There’s nothing worse than a never-ending project.
Maybe it’s because of perfectionism or because of a fear of selling, or maybe you started out with the wrong kind of product idea to begin with. Whatever the reason, when you keep treading water and a project never seems to come closer to the finish line, it saps your motivation and saps your budget until your business inevitably dies.
To survive and thrive online, you need to get your products and projects to market quickly. And in this post, you’ll discover exactly how you can do that.
Here’s what you need at the outset:
You start with a basic idea for your new project or product. This is very simple and you should be able to sum it up in one sentence. Example: “a meal-planning application for athletes”.
The next step is to formulate a USP. Yes, you need a unique selling proposition before you start working on the product. It doesn’t have to be perfect or brilliant. You just need one, so you have a potentially interesting advantage over your competition. Example: “my meal planning application works for people with vegan, keto and paleo diets”.
The third component is your plan and initial target. Here’s the formula you need:
Basic Idea + Details + Dreaming Big
Use Evernote to record every idea you have, related to the project. What will it look like? How will the product be delivered? What are some amazing features that you want in a future version of the product?
This is NOT about creating an elaborate business plan. This is NOT about creating a 50-page in-depth strategy document.
At this stage, those would just amount to busy-work and “active procrastination”.
What we’re doing here is simply recording those ideas that are buzzing around in your head anyway. Most likely, you can complete a document with these three steps in less than an hour. In some cases, it might take some time to come up with a USP, but even this will be done before the end of the day.
For example, one of my older products (WP Sharely, a WordPress plugin), started with a simple outline of just 1 page of notes.
As you can see, that’s just one page. With a lot of white space.
Yes, there are more notes that I cut off from the bottom, but the core of the document is tiny. The addition thoughts are just ideas that I record over time, as they come to me.
Also, it’s far from perfect. Do I have a mind-bendingly brilliant USP?
No. Far from it.
Really, all I have are a couple of things I didn’t like about all the content lockers I’d ever tried before. My USP amounts to “mine won’t suck like those do”.
The above is good enough. It’s not even close to being brilliant, but it’s a project that we got to market in a matter of a few weeks.
I wanted it for my own use and as an upsell to a plugin I was already selling: Hybrid Connect (now Thrive Leads). We got it done as quickly as possible and it brought in $20,982 in the first two months. That’s the value of getting something to market fast.
Once you’ve got your basic outline, you need a minimum viable product (MVP). Think of the MVP as the smallest version of your product or the simplest preview of your product, that you can use to get some feedback from the market.
Here’s the key, which is widely misunderstood in the Internet marketing space: getting a product to market is not about working fast or cutting corners and doing a sloppy job. The point is not to be in a mad rush and get your product finished as soon as possible. And neither is it a good idea to just create tiny, simple products, as a way to ensure you won’t ever spend much time on them. The key is to start with an MVP and then build your product from there.
Why does this matter?
Because right now, it’s just you and your idea. You assume that people will be interested in buying this, but you don’t know. And the only way to find out is to test.
A minimum viable product doesn’t only serve to get your product to market as quickly as possible, it’s also a clever way to minimize risk.
Picture two scenarios: in the first, you have your product idea and you’re determined to make it perfect. You spend months of time (and all your money) creating that perfect product. Then, you finally release it… only to find out that no one cares. You’ve risked it all and lost it all.
Second scenario: you have an idea for a grand project, but you start by creating a very simple MVP. It’s done in a few days and costs almost nothing. You release it and once again, there’s not much of a reaction. You now have two options: you abandon the project (no big deal, as you haven’t lost much) or you dig deeper and try to find out if people want something like your product, just not exactly what you had in mind.
Here’s an illustration, in more detail:
Why do we want to get a minimum version of our product to market as quickly as possible?
There are two reasons:
This second point is invaluable for any business. The way to build the perfect product for your customers is not to sit and think about it for a long time. It’s to start that feedback loop and discover what your customers really respond to.
There are two components to the feedback loop. The first is simply communication: whether you like it or not, your early customers will give you feedback. They’ll tell you what they do and don’t like. They’ll tell you when something’s broken or doesn’t work for them. They’ll ask questions that you’ve left unanswered.
The second is testing. This one is a bit trickier but also more important. People aren’t always very good at knowing what they really want. Sometimes, you’ll get suggestions that, if implemented in your product, will make one customer happy and everyone else unhappy.
