Framing Your MVP

Every so often, we try to highlight operators or practitioners who are experts in their fields. We were recently introduced to Khalifa who’s Framing your MVP talk resonated with us. We thought it gave prescient advice on building MVP’s and would be a good guide for startups in Southeast Asia. Hope it helps you.

In this post we’ll cover a simple three-step process of framing your MVP and we’ll cover an example of creating a functional MVP by piecing together existing tools and services.

MVP stands for a Minimum Viable Product and is used to validate your value proposition. In other words, to see if people would buy whatever you are thinking of building, before actually spending time and money building it. There are tons of good posts and Youtube clips explaining what is an MVP so we won’t go into details here. But something that should be pointed out: MVP is not the first crappy version of your real product. MVP is an experiment you use to make sure people will buy your product when you actually build it. In my experience it’s best to build your MVP thinking it will end up in the trash after the experiment. It’s just a tool to learn.

So… Why not just build the real product? Why create this thing that will end up in trash?

The reason is simple, you most likely don’t yet know what you should build. You have assumptions, yes. But an assumption is just that. A guess without facts to back it up. Nine out of ten startups fail. And out of the ones that don’t fail, 75% reported to significantly change their plans along the way. Considering this, the changes that you already know exactly what to build are kind of small.

Which leads to the famous quote, fail fast. And oh boy I wish someone had told me this back in the day before I made the common and painful mistake of building something huge that no one wants to buy. And let me tell you, it’s not a good situation to be in. I’ll spare you the painful details, but this is something I see happening all the time: We talk about building something small, just an MVP, and then end up wasting time and money building something way too big for an experiment.

So why does this happen? There are two main reasons:

1. You fall in love with the solution.

You don’t care about the problem you are trying to solve for your customer and instead focus on pushing your solution down their throats. This usually leads into a vicious cycle where your customers tell you to add just one more feature (which ends up being ten) and then they will buy it for sure (they won’t). By this point you’ve already invested a lot of time and possibly money and it feels impossible to turn around, so you just keep adding features hoping the next one is the one that will make them buy. (it wont)

2. Outside pressure triggers your ego.

When you are in a startup, you might feel enormous pressure from your friends and family, and you want to make them proud. Or you left your day job and now you feel the need to prove your ex colleagues that you made the right decision. Both of these lead you into thinking that the first product has to be amazing to impress them.

The solution is to keep in mind that you are not yet building your product, you are just validating your value proposition. Time for glory will come later.

Framing the MVP might lead to questions like: Ok so it should be small… but like how small? What should be included and what not? These are surprisingly difficult questions.

One solution for is to follow this three-step process of framing an MVP:

  1. Identify core value
  2. What can we remove and still deliver the core value
  3. Plan how to deliver the core value with minimal resources

Let’s take a look at this process using this example: we are planning to create a mobile app that would help customers find a suitable doctor and have an appointment with the doctor from the comfort of their homes. Building the app and infrastructure needed for this would require quite a lot of time and money, and it’s hard to justify the investment with no proof of demand.

Identifying Core Value

Think: if you were to delete every feature but one and still deliver the core value. What would be that one feature?

The best way I have found to identify the core value is to draw a simple customer journey to map out your main features. At this step, you can keep it very high level and list just the main features related to every step of the customer journey; like signing-up, browsing through the available doctors, a search functionality, scheduling an appointment, payments etc. Then do an exercise where you choose one and only one feature, the one that creates most value to your customer. In our example case It’s easy to get excited about features like using machine learning algorithms to determine who would be just the right doctor for the customer. Or enabling customers to stay in touch with the doctor through a slick chat feature. However, when we are only allowed to choose one feature, the choice is obvious: it’s the actual online appointment. This feature creates the core value: meeting a doctor from the comfort of your home.

What Can We Remove And Still Deliver The Core Value

In most cases, it is not possible to ONLY have the feature that creates the core value. You usually need a handful of features, kind of like vessels to deliver that core value feature. You can use the same customer journey you mapped in step one to identify the necessary features to deliver your core value. At this stage, you might want to list the features you have in mind in a more detailed way. I prefer using sticky notes on a whiteboard, but I know some of you are more comfortable on a spreadsheet or a document, so use whatever tools suit your workflow the best. The trick is to go through every feature one-by-one and ask: can the customer get to the core value without this. Try not to think about how will we do this at this stage. Just focus on removing everything that is not necessary.

Let’s take a look at our example telemedicine app. We are able to scrap a lot of features, and at the end we’re left with just four:

  • Signup
  • Payment
  • Scheduling an appointment
  • Video call appointment

The purpose of this MVP is to validate the value proposition of meeting a doctor via video from the comfort of your home. A buying customer is always the best form of validation. So even though you might argue that signup and payment are not 100% necessary to deliver the value, they make the experiment more valid. Video call appointment generates the core value and scheduling that video call is a necessity to get the doctors onboard.

