How to build a Minimum Viable Product to test your location independent business idea

Lesson 1: when you search “MVP” for inspiration, make sure you’re not looking at examples of Most Valuable Players in the USA

A little while ago, we went to speak to a group of frustrated corporate employees about how they could break away and set up their own location independent business.

Once we’d got over the excitement of having a “speaking engagement” and bored everyone we knew about it, we noticed two main themes in the questions that were asked:

  • People who had a desire to start a business, but a lack of ideas about what the business should do
  • People who had an idea for starting a business around a passion (like a scuba diving enthusiast wanting to sell gear online) with limited knowledge of what the marketplace is like and what customers want

Ideas themselves have never been a problem for us – but if you do struggle with them, James Altucher has the answer.)

The tricky part for us has always been figuring out whether the idea is any good. And, over the years, we’ve constantly made mistakes – launching into coming up with names, logos and endless research into the logistics of the business…without stopping to ask whether anyone wanted what we’d be selling.

Enter…the Minimum Viable Product

The Minimum Viable Product (MVP) is an idea popularised in the book The Lean Startup by Eric Ries. The idea is that you create a product with the absolute bare minimum of functionality, so you can quickly see if there’s a market for it and find out what people think.

In other words, don’t spend weeks fine-tuning something that no one wants. Instead, put out something “good enough” as quickly as possible, then use your users’ feedback to guide future development.

As incurable perfectionists, this was a tough lesson for us to learn. And it doesn’t help that it’s really fun to sit and build out what you consider to be the ideal product, and not so fun to go out into the world and get feedback that might puncture your dream.

But if you’re working on an idea alongside your day job, or you’ve quit your job and need to figure out something that works as quickly as possible, building an MVP is the only way to go. Luckily, getting a MVP built and gathering feedback has never been easier – here’s a quick run-down of how you could do it.

Three steps to testing your idea quickly

1. Get out of the office (or bed/desk)

Whether you’re selling a product or a service, every business needs to solve a problem for a target group of people. The classic newbie mistake is to assume that something’s a problem, without going to the trouble of asking any of the people you’re planning to sell to. For example, you might assume that lawyers have trouble keeping track of their cases and need software to help them, but do they really?

So the first step is to get out of the office and ask your potential customers whether they’d buy a product to solve the problem you’ve identified. A happy side-effect is that this also forces you to identify your target market, and find ways to reach them.

This is sometimes known as customer development. Customer development should come before product development, because you can’t possibly know what makes a good product if you’ve not spoken to your market first.

In the case of someone wanting to sell scuba diving gear, it’s simply about talking to enthusiasts, finding out where they currently buy their gear from, and asking what they wish was better – in terms of the product range, pricing or anything else.

If you’re selling a traditional service where you know there’s a demand (like an accountancy service), you still need to identify a target market (like startups, or engineering companies, or one-man-bands) and find out what frustration they have with existing providers. Could you be the guy who offers a guaranteed 48-hour turnaround, or provides video guides to using accounting software?

2. Build your MVP

The form your MVP takes will be dependent on what you’re offering. For a service (like accountancy), it could be as simple as a one-page website explaining what you offer and collecting email addresses. For our wannabe scuba gear seller, it could be a basic off-the-shelf ecommerce store offering a few products.

The key is making your MVP good enough to get meaningful feedback, while spending as little time and money on it as possible.

You can even co-create your MVP with your potential buyers. By having a conversation with them about what they want, you can get them to pay you in advance to build the product of their dreams. Dane Maxwell talks more about this co-creation process.

Here are some tools you can use to develop an MVP:

Ecommerce:
- Shopify
- Big Cartel
- Storenvy
- Goodsie

Simple landing pages and lead generation:
- Unbounce
- Premise

Quick and easy digital presence:
- Flavors.me
- About.me

Blogging:
- Tumblr
- Posterous
- WordPress

Slightly more techie:
- Jetstrap
- Parse

There’s also a giant spreadsheet of tools used by startups here, which is frequently updated and covers lots of categories we’ve not mentioned here.

3. Tweak as you go

Once you’ve got a relationship with your target market and you’re offering a basic product, it’s then a process of tweaking your offer in response to feedback.

The key, though, is to make changes based on objective evidence rather than just incorporating every suggestion that someone mentions to you. People are generally really bad at knowing what they want – so their actions rather than their words should be your guide.

For example, for an online store you could experiment with offering free shipping and see if sales increase in a meaningful way. Or if you’ve got a simple website up explaining your service, you can list different selling points and see if one of them resonates more with your visitors than the others. This is known as A/B testing, and you can use a tool like Visual Website Optimizer to test out different versions with no technical knowledge.

What’s your MVP?

How could you use the concept of the MVP to test an idea you’ve had?

Have you developed an MVP in the past? Or failed to do so, and poured a lot of time and money into something that didn’t work?

Let us know, and ask any questions you have, in the comments!

  • http://www.InspiredPrimate.co.uk Alex

    Great stuff, thanks :)

  • http://jetsliketaxis.com Ryan from Jets Like Taxis

    High-five, Rob. This seems to be a major – possibly the biggest – problem for a lot of people we know who *want* to do what you two and us two do. Let the sharing commence.