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Why two decades after the MVP concept was introduced, MVPs still fail
The same story repeats over an over. An entrepreneur has an idea, sets a budget, develops a Minimum Viable Product (MVP), but launching the product leads to a disappointment. There is almost no chance that the investment will be returned.
So why is building a successful product anything but easy? Why 90% of the products built today end up with a failure?
In our recent post, we introduced in detail the concept and the definition of MVP. We introduced MVP as a vehicle that moves the users from the current state to their desired state. The key idea behind the MVP concept is that building the MVP is done in iterations, small steps, each of them continuously validated with the user.
Although the term MVP resonates pretty well intuitively with entrepreneurs, the following mistakes are very common and are the biggest contributor to the 90% of failed products.
Mistake #1. Insufficient understanding of the user
I know this is becoming a cliche, but it is still one of the most common mistakes entrepreneurs make in practice. As described above, an MVP is a vehicle to help the users reach their desired state. Starting directly with prototyping and building that vehicle without knowing the users' current state or their desired state, is like targeting with closed eyes. And this is almost never going to work.
Before starting to build an MVP, conducting market research is necessary. We need to have a good understanding of the user, their problem, emotions and desires. Where are the users now, and where do they want to be, what is their desired state. It’s better not to save time when it comes to talking to users and understanding the market. Understanding them better will significantly accelerate the process to achieve a product market fit.
And importantly, when you talk to users, you don't pitch a solution, you only listen to understand the problem. The solution comes after the problem - always.
Mistake #2. Building a basic product with no competitive advantage
Despite being "minimum", an MVP has to provide value to the user, it needs to delight the user, and even more it needs to differentiate from other similar products. A new product, and a new brand in case of a startup company, is likely competing already with existing products (or even sometimes the status-quo can be the biggest competitor). So, an MVP needs to have something extremely valuable, in order to be able to capture the attention of the user, and make the user choose your product instead of another alternative.
This is probably the most difficult part when building a product. Finding that single component, that strategic competitive advantage, that would make a new product stand out from the rest and capture the attention of the user. This requires strategic mindset and knowledge of the competitors and the users, and of course frequent validation with the users.
Mistake #3. Building a working MVP without any prior validation
Because MVP by definition is a "product", entrepreneurs interpret it as a working product, and they start with validation after the working product is ready. They forget that even during the process of building this minimum version of the working product, there should be a lot of validation.
Validating the idea, validating the marketing message, validating the usability of the product via a prototype are often forgotten. But without these validation steps, the risk is high that we are investing in a product that is not going to be accepted by the user.
Validation starts from the moment you have the idea. Validation is done during the Discovery phase, validation is done during the Design when you build an MVP concept or a prototype, and it is done after the product is live. It’s just that the validation techniques you can apply in each stage are different. In the Discovery phase, you rely heavily on interviews or surveys, while once the product is live, you can involve more advanced quantitative techniques, like product analytics or A/B testing.
Mistake #4. Failing to keep it "Minimum"
The meaning of "Minimum" in the term MVP is often well understood, but still applying it in practice is somehow difficult. Minimum viable products often become products with a lot of features that are not necessary in the first iterations. The result is not only spending a lot of time and money on development, but also making a product that is complex and confusing for the user.
Building a minimum viable product requires a lean mindset. It requires critical evaluation of the value and effort of the features you want to implement, and applying the 80/20 rule - selecting the key features that bring the highest value to the user.
Mistake #5. Forgetting the quality of the product
Focusing on minimum features only, and forgetting to embed certain level of quality when building the product is a common mistake many entrepreneurs make. But insufficient usability, reliability, or performance efficiency for example, will damage the user experience of the user and will hinder the user to see the real value of the product.
Even when building an MVP, quality is important. You don't need to invest in the most advanced quality best practices, but you should aim for sufficient quality that is necessary to provide good user experience.
Mistake #6. Committing to output-driven roadmaps
The term roadmap is often understood as a timeline with milestones, each with concrete features to be delivered. But this way of working now belongs to the traditional product development.
When we build a minimum viable product, of course we need to select the scope of the product, we should select which user stories should be implemented. But we don't commit to a long-term roadmap with concrete milestones. After the product is live, we should focus on learning from customers and shaping the next iterations of the product based on the customers feedback.
And importantly, within this process, the focus should not be on the Output, but on the Outcome. So when setting the milestones, it's better to set an outcome-oriented milestone, what value do you want to bring. For example, "in this quarter we want to decrease the delivery time by 25%", is better than "in this quarter we want to build these features".
Mistake #7. Aiming to grow before having a "sticky" product
In their book Lean Analytics, Alistair Croll and Benjamin Yoskovitz propose that every successful startup company goes through five stages and in this order: Empathy, Stickiness, Virality, Revenue, and Scale.
The first phase is Empathy, where the focus is to learn your users and their needs. Then you move to Stickiness, the phase when you are building the product. The goal at this stage is to build a product that resonates with the users and is very well accepted. Only after you optimise the product, and you make it "sticky" for the user, you should move to the next stage, where the focus is growth.
And this is where it often goes wrong in practice. Too often, this order is not respected and the focus is on Virality and increasing user acquisition as much as possible without understanding what the users are going to do with the product.
When improving your product, focus on one objective at a time. What to focus on depends on your business, but as a general rule, first stickiness, and then growth.
The MVP concept still works
Even after two decades since the term MVP was introduced, the theory is still the same. The MVP concept still works. And there are great examples of extraordinary products that all started as MVPs, for example, Dropbox, Facebook, Instagram. It is all about finding how this basic MVP concept could best be applied for your specific situation and the product you are building.