Diary of a start-up: Handling the MVP or market-ready product dilemma

Lean start-up principles are all about getting a minimum viable product to market fast. David Sheridan asks if you could do more damage than good

In his third diary post David Sheridan, co-founder and commercial director of virtual dashboard for all your household bills Onedox.com, shares how he and the team sought to find the right balance between launching fast and launching ‘finished’…

When we launched our web-based application, Onedox, in late 2015, we experienced the conundrum of whether to launch an incomplete product quickly or a more complete product more slowly.

We read Minimum Viable Product (MVP) advocates suggesting you shouldn’t think of a one-off launch but of a continuous product release and testing loop instead.

You don’t want to waste money on over-engineered products that the market might not want.

Plus, speedy customer feedback enables you to iterate your product, re-release and get feedback again, all the while getting closer to something which better fits with what customers actually want in your market.

In contrast, the more typical (perhaps human) approach, is to strive for something you and your team are proud of before rolling it out. This means ensuring the product you release is a fair reflection of the brand you wish to create – in our case, helpful, innovative and robust.

You don’t want potential customers having a bad experience just because you didn’t wait for one more week to perfect the user experience (UX). If you wait too long though, your competitors may launch first and you may end up kicking yourself that you didn’t get something out of the door more quickly.

So what’s the right compromise between speed to market and product perfection?

Here are four considerations we’ve found to be very important:

1. During pre-launch research, done beats perfect every time

One of the major benefits of the research phase, is that you are unencumbered by any of the considerations that can slow you down later on. Speed and “hacking”, are of the essence. For instance:

  • Ask a high volume of people what they think of your ideas. Source free social feedback and get friends to complete surveys you create.
  • For one idea, we created a simple website and tracked user behaviour on the site. We drove low cost traffic to the site (from Adwords and user forums), then tracked if visitors were interested enough to click on “Sign Up”. Feedback from that exercise helped us rapidly discount that particular idea!
  • Run an invite-only beta for friends and family to maximise feedback whilst having customers who are willing to overlook product imperfections.

2. The ability to capture customer feedback is as important as the product itself

Observable and written feedback about your product are vital. If you don’t build-in the means to understand the customer’s experience and ask customers what they think, then whether you launch lean or with a full set of features you will be wasting any subsequent marketing spend.

We address this challenge by ensuring we have comprehensive analytics in place to understand what customers like and what causes them to disengage, and asking them for their written feedback on an on-going basis.

A/B testing tools like Optimizely and those available for free within Google Analytics, are an excellent way to gather customer feedback about their experience on different variations of your website and optimise automatically.

3. Customers create overheads – your ability to iterate will diminish the more customers you bring on board

It’s fantastic to get new customers on board, however in many start-ups like Onedox, finite resources must be allocated between looking after existing customers and feature development that can help acquire new ones. The more customers you have, the less time that is available for innovation, until you are able to bring in more staff.

As a result, you probably need your product to be reasonably complete before launch, because your available development resources will initially shrink once you begin acquiring customers. There’s no point having lots of feedback if you can’t implement any of it.

4. Try and make your launch complementary to what’s in The News

You’ll want to generate some PR around your launch, once you’ve decided you are ready to go. To maximise the chance of getting some exposure, it makes sense to choose a launch date that ties in with relevant current affairs, such as the release of new market data, a report or, if you can act quickly, a big breaking story.

In our case, an early product release for our energy-switching service tied in with a government report confirming that the majority of UK customers were overpaying; heightening the relevance of our release.

So which is better – done or perfect?

I must admit, I haven’t applied very lean or MVP principles to writing this diary entry. I think this reflects that while agility and speed to market are key advantages of being a start-up, you still need to be comfortable that you have invested sufficient time and effort to release something you believe to be valuable to others, before doing so.

To read David’s take on how not to fall out with co-founders read piece on how they created a Founders’ Agreement. For more about Onedox’s journey to-date (and previous columnists), check out our Diary of a start-up channel.

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