By Aron Solomon
The past few weeks, I advised several entrepreneurs who are trying to bring a product or service to market. Each is struggling with whether the Minimum Viable Product (MVP) they’re launching is too minimum and would therefore be un-viable. The notion of the MVP has always had its pros and cons, but the often bitter cocktail of time pressure, competition, and agile software development made the MVP the ongoing easy choice.
I introduced my concept of the Initial Viable Product to these founders, as I have with many others, and it seems to have resonated with most. The IVP isn’t just a hyper-iterated MVP. It’s the first truly viable product you choose to launch. You’re going to be judged on the first thing you launch – everyone is. Incessant explaining that it’s just your MVP and it’s not really ready yet is sometimes fine and I’ve seen many, many other times where that’s the dealbreaker in itself. Why? Because your idea of minimal is far more minimal than that of the person you’re showing it to. Minimal is a sliding scale that will always slide onto you.
Looked at on the continuum of idea to completely finished (is anything ever actually is) product, the IVP is simply the release of a non-minimal product. Your IVP should eliminate any conversation about whether the product you’ve released is indeed viable. If your IVP is your presentation of unbaked pepperoni pizza, your MVP is when you present a can of sauce, a package of cheese, a Slim Jim, and a mechanical pencil sketch of an oven.
I remember a conversation I had when I was living in Beijing with an entrepreneur looking to reinvent taxis. Not the service itself (Didi and Uber were just about to be born) but the notion of the traditional Beijing taxi itself. How to make it safer, more fuel-efficient, less harmful to the planet, and all around better. Starting further along the continuum than an MVP made a lot of sense because there really couldn’t be anything minimal about the redesign of a taxi – it’s kind of revolutionary by nature. Especially a decade ago in Beijing, showing something minimal might get you laughed out of the room. Not having the connections and therefore the capacity (read: funding) to build a true IVP was an immediate and likely fatal show of business weakness. You went into the right rooms with the right stuff.
YCombinator explains why the MVP is by nature a process more than a product, and that’s fine for a philosophical discussion. But as someone with experience building physical products, the inherent instability of the MVP is often (but not always) more trouble and time than it’s worth. It’s true, as the YC points out, that an MVP isn’t something you build once and are done with it. But as was the case with my Beijing taxi example and with my own watch company, your initial product needs to be viable and sometimes designing and building the minimum just isn’t that.
I also think back to an exercise we did in a senior-level entrepreneurship class I taught at McGill University around a year ago. We were working with Alex Osterwalder’s Business Model Canvas and trying to figure out how minimal of a product we would need to reach viability, and therefore be able to apply the canvas. As we played with some real-world examples, the students were the ones pushing for what I define here as an IVP. For them, the MVP is essentially too malleable and they wanted something with a more clearly defined form. The MVP is great conceptually and students easily wrap their individual and collective minds around it. But when they begin to play with it in practice, it’s often not so great.
Lawyers also love the IVP. Jeff Zenna, a New Jersey lawyer, reminds us that the more developed an idea, the better and safer it is from the legal perspective.
“The further along an idea is, the better able a lawyer is to protect anything within that idea that the law sees as proprietary. This could include copyrights, patents, and other intellectual property.”
Aside from the IVP potentially better protecting our ideas, the notion of delivering the first thing we can, as long as we can argue that it is minimally viable, almost ironically runs counter to the startup ethos. “Just ship it” doesn’t mean just ship the airplane as an empty metal tube with engines, it means that you should focus from day one on shipping something great or at least good. Minimum is minimal and it seems that when we aspire to achieve the minimum, we often fall short of even that.
As to the concept of the IVP itself, I don’t think it’s an esoteric “How many startup angels can dance on the head of a pin located in Menlo Park?” discussion. The more we consider what we actually choose to release for even quasi-public consumption, the easier it is to set our intention of how we want our product to be perceived, discussed, and used.
About Aron Solomon
Aron Solomon, JD, is the Chief Legal Analyst for Esquire Digital and the Editor of Today’s Esquire. He has taught entrepreneurship at McGill University and the University of Pennsylvania, and was elected to Fastcase 50, recognizing the top 50 legal innovators in the world. Aron has been featured in CBS News, CNBC, USA Today, ESPN, TechCrunch, The Hill, BuzzFeed, Fortune, Venture Beat, The Independent, Fortune China, Yahoo!, ABA Journal, Law.com, The Boston Globe, and many other leading publications.