Plan How to Deliver The Core Value With Minimal Resources

Now that we have identified the features of the MVP, it’s time to start thinking how do we hack together something that makes those features a reality but uses minimal resources (mainly money, time and effort). Luckily, today we have access to thousands of easy-to-use tools and services you can use to stitch together a working MVP without doing any coding. I’ll add a list of my favorite resources to the end of the post, but trust me there are thousands. Let’s go back to our example app. So we identified four features we need to create: sign-up, payment, scheduling and video call appointments. Here what we ended up with:

  • Signup: Google forms
  • Payment: Bank transfer
  • Scheduling an appointment: Calendly
  • Video call appointment: Zoom
  • (Automate everything: Zapier)

From a customer’s point-of-view the experience will go like this: you see an add about this cool new opportunity of meeting a doctor from home. You click a link and you see a simple registration form that asks for your name, email address, and let’s you choose from a list of doctors with different specialties and prices. Immediately after filling the form you will receive an email welcoming you to the service with a link to schedule your first appointment. When you click the link, you end up in a service that shows you the available time slots for your doctor. When you choose a time, you receive a calendar invite and an email with payment details. At the time of your appointment, you get a calendar notification, you click the zoom link in your calendar event and TADAA: you are face-to-face with your doctor. From the comfort of your home.

All the above steps are automated, and all the tools/services used are free of charge with some limitations.

In our example we use a tool called Zapier as a backbone that ties everything together. Zapier is the swiss army knife of piecemail MVP:s. It connects to over 2000 services and has a simple step-by-step UI that guides you how to create an automated flow of actions. The basic logic of Zapier is simple:

  • When this happens… (a trigger from any of the connected services)
  • Do this… (an action performed by any of the connected services)

In addition to Zapier, we use a tool called Calendly to handle scheduling. With Calendly the doctors can share their available hours and customers can use it to book their appointments. Both parties will then automatically receive a calendar event with a link to a Zoom call, and calendly even allows them to reschedule appointments straight from their Google Calendar.

In our case the first Zapier flow will look like this:

  • When: we receive a new google form response
  • Do this: Send an email with this topic & body to the email address in the google form response, including a calendly link based on the doctor chosen from the google form response.

You could create a slick landing site to replace Google Forms, Instead of email you could use whatsapp and instead of bank transfers you might use paypal or another solution that is available in your area. The key thing is to find the best solution that requires least time, money and effort to implement.

The example we used here was a piecemeal MVP where we use existing platforms to create something functional. There are a ton of other MVP approaches like faking the product (Wizard of Oz MVP), doing a smoke test or a manual approach where you intentionally hand-serve your customers. Here’s a post that offers several examples for inspiration. How to choose the right one? When possible, build a MVP that you can charge money for (like the example above) or at least offer a fake buy button to see whether users would pay for it. In some cases this is just not possible so a simple smoke test - create a landing page and try to get traffic and sign-ups - will teach you a lot about your customer and value proposition.

Resources

Some of my favorite resources for hacking together a MVP:

  • Zapier: this amazing tool integrates to more than 2000 services offering easy-to-do automation. Zapier is also an excellent place to get inspiration of available tools, just head to https://zapier.com/apps to explore.
  • Zoom: easy-to-use and reliable video solution with integrations to Slack, Zapier and so on. Especially useful at the moment with a lot of services being built for remote usage.
  • Whatsapp: most people already have whatsapp and are familiar with its powerful features like location sharing, group chats, sending pictures and documents etc.
  • Google sheets, Google forms: easy-to-use, accessible (no apps needed), free and powerful. Google Sheets can be integrated with just about anything through zapier.
  • Wix: is one of the easiest ways to create a simple landing page. You can easily connect it with Google Analytics and Facebook Pixel making it a powerful validation tool: create a digital marketing campaign and see if your value proposition is strong enough to generate traffic and make them perform an action like sign-up or click a buy button.
  • Shopify: Shopify is the most straightforward way to validate an e-commerce solution. You can set it up in minutes and it includes everything you need to start your online business: ready made templates, payments and options for shipping.
  • Bubble: if you think you need to build a mobile app, this might be the way to go. No, you can’t use it to build real mobile apps, but it is a drag and drop interface to build good enough mobile web experience that kind of feels like apps. They have a wide selection of templates and trust me, this is good enough to validate most mobile app ideas.
  • Ui8.net + Adobe XD: Really want to see how a real mobile app would work? UI8.net has a good collection of ready made ui-kits available for around $15-30. You can buy one that is close to what you want to build, edit it with the Adobe XD (free) and have a clickable prototype ready in no time.

Today it’s easier than ever to get creative and build a functional experiment with a shoestring budget. Remember, you should consider your MVP to be an experiment, not a product (I know the naming is confusing). Think of it as a throwaway thing that will end up in the trash later, not the first version of your actual product.

At the end of the day, the team that learns faster will win. So don’t be one of the teams that spends months getting to market just to learn that their assumptions were not true. Be the team that enters the market in a week and after two months is already a veteran with clear understanding of what their customer actually wants.

Like the legendary boxer, Iron Mike Tyson once said: it’s about speed. Speed kills.


About the Author

Khalifa Manaa has made most of the mistakes in the book and wants to help others avoid some of them. The one he feels most passionate about; building something no one wants to buy. Hence you’ll often find him talking about the Lean Startup approach. Khalifa’s background is a mix of product design and business development from enterprise and startups in Finland and the Middle East. he’s a co-founder and CXO of RideHoop - a ridesharing platform, advisor and product owner of Layette - the award winning pregnancy app and co-founder of Next Level - a boutique consulting agency.

Ask Khalifa about: validating your business idea and about creating products your customers will fall in love with.

What you hear him saying a lot: “Right time is always now.”