“Minimum Viable Product” has always confused me. What the hell does viable mean? Is an idea “viable” when someone says they like it? Tweet it? Sign up for it? Use it? Pay for it? It’s so unclear that “MVP” has become a buzzword.
The problem is that a product can only be “viable” in retrospect. You can’t know it’s viable until you’ve launched it, had people use it, gathered their feedback… maybe even grown a successful company out of it. To prove viability takes time, at least enough to ride out the launch spike and valley of death. It could take weeks, months or years to really prove viability.
But “viable” isn’t just a misguided name, it also has a serious effect on the people launching it.
First, people strive to make a “viable” product before launching. This is the exact opposite of it’s intention. The whole idea is to launch early and test the market. In trying to build a “viable” product straight away, they have the perfect excuse to delay and delay. Don’t launch a viable product, launch a test.
Second, launching a product with the “viable” label creates a hindering psychological barrier to the idea that it’s a test and you’ll likely need to pivot.
Segment.io’s history is actually perfect illustration of the difference between launching something testable, and the longer term search for viability.
The first “test” for Segment.io wasn’t a product at all. It was a souped-up for loop with a nice API called analytics.js. It could send data to four different analytics tools. At the time, I disagreed vehemently that we could build a business around it, and since it felt like a distraction I wanted to kill the idea as fast as possible. So I convinced the other guys to submit the open-source repo to Hacker News, thinking it would just get quietly ignored into oblivion. Quite the opposite. The repo went straight to the top of HN and gathered over a thousand stars on Github in the first day. It was a fantastic test. My doubts were removed immediately.
The interest on HN and Github clearly showed there was a market, and PG’s advice was “Try it out for a month. Can’t hurt.” So we did.
In January 2013 we launched a hosted version that drew several thousand signups. A bunch of those early signups became active users. A few weeks later we released server-side libraries and support for more integrations. In June we launched mobile libraries. In the second half of the year we closed our first enterprise contracts and the team grew from 4 to 11. Throughout the year our userbase and monthly revenue grew consistently.
After not understanding it initially, I’m now Segment.io’s biggest fan. We have an opportunity to build a great company and a product that changes the analytics market considerably.
But when exactly did the product become “viable”? I don’t know. And it doesn’t really matter. The definition of viability seems to be a moving target that started with “does anyone use it?” and has now ratcheted up to “is it profitable?”
Viability is always the goal, but on the road to viability, testability is much more important. Analytics.js was testable, the first version of hosted Segment.io was testable, and every product change since then has been testable. Being testable is actually useful.
So stop calling them Minimum Viable Products. They are Minimum Testable Products.