In the startup world, resources are scarce. Productivity and results are the difference between business success and failure. That's why using a minimum viable product (MVP) approach to product development is so popular among startups.

When done right, MVP saves resources while creating a product customers love. But when you're under pressure to move quickly and cost effectively, MVP can be a challenge to manage (and keep in check).

Watch out for these five traps.

1. Beware of scope creep.

As you go through the product design process, your curiosity is bound to grow. Even if you think you've thought of everything, you haven't. You'll come up with reasons to test more features and explore more possibilities. But the more you include in an iteration -- time, planning, and functionality -- the further you move away from the "minimum" part of MVP.

It's a slippery slope, and it's happened to us many times. One notable example was a new logo design tool feature. The goal was to increase customer engagement, but there were a lot of ways to do that. Should we add this button? This feature?

We kept having to stop, step back, and say no. The goal was to test a couple features -- not eight. You cannot do it all.

2. Don't spend too much time on product development.

It's easy to want MVP to succeed, so even if you put constraints on your product, you may find yourself wanting to make it work perfectly in every situation. Fight that urge.

Nothing is perfect, and if you spend too much time on product development, you won't get the baseline data you need to make educated decisions. Apply an 80/20 rule: aim for 80 percent functionality while forgoing the remaining 20 percent for speed and efficiency.

When we first built a domain name recommendation tool for customers, we ran into issues with special characters. What if our global customers had a business name with accents and other characters? How would our system handle that?

At the time, the goal was understanding what most customers wanted. We had to put aside 20 percent of our product functionality and accept that some customers would have a bad experience. From there, we'd know if it would worth investing additional resources.

3. Remember: Just because your MVP didn't work, you idea didn't fail.

This is an easy trap to fall into. You test a clever new idea only to see it completely flop, and you may feel like it failed. Don't despair. The whole purpose of MVP is to collect real data and better understand your customer audience. A product flop will lead you to product success.  

When we first started to bundle our website products, our first few offerings failed. No one wanted to buy them. That didn't mean customers weren't interested -- we were just bundling the wrong items. After a few iterations, we cracked the code. Since then, we've sold thousands of website bundles.

4. Define specific success metrics upfront.

When you measure the success of your MVP, focusing on generic vanity metrics (things like time on site, conversion rate, revenue per user, etc.) will get you nowhere. Instead, think about the broader context of the user experience. What do you need to know in order to understand why? Develop custom metrics that support this, and define them upfront -- before you begin testing.

Anytime we test a new workflow on our site, we look at more than just "got to page two." We take a holistic approach, and look at what someone can do at each step. That way we can understand multiple elements of the user experience. Vanity metrics tell you whether or not a test worked. But that's not helpful. Customized measurement helps you determine why.

5. Understand MVP doesn't always need to be functional.

This one is tough for some people to accept. Let's say you want to start an online business selling iPhone cases. Your supplier has 20 different case colors available, but you can't afford to invest in them all. How do you decide which colors to offer?

With MVP in mind, you should build a basic site that shows all 20 colors, but doesn't let customers actually purchase. When a customer gets to the check-out page, they'd see a simple note saying, "Sorry, this item is unavailable at this time."

You haven't done any harm to the customer, but you have collected lots of data about which colors are most popular. The key is to never take money from a customer. But there's nothing wrong with offering something you can't deliver if you use it to measure customer needs.

With these five tips, you'll be on your way to a successful product development and launch.

Published on: Mar 29, 2018