the conference was for. Perhaps more of these can be sprinkled throughout the day in the future and even include a means for remote viewers to ask questions.  What do you think?
I liked one question in particular, because it concerns something I’ve been thinking about recently.  Erin Turner asked about landing pages as Minimum Viable Products (@23:05 in video).  I didn’t opine, though I would have enjoyed challenging my friend David Binetti with an alternative take, and since the subject is covered in my new book, The Entrepreneur’s Guide to Customer Development, I missed an opportunity for shameless self-promotion.   One that I will now partially remedy.  ; )
I’m not sure where it all got started (I want to say The Four Hour Work Week), but for those that don’t know, there’s a “school of thought” around testing product viability by:

  • Building a landing page
  • Including a clear “call to action”
  • Buying AdWords at $5/day

Then sitting back and watching your hypothesis proved or disproved.   Clearly, the approach has appeal: it’s fast, low cost and easy to measure.
There are pitfalls:

  • Are your prospects searching for a solution (otherwise, PPC fails)?
  • Are there any keyword phrases that will generate enough traffic at $5/day (I don’t think so)?
  • Are you taking the time to optimize the landing page and messaging? (If so, for whom?  The whole wide world?)

As I discuss in the book, multiple MVPs can be designed to take you down your “Value Path”, where a value path is a series of “phase gates” that test key elements of your business model to mitigate risk.  As Andrew Chen says, “Test the riskiest thing first.”
There’s been quite a bit of discussion on LSC and elsewhere about the need for a “real” MVP to include the payment of money for use of the product.  Only in this way, can true “viability” be tested.  Generally, I agree with this.  But as Andrew points out, some businesses need to test something other than viability, where viability means financial viability. My approach is a bit different, but gets us to a similar place and allows for “intermediate MVPs”.
In my view, viability is defined by the tester.  In other words, a Minimum Viable Product is “A product with the fewest number of features needed to achieve a specific objective, and users are willing to “pay” in some form of a scarce resource.”
So for example, the intermediate MVP for a landing page might be defined as the minimum features required to achieve the objective of “demonstrating market interest”, via the currency of “clicking on the more info” button.  Now you might argue that you risk losing all meaningfulness of terms if you define it too loosely and I would agree that there is that risk.  But like many things in life, the true measure is in how you apply Lean Startup and Customer Development principles.   In the case of a landing page MVP, you might learn that there is some interest after all, but it will be difficult to prove the negative.
The definition works to measure “desirability” based business models, too:  “what are the minimal required features to (objective) scale users to xM/month, who are willing to (currency) “pay attention,” as measured by some individual usage metric.  An intermediate MVP for a hardware product might test a technical hurdle (e.g., audio latency on the iPhone) or market interest (objective: demo requests; currency: LOI or beta sign-up).
The art of entrepreneurial discipline is in defining objectives and currency.  Your goal is to test as early as possible, make or break decisions.  In other words, “if this doesn’t work, we need to pivot.”  Further, you should define your “final MVP” (how you will actually monetize your features/users/technology), before figuring out your intermediate MVPs.  Finally, time and money may be important variables when considering your MVP strategy.
As Rich Collins pointed out to me after the conference, if it takes nearly as long to develop an intermediate MVP as the ultimate version, why not build the latter?
Appreciate any thoughts you have on MVPs.