I believe one of the best ways to learn about anything is by looking at real-life examples. When I was doing some research, trying to find examples of MVPs, I discovered that the term is often misunderstood. Most examples I found were really just stories of businesses that evolved over time. They may have evolved based on user feedback, but unless the first version of their product was deliberately kept small and created to test a product idea, it wasn’t an MVP.
With deep enough pockets, you can invest millions into building a complete product, learn that no one wants it and then invest further millions into turning it into a better product. But that’s not the point of an MVP.
With that said, here are some real examples of minimum viable products:
Few companies have had more hype or more controversy surrounding them, than Groupon. What’s interesting to us is how they got started, though.
Groupon was created by a team of people who ran The Point, a group activism site. The Point failed to gain much traction. Someone on the team brought up the idea of offering a platform for group-buying deals, rather than group activism.
And here’s the important part: the first reaction to this idea was not “yes, let’s turn this company around! Full steam ahead!”
The team recognized that this might be a decent idea, but that it needed testing. The MVP for Groupon was a simple WordPress blog, hosted on a subdomain (i.e. they didn’t even spend money on a new domain name). All the work was done manually, at first. They’d write a post describing each day’s new deal, they’d have people sign up for it and they’d manually send out PDF documents with the coupons, by email.
To quote Andrew Mason, the founder of Groupon:
“It was totally ghetto. We would sell t-shirts on the first version of Groupon. We’d say in the write-up: ‘This t-shirt will come in the color red, size large. If you want a different color or size, email that to us.’ We didn’t have a form to add that stuff. We were just… it was so cobbled together.”
You can get some idea of just how basic it was, by visiting the web archives (although styles are missing from the early pages).
As you can see, virtually no money was spent to get this idea off the ground. They didn’t build a group coupon system, custom design a website and then release it to see how it would do. They didn’t actually build anything or start investing until it was clear that they had struck a nerve with the Groupon idea.
Buffer is a simple app for automatically scheduling your social media activity. It can be used up to queue up a series of messages that will then be sent out on your Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn accounts, throughout the day.
The app experienced very quick growth and its beginnings are a great example of a minimum viable product.
Buffer started as no more than an idea and two simple pages. The first page consisted of little more than three bullet points, explaining what the product is about:
A click on the “Plans and Pricing” button by any visitor was interpreted as a signal of interest. Anyone who clicks is interested enough to at least consider signing up and maybe even paying for the service.
However, keep in mind that at this point, the app didn’t actually exist yet, so this is the page people saw, after clicking the button:
On this page, visitors learn that the app is not available yet, but they can opt in to receive an email notification as soon as development is done. This is very clever, because an opt in is a further signal of interest. In addition, the creators of the app are building up a mailing list of people who will be happy to be initial users and potential customers.
This MVP was shared on twitter and that brought in some initial traffic and enough feedback to validate the idea. Later, a page with a pricing table was added to the mix as well, to test what kind of price range people would be willing to pay, for a product like this. You can read more details in this post.
Buffer serves as an impressive example of how an MVP on a tiny scale with practically zero risk or investment can turn into a profitable business.
Kickstarter is a crowd funding platform. It works like this: you create an entry on Kickstarter, where you present your idea and a funding goal (the amount of money you need to complete your project). People who like your project can then help in funding it, by paying whatever amount they choose.
As you can imagine, Kickstarter is full of MVPs. In the gaming industry, Kickstarter has become a force to be reckoned with: small, independent studios have used it to reach new fans and make larger-budget projects possible.
From games to books to new tech gadgets, all kinds of projects are being funded on Kickstarter. In some cases, the projects aren’t MVPs at all, but often, a game will be pitched using nothing more than a short preview video (before any actual development work is done) or a book will be funded before the author starts writing. In these cases, Kickstarter is used not only as a funding source but also as a means to test whether there’s a real market for an idea. In addition, people who back the projects are the perfect candidates to communicate with and get a feedback loop going.
Zappos is a much lauded company. They are often featured as a shining example of a company with excellent customer support and a unique company culture. As it turns out, the humble beginnings of this billion Dollar company are also a great example of a minimum viable product.
When Zappos was founded in 1999, most people would have told you that no one is ever going to buy shoes online. Surely, with shoes, trying them on for size and comfort is such an essential part of the buying process, you simply can’t compete against brick-and-mortar stores with a virtual one?
