Rethinking the measuring stick for an MVP

Rethinking the measuring stick for an MVP

A Byte-sized case study on minimum viable products and how to decipher what's "viable"
"If you aren't embarrassed by the first version of your product, you shipped too late.”

By this point you have most likely seen this Reid Hoffman quote in numerous graphics plastered all over your Linkedin feed.

Reid Hoffman Google images screenshot

It's become this measuring stick of sorts for what an MVP should look and feel like—rough, lightweight and problem-focused. Similarly, you might've even seen one of these transportation MVP graphics teaching aspiring entrepreneurs to find their viable skateboard instead of building the body of a car as their first step (which, in isolation, creates no transportive value for the end user). The high level concept is simple: start small and iterate quickly to maximize learning as you continue to evolve your product.

Is there anything wrong with this approach? Of course not. But I've seen enough people regurgitate Reid's quote and the above drawing that I think it's time to reframe the definition of MVP just a bit.

What makes a product MVP "viable" after all?

Like most solid questions, the answer is..."it depends."

Using questions similar to the ones above, we can start to craft a measuring stick for viability that is tailored to a specific product's situation. So let's look at a couple of examples to see how that measuring stick might change...

Example #1:  Homeschool grade-books

Our first example is a hypothetical grade book tool that parents can use to record and report grades for their students/kids.

Product Type

B2C product

Current Competitive Landscape

Minimal—good chance your competition is a spreadsheet

How high are the switching costs?

Seemingly low assuming the parent isn't already using software to solve their problem, but this remains to be seen.

Consumer Expectation

The measuring stick is whether or not your software solves my problem more effectively than their current spreadsheet model

Vicodin?

Potentially...

Understanding of the problem/opportunity

Some understanding of the core shortcoming but the ceiling of potential and ultimately what the product could become is unclear.

Given the above hypothetical, this is a perfect situation where Reid Hoffman's guidance is spot on. The level of polish this product possesses out of the gate is not going to be what dictates success (at least in the early days). The measuring stick is clear. Does it solve the problem? Yes or no.

Not only that...but the vision for what this product might become years down the road is hazy at best. Speed to market and more importantly, speed to learning is what you're after as a product team. There's a very real scenario where the market is much smaller than you initially thought, and the last thing you want to do as an entrepreneur is invest your precious time/resources into creating a perceived maturity to your product when you're off the mark to begin with.

TLDR:  Example #1 is a perfect use case for Reid's measuring stick

Example #2: Byte

If you dabbble on Twitter at all, you've probably seen the resurrection of Vine2.0 as the newly beloved "Byte"—America's answer to the craze that is Tik Tok. Let's use the same criteria as above to get a better sense of the current landscape that Byte is entering.

Product Type

B2C product

Current Competitive Landscape

Tik Tok is easily the direct competitor (both in terms of comparative user experience but also what is stealing finite attention) and its usage is skyrocketing.

How high are the switching costs?

Very low as long as competing experiences match existing network effects

Consumer Expectation

Tik Tok (and other mature social experiences) is truly addictive and delightful. The polish bar is very high.

Vicodin?

Nope.

Understanding of the problem/opportunity

Very high (Vine was one of the experiences that started this whole vertical video movement)

Looking at how Byte differs in the above criteria, it's nonsensical to slap the same measurement of "viable" on both the homeschooling tool and Byte.

Should Byte be "embarrassed" by the first version of the product they release into the wild? Of course not! Users of existing social apps are used to the speed of Instagram, the touch controls of Snapchat, the content quality of Tik Tok, etc. On top of that, given the fact that they are selling vitamins in a world of high-quality vitamins, Byte realistically has a single chance to win over a consumer. Because they are not just trying to convince potential users that Byte is "fun" enough to keep on their phone. Nope. Their path to success involves convincing the masses that Byte is more fun than Tik Tok, IG, Snapchat, etc. And to accomplish a feat like that requires a very high level of polish.

When customizable app icons make sense...

The reason I decided to write this post was because I saw someone jabbering on the Twitter bird about how Byte's launch was overly architected and included a wide array of features that far surpassed the definition of "viable" for an early release. In short, the thought was that Byte waited too long to ship...

At first glance, I can see how it would be easy to arrive at similar conclusions.

Byte's launch included advanced customization settings for scroll behavior, profile page color, tweaking the camera layout, adjusting the volume levels when reading comments, and even selecting from nine different app icon designs.

Screenshots of the Byte mobile app

However, before declaring which side of "viable" any of those features fall on, let's first decide what measuring stick we are using to draw the line. Because it's different for every product. If you're launching a homeschooling tool that saves parents' valuable time vs. laboring in spreadsheets, then sure...the experience can be pretty rough around the edges and still get the job done. Heck you could probably launch in non-responsive grayscale with a few bugs and still move the needle.

On the other end of the spectrum though, if you're entering consumer social and going head to head with established giants. Then you damn well better have a polished core experience, and it might even be worthwhile to allow potential new users to customize that app icon on day 1 🤷‍♂️. In the case of Byte, I think they made the right choice.

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