Minimum Viable Customer (or why your MVP sucks)

6 minute read

I took last month off from writing. A month is a long time for me not to post anything – but it was time for me to read more than write, to focus solely on learning from others, and take some time to observe, assimilate and extrapolate on some thoughts that have been going around in my head for a while.  Maybe at a macro-societal scale I was waiting for the storm to pass, but I sense that the storm we are in right now will continue to buffet us for some time yet.

But, as they say …

It is better to learn how to dance in the rain than wait for the storm to pass.

One of the things I am observing right now is a lot of noise around how important it is to be All About The Customer.  If you have read much of what I have written you will know that being truly customer-first is at the core of what I believe.  The problem though in the market is that much of the noise is not translating into real customer-first actions. In this post I want to highlight one particular problem area and it might feel a little like a rant – that’s the health warning, so be forewarned. I want to bring your attention to the increasing malaise (particularly in the software sector) that is the Minimum Viable Product. (Spoiler Alert: MVP is not good for the customer.) If you care about your customers – you should care about this.

It starts like this.

Someone has come up with a new idea for a new product to serve a particular market. Based on initial customer assessment in the target market it has been determined (say) that there are 12 core capabilities required to have a solution that meets the market needs. Each capability is about one month’s work for the team. So, it’s going to take a year to get a product to market.

Well, for the MVP-literatti that’s a problem. According to MVP lore you need to get something to market inside three months to see if the customers like it. Reid Hoffman (founder of LinkedIn), he of the famous quote “launch early enough that you’re embarrassed by your v1.0 release,” has a lot to answer for if that quote is indeed fairly assignable to him.

Is that really ok?

I don’t think so. Not if you care about [respect] your customers.

To solve this problem – as a MVP zealot 😉  I now need to figure out how to get a product, that should take a year to deliver, out into market in three months without a much bigger team?

There are just two options:

  • Option A: Ship part of what’s required – say three capabilities (because if you’re honest that’s all you can do it you are to do a good job on any those capabilities); or
  • Option B: Ship 12 capabilities that probably all suck because you‘ve not had the time to do anything right. It is all so bad you are really embarrassed. Thanks Reid – checked that box, but now I have a lot of unhappy customers.

In either case the customer suffers. Option A doesn’t do what the customer needs and Option B just sucks – for everyone.

You might say that the approach I have outlined is not what MVP was supposed to be – but it is unfortunately what it has become in many cases. If Eric Ries (author of The Lean Startup) was dead he would probably be turning in his grave (though he has had a part to play in creating this mindset.)

In fact, if you were actually committed to the ‘get something out in three months’ mantra, there should have been a third option that started with:

‘Know the problem well enough so that you can figure out what three capabilities solve a real business problem for a customer who is willing to pay real money to have that problem solved’.

But ‘know the problem well enough’ means that you really need to have a deep understanding of the problem, not just a hypothesis or theory or general idea of the problem, but a deep in your soul and in your gut understanding, before you start to build anything. If you don’t know deep in your soul what your prospective customers problems are – you will not succeed.

That’s the first problem.

The second problem is that you cannot outsource your vision. If you are bringing a product to market to solve a problem; you own the vision. While the customer owns the problem, you own the vision. It is not the customer’s vision – it is your vision.

Your customers will not tell you how to solve their problems. They will tell you what they don’t like about what they have today. If you’re lucky they might be able to articulate their problem clearly. They can certainly give you feedback on your approach. (Feedback it’s okay if you receive it from people that have a problem and are willing to pay to solve it.) But the customer’s perspective understandably limits their feedback – and they are busy doing other things. And, if even if they can describe today’s problems, they will not know the problems that they will have tomorrow. That should be part of your vision too.

In my last book – Digital Sales Transformation in a Customer First World – I talk about the Customer Value Question:

What business problems does your customer have that you solve better than anyone else?

I use that question to guide the development of your Ideal Customer Profile.

Because you see, that’s the nub of it. That’s the core of the problem. That’s why your MVP sucks.

It is better to find products for your customers than try to find customers for your product.

Instead of thinking about Minimum Viable Product, think about Minimum Viable Customer: “What do I need to do to make this viable for the customer?” and come up with enough customers like that to make it viable for me?

It works better that way – and as always it starts with the customer.

Reliable products. Real results.

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