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James Koshigoe

Software engineer, entrepreneur and all around startup hacker type of guy.

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How to build an MVP the right way

So you have a tech startup idea but you don’t know where to begin building it. Perhaps you’ve been told you need to build a Minimal Viable Product (MVP). It seems to be a confusing concept to most, even seasoned developers who understand the perils of software engineering. The idea sounds simple on the surface: Build a product as quickly as possible to prove the viability of a business for a certain market. In my experience, that’s almost never how it goes. What starts as a simple weekend project of an idea ends up being a 2-3 month or more journey through the inevitable unforeseen gotchas that arise when building a product. The truth is, an MVP is not what most think it has to be, and that’s where I’d like to talk about some lessons learned from learning how to do it right, the hard way.

How does one build a successful MVP? First we need to start with the point of an MVP.

What really is an MVP?

The key concept of an MVP lies in its name: Minimal Viable. That’s not the product that’s currently in your head. It’s not even the one with “only the most important features.” It’s whatever minimal effort, the tiniest possible, that you can expend to build a test to prove that there are real people who desperately need something you could provide them.

Note how the word could is in bold. I like to go crazy with formatting just to keep my life interesting. But besides that, the point is that you don’t need to build something that can solve a problem. The goal is to prove that there is a market and an expressed interest in a potential solution that could fix it. It’s a hack, an illusion, a very elaborate market research survey. You’re taking whatever tools already exist and duct taping them together to try and get others to approve or disapprove it. And hopefully they’ll approve it with their wallet.

An MVP is more marketing than it is developing. Building your MVP should consume a fraction of your time and resources compared to the effort you’ll spend trying to get people to see your hack and validate it. This is very important. Which is why its in bold, duh! If you don’t know how you’ll market your product, then you need to back up and think about that first. “Build it and they will come” is a lie, I’m afraid. Marketing is out of the scope of this article, so I’ll save that for another day (or maybe I’ll make it a lead magnet, clever!) For now, I’ll assume you’ve got that sorted out.

So an MVP is a hack, which makes you a hacker. Now you need to put on your hacker hat and find a way to build your MVP.

Don’t develop an MVP, hack one together

At this point, hopefully it’s clear what the point of an MVP is and here’s where we’ll talk about what it looks like to actually build one. In your head, it’s probably something along the lines of “oh well now I have to spend a weekend writing some code” or worse “now I just need to hire a developer who can do it for like ummmm.. $500.” WRONG! Strong formatting disapproves of your naïve plans! One does not simply just “develop” an MVP. What starts out as a simple dev project quickly inflates into something much larger due to scope creep and all kinds of unforeseeable engineering challenges. This is where you need to take a step back and really be creative. Building that MVP might not take a line of code if you’re creative enough!

If you’re going to hack something, start with your own skills and tools that already exist. This is the most critical step. What resources do you bring to the table? What tools can you use to glue something together that proves you can capture product-market fit? Let’s walk through some examples of what this might look like.

How to hack together an MVP

Let’s say you want to build a marketplace, like I don’t know, for airbed rentals. The first step is to think about whether there are any tools that already exist which you can repurpose for creating a marketplace. Like a good hipster startup founder, you always want to repurpose and recycle. Remember that! That’s why every hipster coffee shop is filled with repurposed wooden tables and repurposed Edison light bulbs (not really though). Really, what is a marketplace other than a glorified bulletin board forum? You know there’s plenty of pre-packaged forum software out there. You might need to tweak some of the design, or maybe not. Look at craigslist! If there’s a desperate need, it won’t matter as long as your solution fixes the problem. If you tweak, don’t tweak too much. Remember you’re after validation of the product-market fit, not whether Steve Jobs would approve of it (he wouldn’t).

How about some AI SaaS thing? It’s the latest hot trend in the Valley. I remember seeing a quote of some investor willing to invest in any startup with a name that ended with .ai. Maybe a joke, but probably a half-joke. Well you can hack together pretty good “AI” too. Let’s say its AI to gather military intelligence on all your worst enemies. The MVP of this is really just a form that asks something like “who do you hate the most and what do you want to know about them?” When you receive a request from this form, you go and look up all their information and then send it back to the requester. Wallah! Instant AI! That’s called the Wizard of Oz test or more generally fake it till you make it. You can build all of that without writing a line of code.

I’m sure you see where I’m going with all of this. Not every idea can be hacked together very easily, but if you don’t even try, you risk losing your shirt. Luckily I still have a shirt (for now) because the world is a cold place. Actually it’s warming up, so maybe you’ll be okay. Regardless, an MVP should be an experiment and it should be hacked together ruthlessly. Think I’m full of shit? Let’s go into a prime case study to show you what it’s all about.

Real life example of an MVP hack

My favorite example is the story of Product Hunt. If you live under a rock, Product Hunt is a popular platform where you can find new hot products daily ranked by community votes. It’s basically a product designer’s wet dream. Most don’t realize that Product Hunt had a very humble beginning as a simple email list that rode on top of an existing social platform. The only thing the founder, Ryan Hoover, brought to the table was his existing network which made marketing the idea as simple as asking all his connections “hey I built this thing can you check it out real quick plz?” And the rest was history. Or at least that’s the short, highly abused version of the story.

When in doubt, hack it out

The goal of any startup founder is to succeed. The faster you can fail, the sooner you can try something that is a success. Treat every idea as an experiment. Like you know, the kind they taught you in science class. Your startup idea is just a hypothesis and it’s probably wrong. Use every tool you have to test your experiment as quickly as possible so you can move on to The Big One. It will be ugly and shitty and imperfect, but if its needed, that won’t matter. All that matters is that there’s a statistically significant amount of people who are waiting to hand you money for something they think is or could be super valuable. That’s the essence of being a startup founder. Good luck my clever hacker friend!