Instead of setting up a large online store, filling a warehouse with shoes and then hoping people would buy them, founder Nick Swinmurn took a different approach: he set up a simple little site, went to local shoe stores and took pictures of the shoes there.
Initially, he would go and buy the shoes at the shoe store and then ship them to the customers who ordered them through his site. Clearly, this wasn’t profitable, but it was enough to prove, on a small scale, that people were in fact willing to order shoes online.
You can read more about the Zappos story here.
Most of the examples above are for fairly complex businesses – online retail, software as a service and game development (as well as many other Kickstarter projects) are great business models, when done right, but they aren’t ideal for beginners and bootstrappers.
I don’t discourage anyone from building, say, a software company if that’s what you dream of. But given the choice, I can recommend cutting your teeth on smaller, more easily manageable projects first. In this post about what to sell online, I made a similar point.
Luckily, creating smaller products, information products, memberships and the like doesn’t exclude you from being able to build, test and improve your ideas by using MVPs. As an example, we can take a look at my first self-created product.
The first product I ever created myself was an information product about search engine optimization. More specifically, it was about one aspect of SEO: building backlinks.
The product consisted of a member’s area with close to 30 video-lessons and several downloadable PDF manuals. It was not a small product by any means. However, I didn’t build a huge info-product like that just, just hoping that people would buy it; by the time I officially launched the product I knew people wanted it and were willing to pay for it.
There were many small, cautious steps and stages that led to this certainty:
The first step was simply the blog. Even though the scale was minuscule (I was happy to get 20 visitors a day, at that point), my early blog posts and interactions with just a few commenters showed me that there was demand for clear, actionable information about SEO.
The second step was in free reports. Free products are a great way to test demand for a premium info-product. Before starting work on my premium product, I released three free products. One was about the basics of setting up a website. I didn’t learn much from that. The second was about keyword research. I got a lot of good feedback from that. The third was also SEO related, but it flopped. This was also an important learning experience.
Next comes the mailing list. The freebies put only a few hundred people on my mailing list, in total. But it was enough to get a feedback loop going. It was enough to get a few dozen replies on a survey I sent out. From this basis, the idea that my product should be about backlinks, was formed.
Before the launch, there’s the pre-launch. Even with my idea formed and somewhat validated through surveys and other interactions with my small crowd of readers, I didn’t jump straight into creating a large-scale product. Instead, I created another free product, specifically about backlinks. This attracted more potential customers and strengthened the feedback loop.
Finally, I released my product at a very low price, when it was about 70% finished. This was the final validation: I now knew that people were willing to pay for my product and I had early customers to talk to, so I could refine the product before launching it publicly.
Are all these steps necessary, to launch a product? No, not by any means. I was probably too cautious and too slow, in this process, but it did end up paying off. Get more details on this whole process in the case study video.
Congratulations, you now understand what minimum viable products are really about. The essence of an MVP is that it is built to test an idea. It’s not necessarily a smaller version of a big product and it’s not necessarily a product that then evolves into a different product, over time. It’s just a test and whatever works, to test your idea is a valid MVP.
This is the aspect that most people don’t get about MVPs and where most examples I could find in my online research simply miss the mark.
The next step for you is to build your MVP. Set yourself a deadline for it.
Then scratch that deadline out and set one that’s much closer to the present date. Get it done by the end of the week or the end of the day, even.
And most importantly: no matter what your business idea is and no matter if you have practically no reach, get started!
It’s simple: the time to do something is NOW. What can you start working on right now, so that you can ship something by the end of the week? Stop sitting on your ass and dreaming about what you could build. Start building it right now. And ship it.
Don’t make it perfect, make it happen.
Do you still have unanswered questions about minimum viable products? Want to pitch your MVP idea and get some feedback?
Leave a comment below and I’ll personally respond and provide as much help as I can.
P.S.: If you want to dig really deep into this topic, read The Lean Startup by Eric Ries. It will forever change the way you think about running a business.
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I'm the founder of ActiveGrowth and Thrive Themes and over the last years, I've created and marketed a dozen different software, information and SaaS products. Apart from running my business, I spend most of my time reading, learning, developing skills and helping other people develop theirs. On ActiveGrowth, I want to help you become a better entrepreneur and product creator. Read more about my story here.
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