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If customers hate your minimum viable product, good

A real MVP should disappoint customers—preferably, customers who love your platform and agree to pilot test new products.

If customers hate your minimum viable product, good
[GVS/AdobeStock]

I was once on the phone with a B2B software CEO who was heading for disaster. Our shared investor wanted us to chat about selling software to enterprises. This CEO passionately detailed how he’d spent years building a new product. “Ryan,” he said, “we have $30 million worth of software we haven’t released yet. I’m so excited to get this out.” To be clear, he thought this was a good thing—not a bad thing. He was certain all he needed to do was hit the “release” button and money would flow into his company.

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Alarm bells were ringing, but I couldn’t bring myself to tell him. This CEO was a good person and skilled technologist who’d raised over $90 million in venture capital. Who was I to rain on his parade? Sure enough, the product launched, the market rejected it, and the company pivoted into a new market. They struggled. They had launched a maximum unviable product rather than a minimum viable product and paid a price for it.

Today, with economies in turmoil and venture capital threatening to dry up, I worry that other entrepreneurs will make that same mistake. They’ll try to perfect and feature load their product, fearful that a frosty reception will starve their company of revenue and future funding. These CEOs could lose the opportunity to develop a product that the market loves. Their uncomfortable alternative? Launch a real MVP that users might hate.

THE MADNESS OF COMPLEX PREDICTIONS

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I believe in getting MVPs out early and collecting data to improve the product over time. While it’s fun to predict how people will use a complex system-like software, our predictions tend to be wrong.

Consider March Madness. This year, the tournament generated $3.1 billion in bets. Some of the smartest people in the world analyze the statistics, make brackets, and throw down serious money. Although millions of brackets are made every year, no one has ever made a perfect bracket for the men’s or women’s tournament. Not ever. Not after billions of attempts. The most perfect bracket known correctly predicted the first 49 games out of 63 total.

Launching a B2B software product is not unlike creating a March Madness bracket. It’s a complex set of interdependent predictions about what people will do. Whether it’s a crude MVP or a product reflecting $30 million of work, some key assumptions won’t hold.

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THE GIFT OF DISAPPOINTMENT

A real MVP should disappoint customers—preferably, customers who love your platform and agree to pilot test new products. Like in any round of March Madness, there should be upsets. Customers could hate a feature you thought everyone would love, and customers could love a feature that, in your opinion, didn’t stand a chance.

Disappointment is a gift because we launch MVPs to discover everything we didn’t and couldn’t know at the outset. My teammate Nick Bryner says it best: “You know the least about how something needs to work, and is ultimately going to work, at the beginning of a project when you’re doing an initial buildout.”

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Nick’s observation isn’t unique to technology. Screenplays go through a wild number of drafts and table readings before anyone dares to make the film (i.e., finalize the product). Same with books, political slogans, academic papers, and other creations that make complex assumptions about the user or audience. In my experience, no matter how polished it appears to be, an MVP needs brutal, unfiltered feedback to reach its full potential. If everyone likes your MVP, someone is lying, or you didn’t do anything innovative.

In tech, I believe the MVP remains the best way to gather data that will guide you toward a more defined and well-rounded product meeting consumers’ needs. That said, advocates and power users who test products don’t necessarily vocalize everything we need to learn. Thus, many insights to improve the MVP will come from reviewing usage metrics.

TOO SOON?

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At Filevine, we regularly debate about when or if to launch an MVP. Often, our salespeople are chomping at the bit to preview the newest, shiniest object, while the customer success team is terrified that the sales team is going to blow cover and embarrass Filevine.

Here’s my rule about whether to release the MVP: The value of a product needs to be meaningfully better than the pain a customer will go through to use it.

If the product is just nice to have, it has already failed—the value won’t outweigh the pain. To reach a bold, transformative product, you may have to frustrate, annoy, and disappoint customers first. Nobody wants this to happen. But to think it’s avoidable is naïve.

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You shouldn’t dismiss all the risks of a clunky MVP. You’re charging for access to the product, and if it stinks badly enough, it might hurt your reputation (hence, why Filevine takes it to friendlies first). That reputational risk is especially true for brand-new startups, which is why so many offer free or discounted products initially. Customers can’t be that mad at a company if they’re not paying for its product.

EMBRACE THE HATE

The opposite of a minimally viable product is a maximum unviable product that has neither time nor capital to evolve. When funding is tight and pundits are proclaiming doom from their Twitter street corners, it may feel safest to conquer every challenge in your industry with one perfect product. Usually, though, the effort to make that product is a colossal waste of time, energy, and financial resources. You could wind up overhauling systems later than you would have if you’d launched a real MVP.

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If customers hate your MVP, good—ask them why. To hate something, they must be emotionally invested in it. Customers won’t even hate a product they don’t use. They’ll just ignore it. Customers can tell you which of your predictions were wrong long before you spend $30 million. Unlike with March Madness, you get to make a new bracket with each iteration of the product. I believe MVP is a bet that cannot be lost if you listen to customers and evolve.


Ryan Anderson is the founder & CEO of Filevine, a project management, collaboration, and legal case management tool for lawyers.

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