Whether it be during a job interview, when chatting with someone in a tech-adjacent function, or even just by browsing some more tech-oriented media, the acronym “MVP” seems to be everywhere these days. But what is a minimum viable product?
For aspiring product managers, it’s important to understand what it means and what it stands for. Better yet, it’s crucial to know how it can be a useful instrument for your future work, regardless of whether you might be asked to launch a product from scratch, or to investigate whether some new functionality is worth building in the first place.
That’s why we’ve created a beginner’s guide for you! To skip ahead to a certain section, simply use the clickable menu:
- What does MVP mean?
- What is an MVP for?
- How a product manager uses a minimum viable product
- What is an MVP in agile?
- Seven famous MVP examples
- How to define an MVP
1. What does MVP mean?
If you were to ask this question of a product manager, more than 50% of them would be likely to say: it stands for “minimum viable product”.
There is currently a certain amount of debate in the product community as to whether it would be best to keep the same acronym, but replace the definition behind it. Either way, in the super fast world of software, MVPs will not be going away anytime soon.
The minimum viable product can be described as the core functionality of a product, its must-have features. Basically, it’s what remains once all the add-ons and the nice-to-haves are removed.
If you’ve been on the planet for long enough and have remained loyal to roughly the same brands throughout the years, perhaps you are able to recall the various iterations, or stages, that any given brand goes through. But at its core, in its first iteration, it was a simple thing. That simple thing was an MVP.
The concept of an MVP is quite easy to grasp, really: think about your favorite product. It can be an app, a streaming platform, or even a physical product, like a soda drink or a cookie.
Now, if you now had to describe it to a hermit or an alien, what would you say?
“Before, if we were hungry and really wanted to eat a pizza, the choices were: making one, going out for one or giving up and eating a bowl of cereal. Now, all we need to do is pick up the phone, open this app [insert the name of any food delivery service here], choose, pay and wait for it to arrive!”
There you have your MVP. But, those three letters can also mean something instead—and we’re not talking about Most Valuable Player!
The other meaning of MVP
Josh Kaufman, in his book The Personal MBA, put forward an alternative version of the meaning of an MVP: according to his theory, it should stand for Minimum Valuable Offer instead.
In this view of what the first version of a product should be, there’s an additional element: it must be something that someone is willing to purchase.
Whereas the first MVP we looked at focused on releasing to the world just enough functionality to produce a coherent product, this one is different.
The Minimum Valuable Offer presents the idea that an MVP is required to go further, and also prove that the proposed product can gauge enough commercial interest to justify being built (aka, to justify the expense of hiring developers to build the required code, sales managers to sell it, etc, etc.)
2. What is an MVP for?
Taken to the ultimate level, a minimum viable product could be regarded as the perfect test for a company’s existence.
It would also seem like a ruthless instrument that either justifies or disproves a product’s life. It needn’t and shouldn’t be like that.
Rather, a minimum viable product presents certain advantages when compared to the alternative, which is…building a product before testing whether there is enough demand to justify building it.
Advantages of using an MVP
Minimum Viable Products were not always the preferred approach, or even the recommended approach in product management.
For quite a few decades, it had been common to follow a process of market research + requirement gathering + months or even years developing a product before it would finally be released to the market.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, this meant that companies were taking huge risks unto themselves. Large sums of money would be spent, first in research ad development (R&D) and later, in engineering, oftentimes to produce a product that would then fail to sell.
The MVP presented a different way of doing things: if a product was going to fail, it was best to fail fast and to consume as few resources as possible in the process. It’s not uncommon for companies to go through multiple rounds of MVPs, or even having to pivot before finding the right place for thriving.
POC vs Prototype vs MVP
Often at this point you might be getting slightly confused between what an MVP is and other versions of your product. Chief among these are the Proof of Concept (POC), and the prototype.
While we’ve expanded upon how product managers work with POCs in our Proof of Concept guide, you’ll often find prototypes in the domain of the UX designer. Prototyping is a key fourth stage of the Design Thinking process.
Despite having many similarities, each has a different function, which this chart will help you distinguish:
|Proof of Concept||Prototype||MVP|
3. How a product manager uses a minimum viable product
PMs tend to carry one percentage around in their heads: 40%. That’s about the average rate of failure for new technology and software products. No product manager wants to find themselves part of that statistic.
So, whenever possible, PMs will use both prototypes and MVPs to test whether business assumptions are correct.
That process is called hypothesis validation and as far as product managers are concerned, it might spell the difference between being focused on outcomes instead of just output.
4. What is an MVP in Agile?
This is an important question, because it mixes two very widely used concepts in the tech industry that belong in two adjacent worlds.
Agile is a way of organizing software development work. Currently, it is the preferred way of organizing the work of many development teams around the world.
If you do some reading about Agile (can start here, with the Agile Manifesto), you won’t find a single reference to MVPs there. Agile mentions principles, roles, ceremonies. Not a word about products, or about producing a minimum viable product.
It’s entirely possible to continue to produce software that will not serve a purpose and that no one will use. From a company’s perspective, though, that’s not a very desirable situation to be in.
5. Seven famous MVP examples
You might quickly notice by exploring these links that each company behind each MVP chose a different implementation of the concept of MVP. They chose what they believed made the most sense for them considering that particular moment in time.
Let’s take a look at them briefly:
- AirBnb: “Looking for an Airbed to crash?”
- Buffer: “if I build this, will you join?”
- Dropbox: “watch the video now, buy our product later.”
- Spotify: “One feature to rule them all.”
- Twitter: “just setting up my twttr”
- Uber: “Holding all the strings behind the scenes.”
- Zappos: “Fake it until you make it.”
Pro tip: If you would like the chance to take a look at tomorrow’s big product hits, spend some time browsing Product Hunt or Kickstarter.
6. How to define an MVP
As it might have become apparent from the list of famous MVPs shared above, there can be very different applications of the concept of MVP.
The two things they all have in common are: they present a hypothesis; and then they need to validate or disprove within a reasonable timeframe and considering the resources at their disposal.
This is a valid approach regardless of whether you are looking to MVP a feature or a brand new product. So if you are being asked to define an MVP, make sure to focus on the core functionality and value proposition to be offered, and ensure that you have metrics that allow you to determine whether the MVP has been successful or not.
Not all Minimum Viable Products will end in an IPO or be the starting point of the next tech unicorn: that’s alright.
As a product manager, if you decide you need to do an MVP, keep it simple and measurable. And remember: it’s usually possible to either pivot or iterate. Either way, your MVP is a stepping stone for the rest of the great work you will do.
Looking for more product management topics? Here are a couple of complementary reads to get you started: