What exactly is an MVP?

This buzzword has many interpretations, but it shouldn't.

Question asked by Melissa on February 4, 2017
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Let’s start using the term MVP to describe something that makes sense.

This is killing me. The terms “viable” and “product” in the business world mean “something that makes profit”. And “profit” means that I can sell it for more money than it cost me. So everyone needs to stop using the term MVP to describe landing pages, paper prototypes, and free versions of an app.

Build measure learn loop

Here’s the Lean Startup’s definition of an MVP:

A Minimum Viable Product is that version of a new product which allows a team to collect the maximum amount of validated learning about customers with the least effort.

I’m sorry Eric Ries, but this definition is garbage. What you’re really describing is an experiment.

In fact, if I read this loosely as most people do, my business card is an MVP. It lets me talk to my potential customers about my services and give them my contact information. If they contact me, I’ve validated that they want my services enough to save my card and spend some of their valuable time to get in touch. Validated learning, but far from something that makes profit. So guess what? My business card is not a minimum viable product, or any kind of product at all.

Now I doubt that Eric Ries would consider my business card an MVP. What tends to be glossed over in his definition is the words “version of a new product”. So, if we look more closely at this definition then, we see that business cards are not MVPs. Neither are landing pages, surveys, blogs, Facebook likes, or any other kind of outreach that measures interest in a product. I’m pretty sure this stuff is just called marketing.

That being said, this definition is still garbage because it says nothing about making money. A paper prototype will help me explain my app idea to potential customers and gauge interest. It’s pretty darn minimal and it’s a version of my product. But it’s not a “viable product” because nobody in their right mind would pay money for it. The same goes for my free alpha version of the app. It might allow me to learn a lot from my potential customers, but I still have no customers. Nobody is paying for my app.

Finally, just making money isn’t enough. I need to be able to charge enough for my MVP so I turn a profit that can be used to sustain my business. If I charge $1 per month for my web app, but pay $2 per month in hosting fees for every customer, I don’t have a “viable” product. It’s not good enough.

OK, so here’s a much better definition…

Based on the actual definitions of the words in the acronym, and keeping within a business context, we can come up with a better definition for MVP.

  • Minimum: the least amount of features that will satisfy your target customer’s top need(s)
  • Viable: implements or enables a business model to collect money and turn a profit for a sustainable business
  • Product: looks great, works well, and can be sold

All of these terms just work together nicely to say the following:

A product that can satisfy the minimum need for a specific someone in a way that makes a profit.

I hope that someday this term, and all the other acronyms that have attempted to clarify what a startup should be striving to build, will be better understood.

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