Every entrepreneur worth his or weight in bestselling business books is familiar with the philosophy of the lean start-up—a stratagem which advocates learning, analytics and iteration, and offers a more measured approach to organizational progress and expansion. But equally important to note for modern executives is minimum viable product (MVP) theory, a business strategy which advocates shipping smaller and more polished, yet less expansive and robust products more rapidly. Using its principles, businesses are able to rightsize products or services, bring them to market faster and more quickly generate stable income that can be reinvested into new iterations. Supporting efforts also provide ample opportunity to solicit feedback and generate excitement among select target groups of customers.
According to advocates, it’s far preferable to produce a less complex product that’s built around a few artfully realized features versus spending time and money on a far-reaching venture that tries to be all things to all people. By doing so, proponents say, you’re able to produce sharper results on tighter turnaround, offer more timely responses to market developments, and bring cash in the door faster, allowing for healthier, more organic growth. Moreover, once on the market, initial products can be used as an interactive focus test unto themselves, providing the chance to source consumer feedback that can be directly incorporated into future iterations. Here are a few expert hints, tips and strategies for designing a product around this philosophy.
Plan extensively up-front and keep production cycles manageable. When scoping out a product and plotting a production calendar, by all means strive to innovate and push boundaries. However, a lot of companies undeniably kill their products through over-ambitious designs—a problem more commonly known as “feature creep,” or trying to cram in too much. One product can’t hope to please everyone though, and focus produces enhanced results. It’s far better to serve a niche with a brisk, but polished product with a handful of innovations than it is to produce an incredibly complex product that does many things poorly.
Before entering active production, make certain to trim every bit of fat from concepts and designs, and prioritize the building and testing of prototypes that offer a vertical slice, or working sample, of the end product. This will allow you to quickly get a sense of how well concepts are coming together, create a working demo that’s ready to wow onlookers, and ultimately produce a clean, polished product that makes consumers happy and gets them talking. Be sure to source customer feedback as you go too, so that you can make adjustments to product designs and craft marketing strategies accordingly.
Release in parts versus one big whole. Spending upwards of 12 months to develop a grand-scale product means that you’re taking a huge gamble. The virtual equivalent of reading tea leaves and hoping you’ll correctly divine where the market is headed, you might as well throw darts at a board and hope they’ll land on the correct guesstimate. Stakes are higher than ever today for those speculating on cultural zeitgeists as well. Fail to accurately interpret market forecasts, and your product effectively exists in limbo burning overhead for no good reason, only to flop when it’s eventually released.
Instead of attempting to project so far out with ambitious designs, consider releasing more limited versions of your product in waves over the course of the same time period. That way, consumers can have access to the product sooner rather than later. This allows you to discern if a project’s connecting out of the gate at less expense, start the process of brand building, and bring in revenue streams more rapidly that can help fund future projects. Moreover, a more piecemeal release schedule makes it far easier to respond to breaking developments in the marketplace, and tailor future versions of your product around direct fan feedback.
Too many entrepreneurs spend millions up-front creating lavish websites, apps and services that hinge on consumers pressing a single button or answering a specific call to action. As MVP strategies illustrate, perhaps it’s wiser to see if you can cause any action first before committing to thousands of man-hours of production, or piling more expensive functionality on the back-end.
Expand only as progress dictates. It’s important to get a polished, functional version of your product into the public eye as quickly as possible. But from there, you should also make a point of growing organically according to actual cash flow, and criticism and compliments from consumers. Expanding too fast or launching a huge product with a “bang” can potentially overwhelm your financial wherewithal or overwhelm the customer. Instead, it’s often smarter to grow at a slow and steady pace so you don’t needlessly inflate head count or monthly burn, and give a product the chance to evolve and find its core audience.
Too many companies start with an overambitious plan which they’re pre-committed to adhere to, or push too far too fast in the hope of growing rapidly to meet investors’ expectations. The wiser goal: Work to build a small, loyal fan base and stable recurring revenues, then reinvest in expanding your product and company. Once stability’s been established, you can see what’s working and adjust strategic roadmaps and plans for expansion or acquisition accordingly. Military theorist Carl von Clausewitz once observed that “no plan survives contact with the enemy.” As battle-hardened executive generals leading their troops to war well know, being flexible and able to turn on a dime is crucial to survival, today more so than ever.