Is your Minimal Viable Product viable enough for YOU?

Eric Ries’s Lean Startup approach promises to remove the uncertainty from your idea by providing a framework of constant testing and refining, helping you test your new idea at every stage of its development.

If you’re not sure whether you have a market for your product, you test your assumptions before you fully build it, using a Minimal Viable Product (MVP).

It’s designed to remove the uncertainty from building a startup, but there’s one crucial aspect it misses – different people have very different perceptions of uncertainty. If you’re not careful, the Lean Startup approach can feed your uncertainty, not remove it.

Here’s how.

If you’ve ever started your own business, written your own book or created a blog, you’ll know the worst part is the uncertainty at the beginning. That phase you go through before your product becomes successful (however you measure it) fills you with overwhelming doubt.

You think your idea is great, but until people are actually paying their hard earned money for it, you can’t be certain that anyone else does.

It’s this uncertainty that will gnaw away at you, an insidious voice whispering to you “no-one will buy your product.”

Which is why Eric Ries’s Lean Startup approach is so appealing and has become so successful, quickly moving from an approach to launching a startup to one for launching blogs and books with a ready-made market.

The Lean Startup approach promises to remove the uncertainty from your idea by providing a framework of constant testing and refining, helping you test your new idea at every stage of its development.

If you’re not sure whether you have a market for your product, you test before you build it, using something Ries calls a Minimal Viable Product (or MVP). This is your product stripped down to its bare essence, with the smallest set of features that people are prepared to pay for.

In this very-beta state, you release it to a small group of people and see if they’ll buy it. If not, you get feedback from them asking them why not. If they do, you ask them what else it needs.

This is the start of the Lean Startup phase of iterative build-then-test.

It’s a wonderful way of building a startup without uncertainty, with the end result being a product that you know will work because your users are telling you they want it – and are even paying for it during development.

Well, that’s the utopian ideal, anyway. In reality, there’s one rather large elephant trap you need to watch out for – the very uncertainty the Lean Startup approach is designed to remove!

How to do Lean wrong

I know all about doing Lean wrong.

My first online course that I created was called The Gadget Blogger’s Blueprint. I had grand ideas for this course, which teaches people how to blog profitably about gadgets, something I’ve had a lot of success with over the years. I wasn’t sure if the course would be successful, though, so before I created all the course content, I decided to adopt the Lean approach and test the idea first.

Taking my cue from Ash Maurya, I created a landing page for my MVP before I’d actually written any of the content. My aim was to test the demand for the product by driving traffic to, and seeing how many people signed up for more info (what’s known as a Smoke Test).

I quickly realized, though, that this wasn’t enough if I was to get accurate results from my tests. If the landing page looks unprofessional, no-one’s going to click on anything, no matter how good the product itself is.

So I spent some time finding a great WordPress landing page theme and crafting my initial sales copy. Then I spent some more time finding another WordPress theme and creating completely different copy. Finally, I bought yet another theme and completely rewrote the landing page yet again.

After a month of “optimizing”, I was ready for my test!

Testing my MVP

First of all I ran the simple Smoke Test. I paid for some AdWords to my landing page to see if people would sign up to a “Coming Soon!” page, giving me their email address.

20% of them did, which is a great opt-in rate.

But what did that actually tell me? A smoke test only gives you an indication of whether or not there’s an audience for your product – not a paying market, which is what you want. So, with uncertainty shouting in my ear, I decided to carry out another test.

This time, I carried out a Price Test. I created three separate landing pages, each with a different price, wrote some code to rotate them evenly, and changed the “Sign up for more Info” button to a “Buy Now” button, which was wired up to Google Analytics and AdWords.

This took another month.

“Why didn’t you just use LaunchRock, KickOffLabs, Visual Website Optimizer, UnBounce, Optimizely, FormStack, or any of the other million and one AB testing/quick launch tools that are out there?” I hear you cry (and seriously, that’s one crowded market!).

I did. I even spent so long trying to get KickOffLabs working with WordPress, I ended up solving a problem with their code that’s now been updated by the KickOffLabs team (superb support, BTW!). At least WordPress integration is now much smoother for the rest of you (you’re welcome!).

But in the end, none of these options really worked for me, so I wrangled a WordPress theme to get it to look and act like I wanted it. And then I added a LaunchRock opt-in email form. Just to be safe!

By this time, I’d created a beautiful landing page, hacked yet another WordPress theme to death until it was unrecognizable from the original, and written god knows how many words of beautifully-crafted copy. Again.

And then…

…well then I didn’t run the test! Instead I worried about whether AdWords was the right way to go about testing the price. I mean, who buys a course from a Google search?! No-one – so what would the data tell me if no-one signed up to buy it?

Equally, I’d discovered from my initial Smoke Test that the keywords were all either too expensive (£2 a click) or didn’t give me enough traffic (1 click a day) for any meaningful data to be analysed.

Of course, if I’d have read Ash Maurya’s post properly, I would have realised this, but in my month-long haste, I didn’t.

By this time I’d put so much effort into my Minimal Viable Product, I realised it would take me ten years to actually launch the course! This wasn’t exactly a Lean approach I was following, more the Full Fat approach. Worse, the Lean approach hadn’t killed my uncertainty, it had made it much worse!

So I took a step back and rethought the process.

In Lean terminology, you could say I pivoted. In my terminology, I just did it!

No, I didn’t launch the course. But I recognized that analysis paralysis had set in, something I’m very good at anyway, but which the Lean approach was only feeding. So I stopped testing and just started writing the first part of the course (to give me something to show for all the testing preparation, if nothing else).

What I discovered was that my idea for the course was way too big to begin with. I cut the course down into manageable chunks, and am now selling them as individual eBooks. Eventually, all the books I’ll have written will come together to form the complete course, but by then I’ll actually have a full product that will have been earning me money while I was busy writing it.

If I hadn’t have started writing the course, I would never have known this (well, I would, but I wouldn’t have accepted it, which is completely different!).

Your MVP needs to be as viable for you as it is for your market

The crucial thing I learned from this is that your MVP needs to be as viable for you as it is for your market. A simple landing page wasn’t enough for me. It didn’t fill in the uncertainty that was haunting me.

Instead, writing the first part of the course has removed the uncertainty. I have a first eBook to sell now, a clear idea of what I want to write, and a solid roadmap going forward.

I can now test with something concrete, and make my decision on whether to continue with the Gadget Blogger’s Blueprint or pivot after the actual sales and feedback from the first eBook come in.

For my personality, that first eBook is minimally viable for me, because it’s the smallest thing I can create that removes my uncertainty. And that’s the whole point of the Lean Startup approach – removing uncertainty as you launch.

At the moment there seems to be some kind of macho competition as to who can create the most minimal of viable products, but this fundamentally misses the point of the Lean approach. The aim of the MVP is not to help you do the least amount of work, it’s to help you remove the uncertainty from your idea.

And that depends not only on your market, but on you as well, as each person’s idea of, and comfort with, uncertainty, is very different.

The Lean approach to launching startups, books and blogs really does need to be done methodically. It’s a discipline in its own right, and one I encourage you to try out for yourself. Just make sure that your MVP is as right for you as it is for your market.

What’s your experience with the Lean approach? Have you created an MVP, and if so, what was minimally viable enough for? Share your experience in the comments below.

About Mike Evans

Mike Evans is a hyperactive Web Strategy Consultant whose skillset spans every aspect of the Web. With a PhD and patent in Web tech, he has a thriving Web business, lectures at a top UK University, and consults on Web Strategy to companies large and small.

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