Lean Startups & Minimum Viable Products – What does it all mean?

The Lean Startup
Image taken by flickr.com/betsyweber/

If you are relatively new to ‘startup land’ you’ll likely be hearing many terms that sound alien to you. Two you’ll hear over and over are Lean Startups or Lean Methodology and Minimum Viable Product or simply MVP – and for good reason. If you are building a startup, paying attention to these two terms and abiding by them is almost mandatory if you want to succeed.

It all started with the book shown in the image and is an essential read for any budding entrepreneur, but assuming you haven’t the time to do that right now, I’m going to explain the two most important aspects of what can quickly be learned from this book. But before that…

How it used to work

Pre-Internet, and more recently pre-SaaS, the path to building and launching a product used to follow a fairly well defined path. This can be approximated to:

  1. You have an idea
  2. You carry out a lot of expensive market research to test the validity of that idea
  3. You specify the product
  4. You build the product (or commission others to do it for you)
  5. You market and distribute the product

The real problem with this approach is that it is extremely costly and time-consuming, and until you proceed beyond stage 5, you cannot be certain that people really want what you have. Even with extensive market research, there usually exists a gap between what people say they want/do, and what they actually want/do. If this gap is a large one, you have a very expensive problem on your hands.

How it works now

For online solutions, the Internet now enables us to rapidly build simple prototypes, release them to the demanding public, and see if they love it or loathe it. This is fantastic as you can quickly obtain real feedback about your product, what works and what doesn’t, make changes and repeat. It is this approach that leads us to Lean Startups and MVPs.

The Lean Startup & the MVP

Essentially you need to understand that your idea will rely on a number of key assumptions. If these assumptions are wrong then you run the risk of failure with your product. With this in mind, the initial step is one of minimisation. Ask yourself the question “What is the least amount of work I have to do to test whether my assumptions are correct?”. Step 2 becomes self-apparent, carry out that work and test those assumptions. Only once those assumptions are proved should you move to the next step, if the assumptions fail, go back to the drawing-board, adjust, tweak or pivot, until you find out what strikes a chord with your audience.

So back to the definition. The Lean Startup is the business that carries out these activities in order to build a product that people want, through many stages of small iterations. The Minimum Viable Product is the absolute minimum of solutions you can deliver that provides value to your customers and helps you to test your assumptions.

At this point, it’s important to understand that an MVP isn’t necessarily a piece of software. Writing bespoke software is very time-consuming and requires software developers (which if stories are to be believed are quite hard to come by at the moment). It’s very easy to think that software is required to test your assumptions on the world. It’s at this stage where creative thinking can really pay for itself. Think long and hard about what the easiest, cheapest and quickest ways of testing your assumptions are. Also remember that what people say and what people do are rarely the same thing, so while it is okay to ask people their opinion, do not rely on it. A negative can be used to disprove your assumptions, but a positive cannot.

To summarise

I wouldn’t be doing Eric Ries justice by claiming that this is all you need to know from his book, but it is these two principles that will ensure that you set off in the right direction and don’t waste valuable resources (time / money / people) on building something that nobody wants or needs. It’s all about remembering your core offering and thinking “Does it really need this feature?” rather than “Wouldn’t it be cool if it did this?”

I hope this has helped you understand lean startups and minimum viable products, and why it’s what we are all talking about at the moment. I’d love to hear your thoughts and experiences, do get in touch or leave a comment.

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