Make your product stand… up!
Unlikely as it might seem, episode one of the hit TV show “Marvelous Mrs. Maisel” and Joaquin Phoenix’s “Joker” share a similar scene. In both, characters walk out on stage as wannabe stand-uppers and deliver lackluster performances only to get booed and eviscerated by the audience. And while one can’t help but feel sorry for them, there is a lot to be learned from their failures.
But contrary to appearances, these failures consist not in the poor quality of the performances, but rather in the inability to learn and improve based on received feedback. In other words, the characters in those scenes lack grit and thick skin. They give up at the first sign of trouble. But “going out there” is definitely a step in the right direction.
In fact, many of the best stand-uppers in business today developed their most successful material in exactly the same way – testing it out through trial and error in small clubs. But instead of quitting if things got ugly, they fed off their audiences’ reactions and honed their work until everything was right and could be reproduced over and over again.
This pragmatic and efficient approach, which might alternately be called “the way of the recursive stand-upper” (or “boomerang-do” ), has also found its way to software development. And for good reason.
Why? Consider the following: if you plan to put a lot of time and effort in creating a product or service, you need to know that it will find customers. Assuming you have the resources, you could go the old-school way: pay for focus group research, big data analysis, or other costly methods of ensuring the return on your investment. But most of the time, neither fledgling stand-uppers nor beginner developers, for that matter, have these kinds of resources, and yet some of them manage to hit it off. Is it just pure luck? Not really. In many cases, it is the result of a very specific strategy.
Enter “Minimum Viable Product”
As fond of fancy names as software development is, it coined the term “Minimum Viable Product”, which is another way of calling that first draft of a stand-up performance you deliver to a small group of listeners, paying keen attention to their response. In other words, it is the smallest possible version of the final product you can show to its intended users so they can test it and give you ideas on how to make it better. It is not the same as an outline, a pitch, or a summary. It is the real deal. It must be fully functional in its own, minimal way.
Examples of minimum viable products abound in the history of software development.
Amazon started off merely as an online catalog of books that visitors could order with home delivery. There weren’t any other departments, there weren’t even any warehouses. If someone ordered a book, Amazon had to buy it from a bookstore first and only then sent it to the customer.
Facebook was initially a service where you could set up a rudimentary profile page and connect it with other users.
When it launched, Foursquare was a simple website where you could check-in at a given place. That was it.
Notice, however, what all of these MVPs have in common. Each has at least one major feature that works. This is what makes them different from mere ideas. They represent the smallest possible realization of an idea, and with that, a promise of something greater, which piques people’s interest and whets their appetite for more.
And there was more. Each of the MVPs I mentioned grew with time and evolved to better suit its users’ needs, ending up as the mammoths we know today. But while it was possible largely because of the MVP approach, it is important to understand that a Minimum Viable Product is not a guarantee of success. Actually, one might argue that one of its main roles is to protect against a likely failure.
The reasoning behind MVP
The vast majority of all business endeavors end up unsuccessful. When odds are against you, it is best to bet low, and Minimum Viable Product allows you to do just that – it gracefully manages the inevitable and gut-wrenching risk factor of every new business venture, because there isn’t much to lose with it but quite a lot to gain.
However, that alone would not be enough to make all the fuss about MVP, would it? Luckily, there’s more. MVP also lets you perfect your product or service in real-time. Just as the aspiring stand-upper in front of an audience could take mental notes on which of their jokes work and which don’t, software developers can observe their users’ reactions to their product. These reactions could come in a variety of forms. They can be as obvious as comments, emails, or messages, but also something much less direct, like the sheer number of people that sign-up for your product or download a beta version of your app. If that number exceeds your expectations, you’re probably on the right track.
But even if your users don’t care enough to write, nothing is stopping you from reaching out to them! What’s more, not only can you contact them individually, which would be time-consuming, but you can also create a Facebook group or a forum. You could even run a crowd-funding campaign to put your users in one place, encourage them to share their insights and, quite possibly… some of their incomes.
Get ready for an adventure
As you can see, MVP lets you embark on an exciting journey of discovery that will either take you to the top or prevent from falling down a precipice. So don’t be shy! Buckle up and take the first step to success.