The Minimum Viable Product is not so minimum anymore

madewithlove, Product Design

The Minimum Viable Product is not so minimum anymore

Jonas Van Schoote

Jonas Van Schoote

For the last decade every tech firm and aspiring app developer out there could count on the durability of one crucial structural dynamic in the market that affected everything from development timeline, to the go-to-market strategy, to the fundraising plan: The Minimum Viable Product, or MVP.

It was an article of faith among entrepreneurs and VCs alike that in order to get your product off the ground, all a startup would need would be the smallest, most compact, most rudimentary version of its product that performed the core function. Maybe it crashed once an hour? No problem. Maybe it couldn’t handle more than 1,000 people on the service at once? We can deal. Maybe the usernames weren’t secure? Who would know?

 In short, the market was willing to play the role of customer and beta tester all at once, for all new apps and services. This is no longer true because of several reasons.

But the fact of the matter is that those Wild West days of app development and market rollout are behind us and the term MVP needs a new definition. In the early years after web apps, as well as the iPhone and then Android became widely-adopted, the market was still getting used to apps. Back then, the adoption of web applications by the masses was still low. There was a thrill for early adopter customers to be using the newest products, and a kind of cachet came with being one of the first to use a new app. To the customers, the quirks and bugs in those new apps were an acceptable price to pay for being one of the cool kids who knew how to find these things. In short, the market was willing to play the role of customer and beta tester all at once, for all new apps and services. This is no longer true because of several reasons.

The market evolves

The whole market is now used to high-quality, high-availability apps. Google and Apple have been improving their platforms and operating systems relentlessly, and the big tech firms that make the apps that absorb most people’s time (Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Instagram) have set the bar for quality of service far higher than when web-applications were still a novelty. A decade or more after the first Apps were introduced, the customer knows the difference between good and OK. One Whiz Kid developer with a neat idea and a few weeks of all-nighters can’t break through the app market anymore. You need to build and test and improve and redesign your service to much higher standards if you want to get noticed now.

Regulators catch up to tech

Government is always playing catch-up to technology. And in the early days, this was to the advantage of the developer, because Anything Goes. As Zuck famously said of Facebook in its early days, they wanted to “Move fast and break things.” But the industry can’t keep doing that forever, and eventually, the government does catch up, which they now have with an ever increasing amount of regulations. This has big implications for app development and for startups in general. An example of this is the European General Data Protection Regulation, or GDPR for short. This puts much stricter requirements on tech companies to prove that they have the infrastructure in place to keep customer data safe. You have to ensure that you anonymize secure data like passwords, and have clear, functional, transparent procedures for customer requests about privacy. In short, you have to invest a lot more time in these basics even before you go to market.

You also can’t count on being able to outmaneuver government agencies in the race for any licenses or permissions you may need. In the early years, startups like Uber and Lyft could run circles around city governments and roll out their services before anyone knew what was going on. No longer. A recent example is what is happening with electric scooters in San Francisco, with Bird raising $100M only to be outlawed soon after by the city council. You’ll need to at least keep a close look on regulations that may affect your product and at best be talking to regulators well before you launch. This is a lot of steps beyond anything like a minimum product.

Real complexity from the start

In the early years, an app might roll out to a few hundred people, or maybe at the top end, a few tens of thousands when it launched. Even the most hacked-together server and back-end setup could handle traffic like that while you scaled the service, iterated the features and improved the design. But now? There are billions of connected devices. You need to be ready to scale up fast from the start. You need a much more robust architecture of the back-end than you would have ten years ago. Customers won’t put up with crashes anymore.

Where does this leave startups now?

The professionalisation of the app market and the end of the MVP as a viable strategy has some upside and some downside for developers. The downside is that if you want to tackle a major market, you’re going to need a lot more money, time, skill and personnel to roll out, and this makes it harder to start with your full app. But there are some ways you can address this problem indirectly, if you’re willing to think outside the box.

One option is to position yourself as an add-on to an existing app, and piggyback off their existing user base, infrastructure, technology, and procedures. This has the added advantage of helping you see more clearly inside “the guts” of a seriously professional app, so you can learn tricks for yourself. Or, if your niche is specialized enough, you could even start as an API, like Stripe or Cronofy. And if you can qualify, starting inside a tech incubator could help you overcome a lot of the technical and legislative challenges with professional assistance.

Conclusion

The wild days of the start of the industry aren’t coming back. But the upside is that customers know quality, reliability and usability when they see it, and good products don’t have to compete against a flood of unreliable apps anymore. In the end, it always comes down to definitions. We wouldn’t say that having an MVP is no longer possible, but minimum viable is definitely not the same anymore as it used to be. Here at madewithlove we’ve helped a lot of startups – successful or not – and learned from that. We now use that experience to help our clients to get to the right minimum specifications.


Get in touch with us today and let’s see what we can build together!


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Jonas Van Schoote

Jonas Van Schoote

Co-founder, independent learner, motorcyclist. Four words, one man. But (luckily for us) there is more to tell. This CTO knows exactly how to get to the essence of an idea and to translate that into technical concepts. All while keeping an eagle eye on the bigger picture, and the ethical side of things, in order to make web applications. Jonas claims to have figured in a movie that was shown at the Venice Art Biennale a few years ago. Oddly enough though, nobody can find any internet evidence of this, as the movie was only screened once during the festival.

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