No, you don’t need a damn app for your MVP

I just need a developer for my MVP

We've all heard this song and dance before, business minded founder of an idea (hustler) is ready to go to market and 'just needs a developer' (hacker) to build it for him. I was this person at one point, the hustler. Searching for any poor soul to code my idea so I could finally get my startup off the ground. I was wrong. Then I thought, well, why don't I just learn to code? Then I can just build it myself and not have to worry about finding someone. This helped a bit, but took way too long for me to really suggest it to many people. Really it helped me realize that I maybe need to know just a little bit of code (HTML, CSS, WordPress, Zapier, APIs, etc.) to get something started. And often times, a little bit of code is way too much!

You don't need a logo

Of course, at some point you're going to need a developer or engineer. But that is not until you have figured out a lot of things. We hear the term Minimum Viable Product (MVP) and yet I see development studios advertising that they will build you your MVP. How can this be true? How can you need a development studio to build your minimum solution to solve a simple problem for a few early adopter customers? Most of the time, you don't need any code, or a website, and you sure as Hell do not need a logo! Want to go on Fiverr and get a logo? Fine, its $5 what do I care? But please do not sit and think if the third letter should be blue and please do not hire a design firm. Now, this is not always true. But most entrepreneurs I run into are trying to come up with some kind of SAAS or app or ecommerce site or something along those lines. For a lifestyle type business of selling t-shirts, you're not really solving a problem... so I'm going to ignore those. I'm talking about a startup that is trying to solve a problem for a customer, usually its a big problem (at least it should be) which means that the early adopters will not care that you don't have a fancy app or website. I promise! Eventually, sure, you're going to need nice UI, a sales / marketing strategy, and a solid brand to recruit your next 10,000 customers. But for now you need to focus on one thing and one thing only.

Your Riskiest Assumption

This is what you need to de-risk, and it isn't always solved by an MVP. If your riskiest assumption is that group X has problem Y then you need to go talk to like 100 people in group X and talk to them about problem Y. Eventually, you're going to get to this question: will someone pay me for this? That's where the MVP comes in. Its a tradeoff, you provide a little value to help solve the problem and they give you a little currency. Don't worry about price optimization or conversion rates or even your costs. Just prove that some human being is willing to give you their hard earned money (or time, email, etc.) for a solution to their problem. Will your dream app solve this problem much better? Will it scale much easier? Will the full breadth of your idea be encompassed in the beautiful design and UX of your web app? Yes, yes to all. But that isn't why you build an MVP, not for any of that? Your MVP can / should be you and your co-founders manually doing what your app is going to do. Have an idea for an awesome flight app that finds the most convenient flights? Have someone email you their flight times / rough budget and search on kayak yourself. Usually this is done by manually recruiting people. Find a friend who is about to travel and ask if you can send them a daily email with some good options. If they book one of the options you find, have them buy you lunch. The point is, one of the riskiest assumptions is that your particular service is worth anything at all. Just do it yourself and see if you can get anyone to pay you. If you can't find someone to pay a small amount for that kind of concierge service, what makes you think you're going to find a few hundred thousand to get it over the internet?

Keep it simple you idiot

Trust me, I'm an idiot too and have made this mistake myself. I've come up with an 'easy' way to test something that turns out to take weeks to build. Instead, I should have just gone out of the building and tried to test it in real life... now! Try this when you're thinking of your MVP design: think of something so simple, so unscalable and so manual that when you tell your co-founder, you are 100% sure they will laugh in your face. Seriously. Make it amusingly simple. Leave a rough outline for an idea / product / service in the comments and I'll try to make you laugh with an MVP idea (yeah, for free). The only thing that matters is that you solve the problem at least a little bit for the early adopters. Then you can grow from there.
MVP Illustration

One of my favorite illustrations of how to build an MVP

Example MVP laughter

As an example, this is an idea from some students I helped out a while back.

Customer- College students who study late at the library or elsewhere on campus

Problem- Walking home alone late at night (especially for girls) can be scary to dangerous.

Solution- App to match people who are walking the same direction so they can walk together.

Remember that when you're at the stage of needing an MVP, you're addressing your riskiest assumption and trying to prove 1 thing at a time. A risky assumption for this one, people will trust a service to find a 'safe' walk home.

Amusing MVP - This takes a couple steps, but is really simple:

  1. Print off flyers with some headline and a student email address: "Tell us where you're going & when and we'll find you a safe walking buddy"
  2. Sit by your computer and wait for an email (emails if your lucky) at a library on campus.
    • Ideally, near the flyer so you can watch people read it and see what they do.
  3. Do one of two things
    1. The match is always you, so send them a photo of you and what time you're leaving. Go walk them home.
    2. If you're worried about safety or anything to start, reply back "sorry, couldn't find you a match but here is a free Uber ride home. Tell your friends to check us out tomorrow night."
  4. If you walk them home, talk to them about why they used the service, etc.
Okay, I'm no comedian. But, notice how there was no mention of the word "website" or "app" or even a form they need to fill out? All you need to prove is that anyone will give you some currency (in this case, it is their trust). The value to you is threefold:
  1. Proves that someone will trust your service
  2. Open conversation means you'll learn a TON about what they were thinking at the time of use
  3. Since you're doing it manually, they are almost guaranteed to get a good experience which means they're likely to tell their friends or use it again.

Finishing Up

I know I won't stop everyone from building an app as an MVP because you think you 'need an app to really get the value across.' Maybe you're right, but I think you're probably not.  Just think about how you could prove your value for just one customer, one time. Keep it simple and don't forget the M or the V in MVP.
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2 thoughts on “No, you don’t need a damn app for your MVP

  1. Here is my idea I could use some MVP help with:

    Customer – Someone looking to purchase a car in the next month, specifically interested in green (hybrid, plug-in, pure electric, etc.) vehicles.

    Problem – Green vehicles are intriguing because of the environmental impact, but most consumers are not knowledgable enough about them to make a $30,000+ purchasing decision.

    Solution – Dealership specifically for green vehicles (all brands) that has experts in the pros & cons for each vehicle and can offer advice.

    • Sounds like a cool idea, I’m all in favor of anything that helps promote EVs.

      Anyways, seems to me that the riskiest assumption is that people will want / pay for help with that purchasing decision. Assuming you’re at the point where you know that is what you want to test.

      I would find a customer (you’ll need to hustle a bit) and tell them that for $5 you’ll have a 10-15 minute phone conversation to learn about their needs then provide a written report of 3 vehicle suggestions along with pro’s & con’s for each.

      Its a good chance to have another conversation with a customer and learn what their concerns are when buying a ‘green’ car. You’ll also get some good feedback from them on your report- what info was useful, what wasn’t. This will help when you’re automating the process later.

      Remember, you can always refund their $5 if they refer you to a friend in the same spot.

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