Lesson Two

What is a minimum viable product?

john-salzarulo-64395

If you’re starting out with an idea and nothing built yet, your first goal should be to prove the product you want to build solves a problem.

“‘Make something people want.’ That’s the fundamental problem. If you die, it’s probably because you didn’t make something people wanted.”
Paul Graham, Investor, Co-Founder of Y-Combinator

It sounds obvious. Build a product that solves a problem.

Ready to build an MVP?

We’ll match you with the perfect freelancer for your project

Get Started for Free Today

But the reality is, many products are built that don’t actually solve a problem for anyone. A product may have many great features but building features doesn’t help a product in search of a problem.

The first version of a product is often referred to as a Minimum Viable Product, or in other words, a product that has just the core features that make the product work. It can be a website or an app, but whatever you do, keep it simple.

The term Minimum Viable Product was popularized when it was referenced as part of the Lean Startup methodology. The Lean Startup method is about removing waste when building a business, and a Minimum Viable Product represents a product with minimal waste.

Granted, building a Minimum Viable Product as part of the Lean Startup method isn’t the only approach to product development but the point of this post is to better define what it means to make a Minimum Viable Product.

First, building a Minimum Viable Product can save you time and money, but it’s not an excuse to build a bad product. Making a Minimum Viable Product means thinking about all the elements your product could have – each feature, each potential page – and stripping it down to the things that are most essential to prove people want what you’re building.

Because of a variety of factors (your market, the alternative solutions to the problem, etc.), your Minimum Viable Product will likely look much different than someone else’s. So it can be helpful to ask,

“What could we make at a minimum to get our product functioning to prove it is a solution to a problem?”

Thinking this way can help you avoid spending too much time building lower priority things early on.

Case Study:

Unsplash

Unsplash is a photography website we created because we hated low quality, expensive stock photography. We thought that other people might think this was a problem too so we needed to figure out a way to know if this was true.

Rather than spending weeks or months creating a website that might be a flop, we setup a free Tumblr blog with a $19 theme and uploaded 10 hi-resolution photos we took with a local photographer. Within three hours, the first version of Unsplash was built.

The first version of Unsplash

We submitted Unsplash on Hacker News, a community of designers, developers, and entrepreneurs. It was a place where we felt some people might be interested in what we were doing.

Within a few hours of posting Unsplash on Hacker News, over 20,000 photos were downloaded. Because we didn’t know how much interest there would be, we originally hosted the images from a personal Dropbox account. We ended up hitting a traffic limit and the images stopped working. We had to move them somewhere else to keep the site up.

Even though the first version of the Unsplash website was primitive and barely worked, it was enough to prove that it was solving a problem.

Today, Unsplash receives over 2 million photo downloads a month. Interestingly, the basic look of the first version of Unsplash is still how Unsplash looks today. Its simplicity ended up being the thing that made Unsplash special.

Sometimes you don’t even need to code or design anything to prove the product you want to make solves a problem.

“Only write code when you can’t think of any other way to validate your hypothesis.”
Mark Randall, Chief Strategist, VP Creativity at Adobe

At first, you might just need to hop on the phone with a handful of potential customers or sketch out your idea for a website with pen and paper.

Another common tactic, called a Smoke Test, can be used to validate you’re solving a problem.

One example of a Smoke Test would be to create a one-page website that says what your product will do along with an email signup box. No actual product exists yet but the goal is to see if any potential customers signup for what you want to make before you spend time making it.

Although these examples of products might seem leagues away from what you eventually want your product to be, they’re often an important first step toward getting there.

Even some of today’s most popular products had to start somewhere.

Minimum viable products of a few of today’s most popular products

eBay

eBay, today’s most popular online auction website was originally called AuctionWeb when it launched in 1995. Here’s the earliest screenshot available of eBay’s original homepage compared to their homepage in 2014.

Ebay's first homepage
eBay 1997 homepage
eBay 2014 homepage
eBay 2014 homepage

Apple

Apple is one of the world’s most valuable brands in the world. However, when the company was founded in 1976, they had to keep things minimal.

The Apple 1 was the first computer released by Apple in 1976 and was just a circuit board. It didn’t have a keyboard, monitor, or case.

We see how successful products look today and sometimes forget that it took years of evolution to get to where they are.

Balancing product priorities doesn’t just end after your Minimum Viable Product is launched. It continues throughout the entire life cycle of your product. Even when you have customers or you’re a well-established company, you still need to choose which things to build first and which ones should wait until later.

A Minimum Viable Product isn’t about making a bad first product. It’s about focusing on what’s most important and building that.

Apple 1, 1976
Apple 1, 1976
Apple iMac, 2014
Apple iMac, 2014

Kickstarter

Kickstarter changed the entire funding process for creative projects by allowing people to support and fund project creators from all over the world.

It seems like an obvious solution now but when Kickstarter founder, Perry Chen, first had the idea, it took 6 or 7 years to launch.

Although he wasn’t a designer, Perry sketched his initial vision for Kickstarter in 2006.

We see how successful products look today and sometimes forget that it took years of evolution to get to where they are.

Balancing product priorities doesn’t just end after your Minimum Viable Product is launched. It continues throughout the entire life cycle of your product. Even when you have customers or you’re a well-established company, you still need to choose which things to build first and which ones should wait until later.

A Minimum Viable Product isn’t about making a bad first product. It’s about focusing on what’s most important and building that.

Kickstarter project page in 2006
Kickstarter Project Page 2006
Kickstarter project page in 2014
Kickstarter Project Page 2014

We see how successful products look today and sometimes forget that it took years of evolution to get to where they are.

Balancing product priorities doesn’t just end after your Minimum Viable Product is launched. It continues throughout the entire life cycle of your product. Even when you have customers or you’re a well-established company, you still need to choose which things to build first and which ones should wait until later.

A Minimum Viable Product isn’t about making a bad first product. It’s about focusing on what’s most important and building that.


If you’re looking to create a Minimum Viable Product for your idea, Crew matches you with vetted freelancers and small studios to bring it to life. If you’re ready, let’s start your journey together – submit your project to Crew.