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Mental Model for Minimal Viable Products

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Last week I gave a talk at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo (my alma mater) about multidisciplinary learning and minimal viable products.

One of the mental models I came up with was a theoretical framework for a “Minimal Viable Product” or MVP for short. In the post I want to put my idea out there for further refinement and get some feedback on it (in MVP style :))

Lets start with some basic definitions.

I like to define a minimal viable product as the quickest and simplest way to test a product idea in the open market. The MVP can be as simple as a signup form, or first prototype, or screenshots. The most important thing about MVP’s is how quickly you can put it out there to start getting feedback from your potential customers or whom you think your customers might be.

The reason why MVP’s exist at all is because it is much easier to test your MVP to see if people want your product rather then to build a fully functional product and figure out no one really wants what you made. An MVP is a quick way to test your initial concept before starting the product process.

The mental model I came up with for a MVP is inside a “while loop” a concept from computer science. A simple definition of a while loop is a “statement of code that can repeat given a boolean statement (true or false). If this is your first time ever seeing this concept I’d also suggest checking out Khan Academy’s talk on while loops.

With the basic definitions out of the way here is my mental model for a MVP:

while Traction is not True:
    Idea = Hypothesis
    Experiment = Market
    Traction = True or False
    Idea + Experiment = Traction

    If Traction = True
        Return Idea, go Build_Product
        Traction = False 

Lets break this function down and then also explore some interesting observations that come from this function.

The main premise of a MVP is you are trying to test for “traction” which I will explain in a bit. Inside the while loop your business idea is the hypothesis you want to test and you want to test this against the market. Said another way you want to put your idea in front of who you think your customers for the idea would be.

Once you run this experiment against your idea you will see if your idea generations traction or not. The True or False inside the while loop is a Boolean statement, which means you are either going to get traction or not.

One of the most difficult parts of this function is defining what “traction” means. It’s hard because there is no exact answer, e.g. if 10 people sign up for the beta release of your product that isn’t necessarily traction. Traction is much more of a gut instinct you feel when there is genuine interest, demand, or buying intent for your idea. E.g. If you’re creating a enterprise application and a large corporation wants to sign an Letter of Intent (LOI) as soon as they see your MVP that might quality as traction.

The best definition of traction I could think of is: if the reaction from your potential is significant enough for you to be excited and motivated enough to take the next step of building the first version of the product itself. The answer will either be yes or no (True or False).

If your MVP delivers traction then you are done and you move onto the build product stage, but if your MVP does not deliver traction then you need to iterate (change) your idea and try the while loop until you find traction.

Now for 2 interesting aspects of the MVP function.

Idea vs. Market:

The reason why you need to iterate your idea and not the market is because it’s really hard to change the market conditions during a short time period. It’s much easier to change your idea and try the process again.

But if the market you’re in is rising rapidly in your favor, your idea doesn’t need to be that good and it can still pick up traction quickly. These conditions probably lead to the “Powder Keg” startups Gabriel Weinberg, the founder of DuckDuckGo, was referring to in his recent blog post. This is also probably why you see a lot of variation of startups around fast-growing markets all during a short time period e.g. all of the Groupon clones, social gaming startups, and startups in the social/local/mobile space.

All this variation, a concept from Biology, is probably a key factor in producing companies that survive in the long term (also related to survival of the fittest). This could be a whole post in itself, which I might come back to on a later day.

The Initial Idea:

I suspect the idea which gets traction and the entrepreneur decides to go forward with would follow the Physics principal of Chaos Theory. Chaos Theory is a theory in which the initial state of a system drastically affects the result in a chaotic system. You might have heard the phrase “A butterfly flapping its wings in Africa can cause hurricanes in Asia”, this is a hypothetical example from Chaos Theory.

Just like weather systems, the market is a chaotic system and your initial idea will matter a lot in determining the final outcome. This is why I believe an idea matters a lot but only in the initial state of your company. Right after the initial state other things like building product and execution matter much more than the idea itself.


Whenever I talk about MVP’s I always the same question asked repeatedly so I will answer it now rather than later.

An MVP is NOT a startup; it is Step 0 on your path to creating a startup. There are many more aspects to starting a company that I could not possibly cover in one post nor do I know them all myself. An MVP is only a tool to test the need in the marketplace before you do the hard work of building a product behind your idea.

*Also for any engineers reading this my while loop probably has some syntax errors in it. It’s not like you could ever run this function so I use the while loop mostly for conceptual purposes. 

Written by Chris McCann

October 3, 2011 at 4:41 am


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