MVP probably isn't what you think

Just over a year ago I had first heard of lean startup and about the idea of starting new projects with the ‘minimal viable product’ a term that on it’s face value seems so clear and concise I, and many others I was working with, assumed we understood what it meant.

Obviously, MVP just means the minimum amount of functionality that we can sell to customers, hence creating a “minimal viable product” right? Wrong.

Unfortunately I’ve discovered even Eric sometimes slips up and uses a definition of MVP that sounds a lot like this. In this interview he says

The minimum viable product is that product which has just those features and no more that allows you to ship a product that early adopters see and, at least some of whom resonate with, pay you money for, and start to gave you feedback on. — Eric Ries

Except that isn’t exactly it, is it Eric?

Having recently actually read Lean Startup something I should have done a long time ago obviously. It’s clear now that MVP describes a process and an approach to product develop and not the characteristics of what makes a product “minimally viable”. An MVP doesn’t even really have to be a product and in many of Eric’s own examples it’s certainly not viable (in that it could never bring in anywhere near enough revenue to sustain the business or future product development on it’s own). An MVP is actually just an experiment. Nivi makes this exact point in the very same interview and Eric agrees with him.

Right. Maybe the right definition of a minimum viable product, like you were saying, is, essentially a test to see whether people will actually want the product that you’re imagining in your head. — Babak Nivi

Eric has many examples of these types of MVP experiments from Dropbox’ Video MVP to Food on the Table’s Concierge MVP. Even creating a landing page the explains your product using adwords to test how the incoming traffic responds to the idea is considered an MVP, but I can’t think of a single person who would consider that a product.

Perhaps a clearer term than MVP could be something like ‘minimal viability test’ since what we are attempting to do is invest a minimal amount of effort in something that will provide us with a measurable result that can help determine the viability of our product ideas. Unfortunately, MVP is in the hearts and minds of businesses and developers now so I think in some respects it’s too late for a new name. The best we can do is try to educate people about what is really meant by MVP and go back to simple and obvious terms like “version 1” for when we are talking about the actual release of a viable product, since quite a lot of time time this is what people mean when they say MVP.

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