Forgetting the M in MVP: Are founders launching in a lean way?

Forgetting the M in MVP: Are founders launching in a lean way?
Leen Ashqar, senior associate at Propeller

Leen Ashqar is a senior associate at Propeller, an early-stage venture capital firm based in Amman, Jordan

As an active pre-seed and seed investor for the past four years, we have met a fair share of founders during the early days of their journeys. During that phase, the sole focus of founders is to figure out if they’re building something of real value for their customers.

After hundreds of interactions, we have come to notice that very few founders are launching products in a lean way. Way too often we see entrepreneurs going straight into building product without doing enough ‘discovery’; that is, without spending sufficient time getting to know their customers, their motivations, their desires, and their pain points.

Without gaining deep understanding of your customers, it is hard to hone in on the primary job-to-be-done of your product and define the ‘minimal’ features required to deliver value.

A minimum viable product (MVP) by definition is "a product with the fewest number of features needed to achieve a specific objective, and users are willing to ‘pay’ for in some form of a scarce resource”.

In essence, the goal of an MVP is to validate an assumption and iterate rapidly if proven wrong. However, when a founder invests too much time and money into building an MVP, it becomes much harder for them to change core features of the product, especially if fundamental assumptions have been proven wrong. They grow emotionally attached to their products.

Founders need to think like designers. They are ultimately solving a stubborn problem and without adopting an experimental, human-centric approach from day one, they run the risk of investing in something nobody wants or is willing to pay for.

That is what happened to Quibi, the short-form video streaming service that raised nearly $2 billion in funding and shut down six months after launch because it failed to attract subscribers. Insiders say its failure can be traced to the co-founders' faulty instincts and their initial smartphone-only approach, which proved ill-suited to people's viewing habits, especially during a pandemic.

Quibi was built on the assumption that people want short Netflix-level quality shows of 10 minutes or less, on the go, everyday. It turns out that very few people wanted that. If the team had better understood what people wanted or how they use their phones, they might have avoided this inevitable and rapid downfall.

The message here is stop and discover. Once you do, you can easily define the job-to-be-done by your solution and build a simple experiment to test that. An experimental hypothesis-driven approach reduces the risks of building something no one wants. As in the words of investor and Y Combinator founder Paul Graham, “launch early and often”.

An MVP doesn’t need to be a software product, it can simply be a user-facing landing page with an Airtable sheet in the back-end doing the work. The sooner you launch your experiment, the faster you learn and the easier it is for you to iterate.

That is how the best founders build products. On our podcast show, Let’s Talk Product, we spoke to Anghami’s Elie Habib about their early days of building and launching Anghami. It turns out that the first version of their product was simply a library of songs with a search bar for people to access on the go (mobile).

Elie explains, “our focus was to understand if people are willing to pay for our product even in its minimalist form”, quite literally their MVP. They approached mobile operators to gauge willingness to pay and ended up launching a private beta with this operator as a paying customer.

By launching early and putting a simple MVP in the hands of real customers they also quickly learned that “people do not remember the name of the songs to search for, but instead wanted good music continuously”. By doing so they were able to iterate rapidly and get to product-market fit fast.

As Elie puts it “iteration beats perfection every single day. I do not want every feature we release to be perfect. When you put something out and measure everything, you have the chance at improving anything”.

For Fouad Jeryes, co-founder of Cash Basha (and most recently Maqsam), the first iteration of the product took only about a month and a half to build. “By design we wanted things to be manual at the back end,” says Fouad. They managed orders with the shipping companies, took care of custom clearance, and did the last-mile deliveries themselves. “The best way to automate is to do things manual at first, get it right, and then automate bit by bit as you grow”, he says.

The team also made sure to define a clear quantitative goal for their MVP. Fouad explains, “if we didn’t get 60 orders from people we don’t know, we will shut down and move on.” The founders made sure not to over-build and planned a clear experiment to test their value offering.

This is a cry out for every entrepreneur to:

  1. think hard and creatively about how they can constrain their MVP, whether by limiting product functionality or back-end operations,

  2. and to spend enough time doing customer discovery before building anything or writing a single line of code.

To sum it up, empathise, empathise and empathise, define a constrained product, and then launch a series of MVPs to validate assumptions and improve your product in an iterative manner.

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