What is a minimum viable product?

7 min read
Alan Taylor

Starting a business around a product can be daunting. Does it fill a need? Will people buy it? Will it show initial promise only to fall flat after you've invested a lot of time and money on it? If these questions haven't crossed your mind, then maybe you need to think about a minimum viable product.

Related: 9 small business ideas you can start at home

A what?

A minimum viable product or MVP. It's a bare bones product that meets a core need.

An MVP can save you a lot of time and money.

It doesn't have the bells and whistles of your dream product, but it allows you to gauge the interest of customers. And you can use that response to decide whether to continue developing the product or stop and move on to something else.

But I have a great product — it will sell itself!

Minimum Viable Product People on Smartphones
Software developers often use MVP to get an app in front of users quickly.

There's a long history of great products that never took off because their creators didn't do their homework.

The great thing about a minimum viable product is that all the guesswork is removed by listening to the feedback of early product users. The response will tell you if there's a demand for it.

But it doesn't just stop there. If there is a demand for your idea, the feedback is essential for future product development.

So what is a minimum viable product exactly?

There's a lot of confusion as to what an MVP is, but one of the best illustrations is this drawing by Henrik Kniberg.

Minimum Viable Product Henrik Kniberg Illustration
The top half of the image shows what an MVP isn't; the lower half what an MVP is.
Image: Henrik Kniberg

Let’s imagine you've told the customer that your product will take them from A to B faster than walking. You've also explained, "It might take some time to complete, but I'll send updates as I progress." The customer is happy to proceed because they're looking forward to trying new technology.

  1. You deliver the customer a wheel. Soon you get a phone call.

"Congratulations," says the customer. "The wheel was invented around 3500 B.C., and you've sent me another."

  1. You deliver four wheels connected together. You receive another call.

"I've been sitting on this thing for 20 minutes. It doesn't move, and my butt is sore," says the customer. "How does this get me from A to B faster?"

  1. You send the four wheels connected together, covered by a shell. Inside are comfortable seats. You're proud of the seats. You've solved one of the customer's complaints, and you eagerly wait for the phone call.

"So, I'm comfy. But I can still walk faster."

  1. You deliver the final product. It has an engine connected to the wheels, a steering wheel, and it goes far faster than anyone can walk. The customer is excited.

"Now, that satisfies my need. Why didn't you send me this instead of all the useless junk now cluttering my yard?"

Only product No. 4 met the customer's core need: getting from point A to point B faster.

The lower half of the illustration shows MVP done right

Now let’s look at the minimum viable product approach to product development.

  1. You ship two wheels connected by a plank, and you soon hear from the customer.

"Well, it's slightly faster than walking, but I keep falling off.

  1. You ship a model with handlebars. The feedback is better.

"I'm not falling off, but it's still not that much faster than walking."

  1. You ship a product with two wheels with a chain connecting pedals to the rear wheel. Speed is managed by how fast the rider pedals. The feedback is lukewarm.

"It took me a while to get used to two wheels. And it is faster, but is there any chance of getting it faster?"

  1. You ship a similar product but add an engine and gears. The feedback is good, but there's room for improvement.

"I like it. It's fast! And I like the sensation of the wind in my hair. But it's not much good for the wife and my three kids."

  1. You ship a vehicle that has four wheels, seating for six people, and an engine. Remembering the customer liked the wind through his hair, you add a fold-down roof.

"I love it. It's fast, and the fold-down roof is a nice touch. Plus, we can all travel together. If only it had lights for driving at night …"

Numbers one to five all met the criteria of enabling the customer to travel faster than walking. Each one was viable.

Ideally, your team will continue to improve the product based on ongoing user feedback.

Another thing about a minimum viable product is that it gets potential customers talking, leading to investor interest.

Related: 10 small business grants (including 3 WA grants)

How can I get potential customers talking?

Past entrepreneurs have used different ways to stir customer interest. Here are two examples:


When Drew Houston tried to raise venture capital for Dropbox, a file hosting service, investors had a hard time grasping his vision. They'd seen similar products that didn't work properly. And with the Dropbox software still in the prototype stage, it was impossible to show a real-time demo.

So what did Drew do? He put together an explainer video and targeted it at an online community of potential early adopters.

Said Drew, “It drove hundreds of thousands of people to the website. Our beta waiting list went from 5,000 people to 75,000 people literally overnight. It totally blew us away.”


Minimum Viable Product Buffer MVP Launch

Buffer enables you to queue your social media posts and then posts them out according to your schedule. Buffer founder Joel Gascoigne wanted to know if anyone would want to use it before he started building it.

He tweeted a link to a landing page that showed how simple Buffer was in three steps. People clicked a button labelled "Plans and Pricing" if they were interested.

That button took them to an almost apologetic page with "Hello! You caught us before we're ready" and prompted them for their email address for product updates.

Once he'd gained enough interest, Joel added another page. This time, "Plans and Pricing" took people to a prices page, where they could choose the product plan they wanted. The "Hello! You caught us before we're ready" page was then displayed and asked for their email address, again for product updates.

Joel only started building the product when he had confirmation that not only did people want it but were prepared to pay for it.

He outlines the steps more fully on his blog.

OK, I think I've got it. This is what I've learned

Despite the name, "minimum viable product" is not about the product, it's about the process. And the process is about getting the best feedback with the least outlay.

Minimum Viable Product Food Kit
Meal kits solve the problem of never having all you need to make dinner.

A few other things to remember as you test your idea for a product:

  • It must solve a problem.
  • It's aimed at early adopters for feedback on how the product can be improved to make it market-worthy.
  • Make sure each update builds on the previous version without removing its core function.

And before doing anything, find out if potential users care about it enough to pay for it.

Brilliant! And remember …

The MVP process is perfect for any new business based around a product or a service because money is often an issue when getting a business off the ground.

The MVP process attracts both customers and investors when done right.

And part of doing it right is listening and implementing the feedback. You might find your product moving away from your initial design, but that's not always a bad thing. Because when you use the MVP process, you end up with many minds working to make your product great.

Editor’s note: Nothing gets the word out about a new product or service like a website. Build one quickly with WordPress Websites from GoDaddy. It’s all the fun of WordPress without the upkeep.