The Lean Startup - Minimum Viable Product

Episode 86 - 24 May 2017

Our Lean journey - that's "Lean" as in "The Lean Startup" - continues.

Last time: the trap of doing too much; this time: the trap of learning too little.

I’ve been looking forward to this episode. We’re finally made it to the shining star of the “Lean” firmament: the legendary Minimum Viable Product (MVP).

You’ll find no dry descriptions here: we’ll jump straight in and look at The Three Greatest MVPs of All Time (according to me, anyway):

  • Zappos
  • Dropbox
  • Buffer

While you're watching, keep your eyes peeled for things we might, err, ‘borrow’ for our side project: the "some kind of course" project.

And don't forget to grab your copy of The Lean Startup Cheat Sheet


Our Lean Startup investigation took us from “I have a cunning plan” to “It's a trap!”


Validated Learning And the Minimum Viable Product

Remember, remember

Do you remember the morning of the 24th of June 2016?

How about 9th of November 2016?

They stick out for my mind as the mornings I woke up to surprising - shocking - results of public votes:

  • the UK’s so-called Brexit vote
  • the US Presidential Election

The results were not quite what we had been led to believe.

How had the pollsters got it so wrong?

And, what you may ask, has this to do with the task in hand?

Over the last two episodes, we've been looking at creating a “course-of-some-kind”. And doing so in LEAN fashion.

(That’s Lean as in “The Lean Startup”- the book by Eric Ries.)


Last time, we talked about falling into a trap: the trap of jumping on with both feet and going straight to the build phase.

“People love to build!”

We’d do well to avoid this trap by starting, instead, by learning about the market. About the customer.

One or two of you suggested we started… with a survey.

The thought occurred to me too. Remember this mind map? Well here's the first version. Gorgeous isn't it.

Oh. And what's this over here? In big fat letters.


Validated Learning

In the world of The Lean Startup, it’s a given that people, just can't be trusted.

People have a habit of saying one thing … and doing another.

Eric Ries - author of The Lean Startup - puts it like this:

  • “We must learn what customers really want, not what they say they want or what we think they should want.”

Sure, a survey would result in learning of some kind. But Lean holds us to a higher standard. Not just learning, but what Ries describes as VALIDATED learning.

The mechanism, the enabler - for this validated learning - is the now-famous Minimum Viable Product.

Rather than bore you with a definition of Minimum Viable Product, I'd like to show you my three favourite MVPs.

Keep your eyes peeled for ideas we can, you know, BORROW for our “Course of Some Kind” .


It's 1999. Co-founder Nick Swinmurn wanted to build an online store for shoes. But would people use it? Here's how he went about finding out. He popped down to lis local shoe shops he went into the shops and... ... I sh!t you not... he PHOTOGRAPHED PAIRS OF SHOES! The photos were uploaded to a super-simple website. If someone clicked on the button to buy a pair Nick would pop down to the store and... BUY THE SHOES! Zero infrastructure. Zero inventory. Minimal? - definitely Viable? - This time it's not even up for discussion. Most definitely: real customers; real money changing hands; real shoes!

Zappos went on to do quite well: it was acquired by Amazon in 2009 for a cool $1.2 billion.


Dropbox, as I'm sure you know, is a file synchronisation service. Edit a file on your desktop... ... and seconds later its updated on all of your other devices. Rewind to the early days. The team - entirely composed of techies - had the basic synchronisation working. That was the easy bit. The hard bit was going to be to achieve the same trick on pretty well every platform: Mac, Windows, iPhone, etc. Given that the team was all techies, you'd have put money on them diving straight in. But CEO Drew Houston did something surprising. He made a video. The video - just three minutes long - demonstrated the synch process end to end. But it was more than just a demo: it was full of techie in-jokes... designed to appeal to early adopters. It worked like a charm In Drew's words: “It drove hundreds of thousands of people to the website. Our beta waiting list went from 5,000 people to 75,000 people literally overnight. It totally blew us away.” Minimal? - Yes Viable? - Not a product that could be used, but a product that could be demonstrated.

Dropbox went on to do quite well. It's current value stands between $5 and $10 BILLION.


Buffer is a application that makes it easy to share content on social media. Here's what they put on the their site. A test, certainly. But it falls short of an MVP in my opinion. Their next test was better. They slotted this page in-between the other two pages. Now visitors to the website are not just saying "This is interesting" They're saying "I want to BUY this". Okay, there's nowhere to input your credit card details. But anyone who got this far was at least prepared to think about parting with their money. As co-founder Joel Gascoigne said: "After this result, I didn’t hesitate to start building the first minimal version of the real, functioning product." Minimal? - certainly Viable? - yes

Buffer's current valuation is something close to $400 million


Did you enjoy that? Let’s run through them.

Zappos - the shoe people.

  • Assumption: that people would buy shoes online.
  • Metric: Number of shoes sold online
  • Experiment: the extraordinary move of taking pictures of shoes in a shoe shop… to set up what APPEARED to be a fully-functional eCommerce website

Had they gone down the survey route, I wonder what the result would have been?

Next up: Dropbox:

  • Assumption: that people would want a file synchronisation service
  • Metric: Email opt-ins to the beta waiting list
  • Experiment: a video DEMONSTRATION of an early prototype

Note that in this case, there is no actual “product”. They were a long way from having something in a shippable state.

Last and in some ways least, Buffer:

  • Assumption: that people would buy the service
  • Metric: an INTENTION to buy.

Of course, not everyone who clicked the button would have completed the purchase - had that been possible.

But a percentage would. And Buffer judged that even if the percentage was low, they were on to a winner.


I like their style.

A favourite?

Zappos, Dropbox and Buffer. All three navigated a course between the twin traps of building too much. And learning too little.

I would love to know your thoughts of their approaches - and did you spot anything we could borrow for our project?

Let me know in the comments below.

The course-of-some-kind thing?

Again, let me know in the comments.

That’s just about it for this time

If haven’t do so yet, now is the perfect time to grab your copy of the Lean Startup Cheat Sheet.

You’ll find a link below this video. Click the link, follow the instructions., and it’s all yours.

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I look forward to seeing you next time. Cheers for now.