There are a lot of questions about building the MVP version of the app on this sub, so I decided to write a post based on recent discussions. I see a problem that a lot of founders are focusing on a solution that they invented rather than problems that people have. These are two different things. It’s nearly impossible to sell a solution to someone who doesn’t have a problem. I think of MVP as a solution, and way before implementing it you need to make sure that there’s someone who has an itch that it scratches. Otherwise you will end up with a product you will struggle to find users for, and unfortunately, that happens way too often. I’m so sad every time it happens to someone I know that I can’t be silent.
Basically what you need to do first is customer development. It’s not as fun and sexy as "building the product," it takes a lot of time, but there’s no way around it. You either force yourself to do it before building the MVP and doing the right stuff, even if you don’t feel like it, or you have to do it after you’ve created it. But it’s much harder to make changes when you already have a product, and you will feel pressed by the amount of time and money you would invest by that time.
There are several books on customer development out there, for example, "Lean Customer Development" by Cindy Alvarez or “The Mom Test” by Rob Fitzpatrick. I would also recommend classic “Lean Startup” by Eric Ries. Steve Blank, another author of classic books in startup community ("Four Steps To Epiphany," "The Startup Owners Manual”) recently wrote a blog post titled “Is The Lean Startup Dead?”. While he makes a lot of valid points, I still think that there are a lot of startups who don’t have piles of cash to do R&D forever. And in that case, doing customer development is the only way I know.
I’ve worked and talked with many founders who think that they need to build an MVP because their approach, their specific solution is what is going to drive users to their app and there’s no way to validate the idea then actually build it and see if it sticks. While it may be right for certain cases, usually it’s not. After all, people are not buying the solution you have. They are buying an option to get rid of their problem, their pain. Let’s say you are building a dating app. Nobody cares about the sleek design or advanced algorithm you have. These things are secondary. You typically build an app that cures specific pain — for example, an app where rainbow unicorns can finally meet each other without the need of swiping left all those humans they’re not interested in. That's why unicorns are going to use the app, and you can fake it easily without the need to actually build a full-blown app. For example, you can email everyone who signs up their matches. If there are enough early adopters who have this pain, you can start building out things and convert the service to an app, but it’s not required as long as it provides service.
Customer development is about defining who your target users if are and interviewing them. It is crucial to ask the right questions. If you are asking someone on the interview about the solution (here’s my app, would you try it?) then you most likely get a positive answer, but that’s precisely what "The Mom Test" book is about. You should be asking about the problem. Are there enough people who have problems you are trying to solve? If yes then you should be able to offer them something else than an app, for example, you can offer them to manually solve the problem. Will they sign up for that? Let’s say you tell them there’s a chatbot they can write messages to and it will talk to them. Will they use that bot? You can fake a bot like that by just sitting on the other side and helping 10-20 people, or even hire assistants to do that (fake it till you make it), but can you get enough people to use it? Because it’s not about the solution, it’s about the problem.
Most people don’t even realize they have this problem before you ask them (that’s why you shouldn’t ask directly) and will forget about it right after the interview. There are five levels of awareness:
- Completely unaware. They don’t have a problem or don’t know they have it.
- Problem-aware. These guys know they have a problem but have no idea that a solution exists.
- Solution-aware. They know that there are solutions and probably use something
- Product-aware. They know that your product exists but don’t know if it will work for them
- Most aware. They know about your product enough to buy
You need to understand where in this scale are people you are talking to. Because if they are in groups 1 or 2 then while they say they would use your app they don’t even think about this problem a lot. And if they are in groups 3-5 they are already using something, and they are more interested in fixing the problem (depending on how much it bothers them of course). They don’t care if the solution has terrible UX or costs $9, as long as they get their problems solved they are ok.
But that’s problem-centric point of view. There are also things like hype and network effect that you can use too. It’s just a different thing, and again it’s not about the MVP but about how good you are at creating hype around your product and getting influencers brag about it. If you’re going to use hype and you’re good at generating it you can validate the idea with a pre-launch page.
I know it’s hard to shift the mindset and approach your project this way, and you don’t have to. The beauty of capitalism is that everyone gets to make choices on their own. If you have the big budget that can be spent on R&D and multiple pivots then it's great. But there are no shortcuts in business, and you can’t get around customer development.