This is a minimum viable blog post.
What makes it so? Because it’s a version of new content which allows me to collect the maximum amount of validated learning about customers with the least effort. (definition adapted from this post: http://www.startuplessonslearned.com/2009/08/minimum-viable-product-guide.html)
In other words, I’m trying to provide value to my reader, expending minimum effort on my part with the intention of starting a feedback loop and continuing to develop my ideas.
This post will contain the basics of what I know, without going into lots of detail and trying to have all of the bells and whistles it could have if I was really going to go all-out. It’s stripped down to a core essence. It’s not my final word on the matter, but it starts the conversation.
The term “Minimal Viable Product,” or MVP, has been around since 2001, most recently associated with Lean Startup business frameworks. Eric Ries is one of the people who popularized the term, and he gives us the full breakdown in his book, The Lean Startup. It’s about continuous innovation, which can only happen if you’re getting products and services out the door.
And that’s where a lot of us get stuck. We get the big idea, but we don’t execute on that idea. Or we stay in a beta or testing phase for too long and lose our momentum and even our interest. And of course, what often gets in the way of execution is the biggest bugaboo of them all: perfectionism.
I found myself wrestling with perfectionism for the past six months or so as I worked to develop an online course offering based on my new book, “The Introvert Entrepreneur.” In fact, it had been an idea since the book’s inception. That means it had been in the back of my mind for at least three years, then moved to the front of my mind over the past two as the book’s publication date came closer. Well, the pub date came and went, and I was stuck. I had an outstanding instructional designer assisting me, but I was still stuck as stuck could get.
So I did what I do these days: I took my stuckness to my mastermind group. These are five of the smartest people I know, and I had a strong hunch they’d have good feedback and questions for me. My hunch proved to be beyond right. As I shared my vision for the online course, one of my colleagues started talking about taking a step back and re-evaluating what I was envisioning. What was the purpose of the course? What did I want to accomplish?
What could be the minimum viable product that could be put out there just to get it moving?
It was that last question that had the life-changing magic effect. I literally teared up – okay, I actually cried a bit – and felt very emotional as he was talking. I felt a huge weight lift off my shoulders. I’d been so attached for so long to the product looking a particular way, I forgot I had choices.
With the group’s help, I re-imagined the online course as a virtual book group. Within 24 hours, I’d posted a promotional page on my website and started sharing the news on social media. And three weeks later, I hosted the first call with one of two virtual book groups that had formed.
After years of being attached to a specific vision, I was able to release it in 24 hours and make something happen.
A minimum viable product…
It’s not about putting out something that’s sub-par and not ready for prime time. It’s about having just enough functionality and value that you can test the market and begin data collection. And that’s so much better than investing enormous amounts of time, money and energy on something that’s beautiful when it launches, but still has bugs AND it turns out there’s not much interest.
As I move forward with these book groups, there’s a bit of “build the plane while you’re flying it” going on behind the scenes. And that’s totally okay. I trust myself enough to know I can handle that. In fact, there’s something liberating about it because I know I’m building a plane people want to fly in, because I’m getting feedback and implementing that feedback as I go.
If you’re finding yourself with a bunch of half-finished ideas or paralyzed by one big idea that doesn’t seem to make progress, here are some steps to help you move to an MVP approach.
Notice what you’re attached to.
Reflect on all aspects of your product. Does it have to serve 1,000 people? Does it need to have an app, a podcast, its own logo, at launch time? Does it need to make $x in its first week? It’s great to begin with the end in mind, but don’t get caught up in thinking that the beginning has to look like the end. If you find yourself saying, “have to,” “need,” “should,” or “must,” that’s an indicator there’s attachment to something. Question if those “have to” points are really true.
Whatever the attachment is, let it go.
Really. Let it go. Release it in service of making space for other possibilities. It doesn’t mean those things won’t come up again or ultimately prove important, but in the interest of moving forward, let it go.
Drill down to the essence.
This was an important part of my ability to make the shift from full-blown online course with lots of moving parts to a simplified virtual book group offering. When I thought about the bottom line of what I wanted to accomplish, it was to, as I shared with the publisher when I pitched the book, to make the book a living, breathing thing. I wanted people to read and take action, read and discuss. And oddly, being that most of my readers are introverts, I wanted them to do it in community, because even introverts can feel isolated and need more interaction than we get when we have our heads down and are focused on our business.
Because I’d always envisioned this online course, I forgot there were multiple ways to achieve the essence of my goal: to connect people through the book and provide a space for them to discuss and take action to improve their business. A virtual book group does that, and then some. The online course is still on the agenda, but now I’ve begun an evolutionary process, and the online course will grow out of the book group. This saves me energy and keeps me moving forward.
Imagine a “lite” version.
Take your project, offering, or product, and imagine it at maybe 50%. What are the core elements that would need to be retained in order for it to be viable? Are there “nice to haves” that can be put on the back burner? Be really honest with yourself (it’s just like writing – your favorite turn of phrase might be exactly the one that needs to be cut) about what stays and what goes. Put yourself in the mind and heart of your customer, and focus on what would serve them best, rather than what would serve your ego (ouch! I know… but we have to acknowledge that that’s what trips us up at times!)
Lead with curiosity.
Now that you’ve identified the MVP, continue to notice any attachments, let them go, and lead with curiosity. In some respects, you’re staying in research and development mode. While you launch with the intention that it’s a viable product, there’s a chance it won’t be. It might be rougher – or more ready – than you thought. The only way you’ll find out is if you stay curious and always be asking why different aspects are and aren’t working.
Embrace the feedback loop.
This is what makes an MVP so valuable. If you lead with curiosity, you’re going to create a strong feedback loop. Most often, the people who purchase an MVP are early adopters. They aren’t terribly surprised by bugs and glitches, because they know they’re getting a first generation product. That said, they’re not shy with feedback. You’ll hear the good and the bad. Take it all in, knowing it’s part of an evolutionary process and creating something new.
From my perspective, one of the benefits of an MVP is that you get a chance to fail fast so that you can improve more quickly and efficiently. This is not to say that your MVP is destined to fail. But it does mean that failure is always an option when it comes to launching something new into the market. The failure in this case will be smaller and of less consequence, because you’ve invested minimal effort to receive maximum feedback. Resilience builds when we’re able to recover from small set-backs and learn to trust we can handle them and keep improving, keep innovating.
One of my best friends is going to laugh when she reads this post, because when I said I was going to write a minimal viable blogpost, we both thought it would be a few hundred words and out. And as I type, I’m watching the word count pass 1,500 and continue to climb.
Despite that higher number, I still consider this to be an MVP blogpost. It’s just enough information to bring value to your business (I hope) and only took about an hour of my time. Of course, I’ve spent several hours off and on over the past few days thinking about it, but the burst of energy required to move it from my head to my laptop was short and enjoyable.
It’s a reminder that what’s an MVP to me will probably not be the same as an MVP to you. You have to use your best judgment. You know how much further you could go and where you’re drawing the line. And now that I’ve passed 1,600 words, I do think it’s time to bring this post to a close.
Here’s to moving past perfectionism, inertia, and attachment through the life-changing magic of minimum viable products!
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