To build a successful business you'll need to build and validate hundreds of prototypes.
For some it’s a first version of their product that will take 6 months to build. For others, it’s the next iteration of the current feature that will ship in 2 weeks to a closed group.
The term MVP, popularised by Eric Reis in his book ‘Lean Startup’, stands for ‘Minimum Viable Product’. Over a decade later, the term is so popular and ubiquitous that it can be hard to discern what it actually means. But the original definition by Eric Reis is nothing like most ‘MVP’s today:
“The minimum viable product is that version of a new product which allows a team to collect the maximum amount of validated learning about customers with the least effort.”
As illustrated by my conversations with founders though, the term got quite unclear, is now used in many different circumstances and to illustrate different concepts. So after years of working with startups, I’d like to propose a more useful and actionable framework. One that shows you what the next thing to focus on is. And one that will save you waiting 6 months for results.
Ideally, the full journey from idea to functional business should take startups around 18 months. But because you’re constantly iterating and learning, you will experience breakthroughs and excitement on a weekly basis.
During each step of the way there’s a different thing to learn and achieve, but getting the core learnings in early and regularly will also put you in a great position to raise more money along the way. Following this process you are doing exactly what your investors hope for — giving your business the highest possible chances of success.
Time to learn: 30 minutes — 2 days
When you’re just starting out, you have a lot of questions and are very uncertain about the answers. The smart thing to do is to learn as much as possible, as quickly as possible. Your Earliest Learnable Prototype is the quickest way you can answer a question you have, such as ‘How much is solving that problem worth to this person’? Often that doesn’t require building anything, much less having an actual product. Often the fastest way to learn is to simply ask the right question to the right people. At the beginning of your venture, you may carry out tens or hundreds of these learning cycles.
Time to learn: 2 days — 2 weeks
Once you know the basics of what your product or service might be, it’s time to start building. With your Earliest Testable Product you’re testing whether you can actually deliver the value proposition that you arrived at in your learning phase. It’s very likely that your first few attempts will uncover many assumptions that turned out to be incorrect. Focus on speed to test, rather than on looks or usability. This phase is closest to the original intention of the MVP and shouldn’t take you more than a few weeks. If it takes more than 2 weeks to build, you’re trying to test too much at once. Break the product up so you can iterate and learn faster.
Time to learn: 2–6 weeks
When you know you have a product that actually delivers value and solves the problem well, you can focus on making it usable. But beware: this doesn’t mean slapping a nice design on top of your broken prototype. Rather, take what you’ve learned from the Testable Product stage and build it newly, reusing what you can. Getting free of the previous choices will add some time to your development but will save you months and years down the line. A product becomes usable when you can put it in front of customers and they can get the value on their own with minimal instructions.
Time to learn: 4–6 weeks
After sharing a usable product with your customers, you know what they love about it, what they find valuable, what they don’t like and what they flat out ignore. Now you can focus on what makes the product a part of their lives — what makes it stick. At this stage you can look at delightful design, optimising and forming habits. You can already start asking for money at the Usable stage, and as you move towards a Lovable product, you will be well on your way towards building a sustainable business.
The numbers won’t always look perfect and you will have moments of facing hard truths at every stage, but by following the process of taking smaller steps with clear outcomes, you’ll learn much more, much faster and acquire skills to push through any obstacles and disruptions.
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