I’ve been pondering this post for a long time. Any student of startups is probably familiar with the phrase Minimum Viable Product. It’s really a simple idea, and I think it embodies an important philosophy for anyone starting a company. The idea is that your product(whatever it is; e.g. a service, a physical thing, or some software) should be as small as possible, but still be a working, viable product that customers will buy.

The concept is fairly easy to understand, and I don’t really think anyone misunderstands the idea. However, the execution of that idea is incredibly difficult. Who knows why this is the case, but I’m going to postulate that the terminology is getting in the way.

Let’s get some definitions out of the way.

  • Minimum. The least or smallest amount possible.
  • Viable. Capable of working successfully.
  • Product. An article or substance that is created or refined for sale.

I don’t really think anyone has a problem with these terms individually, but put them together, and I think many people have wildly varying interpretations of their definitions. One reason, I think, is that people unknowingly emphasize the wrong words. Let’s break it down even further.

Minimum

This may be the most important word. Yet, I think it often gets the least amount of emphasis. Honestly, if I were to change the phrase (and I am!), I’d keep this word. It’s perfect. We want to do the smallest amount of work possible, but we need to strongly emphasize that.

This is hard to do. People like to make things more complex than they need to be.

Viable

Here’s where things start to get confusing. The problem is, that many entrepreneurs (especially first-timers–myself, included!) very rarely agree on what will work. It’s also very tempting to try to build a solution without fully understanding the problem.

I say it’s OK to not fully understand what you’re doing (that’s what startups are all about!), so it’s even more important to adjust your definition of viable. And, you know what? It’s much smaller than you realize.

Product

This is where things really get confusing. When you say the word product, many people start thinking features! Seriously, go to a business guy, an engineer, or anyone that calls themselves an entrepreneur; sit down and brainstorm a new “product”. Start making a bulleted list of all the features that you’d like to see, and then tell me how many pages you have after an hour.

That’s the problem. People envision a product as a fully featured, complete, does-it-all-with-bells-and-whistles… thing. As soon as you speak the word product, you’ve already started having feature-creep, and you’ve already forgotten that all-important adjective:minimum.

Build a Minimum Working Thing

I’ve complained long enough, so now I’m going to propose a solution. In the tech-startup world, I suggest that we ditch the phrase Minimum Viable Product, and adopt the phraseMinimum Working Thing.

Again, let’s break it down:

  • Minimum. Do the least amount of work possible. This is important! You know why, right? If you’re in a startup, you’re going to have to go back to the drawing board. You’re going to have to re-work some things. Build less up front in order to save yourself some time later on.
  • Working. Deploy something that works. Remember, you’re just as interested in failure as you are in success. Your first few iterations don’t have to launch your company into success. They have to teach you the direction in which you need to travel. If people can use it to do something, then it’s working. It doesn’t have to be successful.
  • Thing. Don’t build a product. Don’t build features. Just build a thing Yes, I’m being intentionally vague, because your thing may be very different from someone else’s thing. In fact, take that long list of features that you think your product needs, and circle the first item on the list. That’s your thing.

So there you have it. Ultimately, forget what you think you need to build. Instead, build something really small that works, and let your customers start using it. Then, pay close attention to what they do and how they use your minimum working thing. They’ll guide you the rest of the way.