MVP stands for ‘minimum viable product’. It is a development technique in which a new product gets just enough core features for it to function.
The goal of the MVP is to quickly get feedback from customers and improve the product without having to invest a lot of time or money that could potentially go to waste. From the customer’s interaction with the MVP, the product can then go through cycles of improvement that result in a full-featured product that customers will love.
The term MVP is by no means boxed-in to just software development and code. Take a look at some famous examples of tech entrepreneurs using a minimum viable product to validate and improve upon their early products:
Zappos founder Nick Swinmurn took pictures of shoes at a shoe store and posted these pictures on his website. Whenever a customer ordered shoes on his site, he went back to the store to purchase those shoes, then packed and shipped the shoes to the customer.
This is what Facebook (or rather, thefacebook) looked like in January 2004.
The website showed pictures of students side-by-side and asked users to choose the “hot” one. The story of Facemash is pretty accurately portrayed in The Social Network, the movie by David Fincher and Aaron Sorkin.
Instagram didn’t start out as Instagram. It started out as … Burbn.
Kevin Systrom, the creativity researcher Keith Sawyer explains, was a fan of Kentucky whiskeys. So when he created a location-based iPhone app—one driven by the success of networking app Foursquare—he named it after the booze. The app was complicated, but it took Systrom just a few months to build: Burbn let users check in at particular locations, make plans for future check-ins, earn points for hanging out with friends, and post pictures of the meet-ups.
Burbn was not, however, terribly successful. The app was too complicated, Sawyer points out, and had “a jumble of features that made it confusing.” Systrom, however, kept tweaking the app. He paid attention to how people were using it. He brought on another programmer, Mike Krieger; the pair used analytics to determine how, exactly, their customers were using Burbn. Their finding? People weren’t using Burbn’s check-in features at all. What they were using, though, were the app’s photo-sharing features. “They were posting and sharing photos like crazy,” Sawyer notes.
At that point, Systrom and Krieger decided to double down on their data: They focused on their photo-sharing infrastructure and scrapped almost everything else. Burbn would become a simple-photo-sharing app.
As Sawyer puts it in his book Zig Zag: The Surprising Path to Creativity:
They also added filters. But simplicity remained their focus. In their final version, you could post a photo in three clicks.
After months of experimentation and prototyping—on October 12, 2010—Systrom and Krieger released a simple photo-sharing app. It was named not Burbn, but Instagram.
Dropbox founder Drew Houston created a simple video demoing how Dropbox worked. The team initially faced challenges pitching to potential investors because these investors couldn’t see how the product worked. The video, narrated by Drew, visually demonstrated Dropbox’s usefulness.
That was the name that Airbnb used before it became famous all around the world.
Brian Chesky and Joe Gebbia, the founders of Airbnb, lived in a loft apartment in San Francisco. They were struggling to pay their rent – which resulted in their decision to start a business.
They came up with the idea of providing accommodations for people coming to town. Brian and Joe took some pictures of their apartment, launched a simple website, marketed it a bit toward an audience who were coming to San Francisco for a design conference – and before they knew it, they had three paying guests.
This was their MVP – and soon after that, Airbnb expanded organically.
Again, the minimum viable product is more important as a learning tool rather than being about the product itself – it’s to first validate whether customers will use the product, then to highlight areas of refinement and additional useful features.
What I described above about the MVP also holds true in software and product development. The MVP should allow the team to collect the maximum amount of user data and feedback with the least effort. The challenge is defining what an actual MVP should include since there are so many stakeholders and teams involved with conflicting priorities.