photo by http://www.flickr.com/photos/deanmeyers/
photo by http://www.flickr.com/photos/deanmeyers/

This essay is written as part of the Startup Edition project – check out the other essays here.

It would be awesome if your first iteration of a minimum viable product (MVP) perfectly addressed your target market segment, delivered great value to your customers, and you never had to change it again. However, that’s not what happens. Your first MVP iteration is the beginning of a build-measure-change cycle. When done right, you’ll deliver the product your customer wants to use for the job they want to get done. So how do you figure out how to find that customer, understand what they want, and deliver that product to them faster?

Finding your customer is the first task to making your MVP less wrong. If you’re baking cupcakes, who buys them? If you’re making software, what is the general profile of the person who should need what you’re offering. And what problem are you solving for that customer? A good problem statement for baked goods might be: “I’m delivering a donut for an underserved market that has specific allergy needs for people who like breakfast snacks once a week.”

Now that you’ve made a statement that matches what you think your customer might want, you should ask them what they want. This action can take many forms, from informal surveying of friends to more formal methods like online surveys, usability studies and tests. You need to be able to answer the question: what does your customer want? You might find they want different things than you think that target customer wants. So ask the question “do you ever eat donuts?” And also the question “what sort of donuts would you like to eat?”

You can uncover a more nuanced version of this question by asking what your customer needs. Often this need displays as a pain or discomfort that the customer wants to avoid. For our baked good example, a customer allergic to nuts might have very strong physical symptoms when eating a product with nuts – in fact, the decision could be life-threatening to some. Consider how strong that statement is: what does your customer need? Customers will display needs differently than wants, so make sure you watch what they actually do in a given situation rather than just asking them how they feel. Then, after you observe the need in action, ask them how they would feel when that feature/attribute/product is taken away. (Would they pay to keep it?)

If you can find a customer, ask them what they want, and uncover some of their needs, congratulations! You’re well on your way to developing your plan for an MVP. So why can you deliver this benefit better than anyone else? A suggestion: you won’t be able to deliver every benefit better than anyone else in the world. So focus on a small (a really small) thing that you can do better than anyone. And soon you’ll understand whether you picked the right small thing to focus on and whether your customer cares that you’re solving their problem.

You should also ask yourself – why is right now the time to deliver your solution? Try to answer the question: what’s the trigger for my customer to buy to relieve their pain by using my product? If you can deliver that benefit at the right time for the right customer better than anyone else, you’re getting closer. And if you have managed to avoid “boiling the ocean” by focusing on a small thing that you can measure, test, and learn from you’ll have an even better chance of making your MVP less wrong. At some point you also need to know whether the combination of the customer’s pain and the solution matches the set of things you can do at a reasonable cost.

How can you make your MVP better? Make sure you ask valuable questions of your prospective customers. Acknowledge their needs and their wants and respond by demonstrating that you’ve heard their needs and delivered something you believe addresses those needs. And build with the idea in mind that you will measure specific outcomes, learn from the actual behavior of your customers, and then change the MVP to make new experiments that get you closer to being less wrong, quickly.

This essay is written as part of the Startup Edition project – check out the other essays here.

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