Our Process of Defining MVP (Minimum Viable Product)

It seems this year in Q3 and Q4, all I can do is open twitter and see tweets and re-tweets by @ericries about MVP (Minimum Viable Product) and the lean startup. MVP has worked it’s way into the vocabulary of developer and product managers alike…everywhere I go it’s MVP this or MVP that.  Now, while I’ve lacked MVT (Minimum Viable Time) to read the entire book (running a start-up, a merchant services company, and consulting to pay the bills…all while juggling a newborn and family), I’ve been on the front lines living the lean startup with InspirePay (launched today!) What a journey.

For those familiar with MVP, you will probably shake your head at a year long project to get to MVP.  Let’s just say we started with a larger vision, what “we saw as an MVP,” ran out of capital (we only raised 1/5th of our intended round after a fast start), and had to focus hard to keep the project going.  Developer time was surely not a year, but it did take that long.  As funds dwindled , we went lean.  Our developers moved from vendors to partners, and our scope turned to… “let’s just get something solid out the door ASAP that does exactly what we want it to do, and only that.”  From the time we went heads down, if clocked full time, it would have been two developer months (or one month for two developers), once we focused on getting to MVP.  Not bad.

A few insights we gained along the way…

For Dojo4, MVP was basically a discussion of minimum.  This was very good.  “What’s the one thing we can do to get a product to market.”  For me, the focus was on Viable.  It was an intense process of holding the tension on both sides, and allowing the other to contribute.  The discussion of “what is MVP” was almost half the battle.  If there was ever tension, it was almost always around defining if a particular feature fit into minimum.  Minimum is a simple concept… you just strip down your idea to one step and surrender to simplicity.  It takes humility and team work.  Viable…. that gets very tricky.

Here is how we defined Viable…

Let’s start with the concept of a coffee shop.  We can’t say that a coffee shop is a door with a room, and cups.  It’s more than that.  To be a coffee shop, you need a counter, cash register, coffee, and water.  If you want to go all fancy you need cream, milk, etc. etc. etc.  But we can agree a coffee shop is not only a door with a room and cups, and that’s it.  To define viable, we have to know who we are and what we’re creating, at least conceptually, as an MVP.  There are probably many doorways to get to the definition of who we are, but for me, having been a strategist for years, we started with brand definition and used that to define viable.

When working with companies on branding and strategy, before a product is built, we define who a company is and why they are there.  We do some market research, see how the company is going to position in the marketplace, and define that position.  This isn’t poured in concrete.  It’s a guiding principle for the future.  If the company needs to pivot, than so pivots the branding docs.  Let’s admit it, companies are founded usually out of an entrepreneur seeing a perceived market opening, and then building a company to serve that need, or at least validate the opening exists.  With InspirePay, I define the company with Jay from Angry Bovine as having three core principles;  Simple, Options, Unique (each of these was defined further… so each was clear).  In this example, our MVP needed to meet all three criteria, OR we would have needed to change our brand promise.  MVP needs to match brand promise.  Coffee shop = coffee for sale… Web app = brand promise.  I’ve been working with our development partners (Dojo4… who are amazing FYI), and we said, ” if it’s not Simple, Options, AND Unique… it’s not InspirePay.”  They agreed, and the you can see the results in the product today.  But it wasn’t always easy.  It was like holding an amazing contradiction every step.

Our MVP required:

Simple: This was our guiding principle, and captured in our payment link:  https://inspirepay.com/pay/mark/10.00 Click on it, and enter your credit card data… I’ll receive the $10.00 with gratitude and use it to help fund further development.  How simple is that?  If I wanted you to choose how much to send me (like a donation or a crowd sourcing), I could have written: https://inspirepay.com/pay/mark/.  So simple.

Options: For me, “options,” means that there are multiple payment methods in the system.  We have Inspire Commerce, Authorize.net, Sage Payments, and Stripe in there today.  Doesn’t seem like a ton of options to me, but it’s our start.  PayPal, Dwolla, and Google Wallet are all coming very soon (some even this week!).

Unique: I felt like an MVP required the ability to, at a minimum, upload a logo and brand the page in a basic sense (title, address, web links, etc.).  Adding in background color management, header font color management, and background image management (ala twitter) were on my MVP list.  My “visionary” wants it to be more like about.me, but clearly that’s not an MVP.  Still, 4 hours here, 10 hours there…. we had to draw the line somewhere.  Background Colors / Font Colors / Background Images… these will be coming soon.

Getting to this point was NOT a week long journey.  We had to let go of a LOT, and were often pushed to let go of more than we finally settled for.  I can’t define MVP as something so narrow, that there is no defined brand present in a product.  At the same time, once I saw Simple, Options, and Unique in an MVP (We compromised on almost every line item except Simple), I knew we were good to go.  That’s the brand… that’s the first product we rolled out.  Was it painful to let go of the big vision?  Yes.  But honestly, I’d much rather have a product release this week than wait until March for something that is bloated and possibly not what people want.


MVP is a very powerful phrase for internet startups.  Minimal says we won’t get lost on our journey, or reach too large so we choke getting the product out the door.  Viable says we know who we are enough to know that we’re filling a market need (and the app needs to reflect that solution), and that we can deliver on our brand promise.  These two principles need to walk together, holding the tension of what often becomes a contradiction… the resolution being the final product.

MVP is an awesome guiding principle for development.  If I could sum it up into a couple words, I would say, “know thyself, and deliver your promise as quickly as possible with no frills, distractions, or bloat.”  As a founder, it’s a completely different way of thinking.  We sell vision, but in order to execute, I’m convinced that the best strategy is to make small steps daily rather than planning a huge leap for months only to find out you jumped the wrong way.

We launched today, and already we have had multiple emails and tweets from people we don’t know giving us praise such as: “@inspirepay, I’ve been looking for a service like this thanks!”  For me, I feel validated that we balanced Minimum and Viable for our launch.  As the founder, I have thousands of things I want built in the app today.  And we’ll build many of them.  But we’ll do so with our customers, walking hand in hand to deliver an exceptional product that just gets better and better day by day.