Getting the V right

The Minimum Viable Product is the rule in the start-up community, and like all rules, it’s under attack by that same community. Are you shocked?

This is the community that lives to destroy any status quo as soon as it’s statused.  The “whaddya got” rebels are joined by a media establishment who worship “high production values” and many designers who just generally despise crappiness in all forms. They all complain the MVP is too small and too half*ssed to tell you if the product/market fit really exists.

What all these arguments lack is thoughtful examination of the V in MVP. And the V is the hardest to get right. Two cautionary tales:

  • Thoughtful and successful adolescent start-up launches a new product into a desired market. New product was carefully thought out, spec’d within an inch of its life, designed well and when it hit the market  it was a complete product with no forgotten edge cases. It  flopped. No wide-spread adoption with existing users, no gains in engagement, no new users.
  • Young start-up with proven entrepreneur team puts together a MVP launches, and it flops. Moves on. Another start-up launches a copycat and it succeeds.

And one surprising one:

  • Trainwreck of a elderly company finally launches a product that had been rattling around the company for a while because no one had the courage to get it out. Bullheaded exec shoves it into he world, and it becomes the only part of the site growing usage.

These stories all share one common missing element I didn’t tell, and that is perseverance in making sure the MVP actually was viable.

  1. The product was launched and the PM who worked on it moved on to the next big idea. It was considered perfect upon launch, so clearly the market didn’t want it, right?
  2. The first start-up launched their product, talked to customers who didn’t like it, so moved on to something else. The second start-up launched, talked to customers, tweaked, talked to customers,tweaked and got it right. Turned out poor messaging was obscuring the product’s desirability.
  3. The elderly company left a PM with nothing else to do working to work on the freshly launched product. He trolled the message boards, listened to the complaints, tweaked until the users were happy and evangelizing.

A Dictionary Definition:



  1. Capable of working successfully; feasible: “the proposed investment was economically viable”.
  2. (of a seed or spore) Able to germinate.

A Working Definition:

vi·a·ble (for startups)


  1. Desirable by the market
  2. Buildable by the company
  3. Profitable for the company


When you sit down to create an MVP, it’s easy to spend time on the M. And it’s important. You probably don’t have a lot of money. and you know it’s a long climb to the top of the mountain called success. So in order to make your resources last,  you need to do the smallest possible thing to learn if your product has potential.  But as Einstein said “Simple as possible, but not simpler.” There is a tendency to reduce the MVP to something so small it cannot it cannot be evaluated by the market you seek. Or worse, it’s misvalued.

It’s also tempting to stay in the comfort of the office, polishing your apples, making that dream product that you know the market will just love! I just watched a fairly brilliant idea die because it was never “good enough” to launch, and funding disappeared in the face of no market feedback.

So when you create the MVP, you must focus on the viability. And you can’t know what is viable until you put the product and the market together.  You have to become one with your market, and you do that by talking to people.

Users historically will put up with a lot of crappiness, if they understand and desire the value the product. But they judge that in a hundred ways, so your viability will be partially based on the context of the user’s mind.  One easy example: they don’t expect a lot of visual design sophistication from search engines, but they do in fashion sites. If your site is clunky and you are pushing haute couture, potential customers may write you off in the first five seconds of the page loading.

As you sit down to design your MVP, first ask yourself

“What is the question we must answer to move forward?”


“How do we know we have an answer?”

Then consider the nature of your market:

  • How do they define  quality?
  • What do they want they aren’t getting?
  • How do they talk about it?
  • What habits do they already have you can leverage?
  • What switching costs do they experience?

Your MVP must be viable from the market’s point of view. The new users must know why your product is good, and be able to quickly build an ongoing relationship with it.  As Steve Blank says, you must leave the building. You will have to meet people before you begin to design and build. You will have to meet people while you design and build. and you will have to meet with people after you design and build, and you will keep designing and building until you are quite certain you need to do something else.

Your MVP must be viable from your company’s point of view: can you build something that will make more money that it costs? It can be heartbreaking, but sometimes those initial conversations with the market will prompt a pivot. But rather than getting down, celebrate! You didn’t waste time nor money. You can now find what will work.

Once you think you have a good clue on that, commit to do the smallest thing you think the market will accept as interesting as a beginning spot.  It should meet, as lightly as possible, the criteria your userbase sets. You can launch something less what you think will needed, if you know you can get continued interaction with the market.  If acquiring customers is tough or expensive, best to make them cocreators of the product.

And understand launch is the beginning, not the end, of what should be an iterative evaluation process.  I recommend committing to a period of time where you do nothing but work toward product/market fit with the single initiative.

Viable is a goal, not a set of requirements.

MVP is a process, not a strawman.  It is that first handhold as you begin to climb a mountain. And sometimes finding the handhold can be instant, or it can take some feeling around.  Take the time to make sure it’s a solid one.

V for Victory!
V for Victory!