Over the past 10 years, I’ve had the chance to work on creating MVPs (Minimum Viable Products) for startups, medium-sized companies, and enterprise-level businesses from across Europe, the Middle East, and North America.
Even though the startups were of varying sizes, had wildly disparate budgets, and operated in different business cultures, a lot of them had one thing in common: the same types of mistakes being made by their founder while developing an MVP.
While some of them pulled through and went on to become successful companies, others succumbed to a lack of vision, premature scaling, and poor product strategy.
As a founder or executive, you are the single most important factor in the success or failure of your company. To help you avert those easy-to-spot and avoidable mistakes that have sunk countless other businesses, I’ve prepared a list of five of the most common MVP anti-patterns to look out for, together with ways to solve them.
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IV. Final thoughts
Before we delve into the reasons ill-thought-out MVPs cause so many companies to fail, let’s first clarify what we have in mind when we talk about an MVP.
In short, an MVP is the initial version of a product with just enough features to capture the attention of its target users and validate the design idea. Despite its limited functionality, an MVP should provide enough value for early adopters to want to continue using it.
Having an MVP allows you to have the product tested by your key end users, gain their feedback, and figure out whether it has the potential to succeed before you create its full version.
We’ve all heard urban legends about how some of the big names in the tech scene made a big hit overnight. While these stories are uplifting, in reality they are few and far between.
Many new products don’t get off the ground. And when you look at the reasons, you will see some common mistakes, many of which originate at the MVP stage.
Getting an MVP right is of utmost importance, as it will set the scene for your future success. It has the potential to either make or break your product.
In a nutshell, an MVP can help you:
- validate your business idea early on and help you adjust your strategy in response to the feedback you receive,
- find early adopters and build up a potential client base,
- save your time and resources by helping you make better-informed decisions.
Now that we’ve identified how creating an MVP can benefit your business, let’s take a look at some of the most common mistakes made by founders, executives, and CTOs to make sure you don’t repeat them.
For the purpose of this article, I’ve organized the mistakes around five themes, but bear in mind the list below is by no means exhaustive:
- Inadequate product strategy
- Feature overload
- An overengineered MVP
- An oversized development team
- Too much feedback
Think of your product strategy as the engine of your enterprise. It’s the very mechanism that is supposed to transform the resources you’ve invested into tangible results. You will not be able to go far if your engine doesn’t work well.
Although many entrepreneurs consider running out of cash their biggest worry, I believe that a weak product strategy is even more dangerous.
If you can prove that your product works, even though it’s not breaking any world records just yet, you’re likely to raise more capital if you need to do so. However, things start to get more complicated when your strategy is falling behind.
Some of the potential risks of following an inadequate product strategy include:
- keeping your team busy rather than productive;
- failing to maintain client engagement and retention;
- burning your budget on marketing, scaling sales prematurely, and not generating satisfactory results;
- running out of funding.
How do you know you have an inadequate product strategy?
a) Your marketing and sales plans are vague
What will your next step be after completing your MVP? What is the target audience you want it to reach? What channels do you plan to use? What budget do you think you need to attract the first 100 users?
If you have trouble answering any of these questions, your product strategy is lacking.
b) You don’t know what your key differentiator is
Are you tapping into a niche that hasn’t been catered to before? Or are you competing against a number of well-established players? Whatever challenges you face, you need to know what will make your product top of the league.
Solutions: How can you improve your product strategy?
a) Figure out what your vision is
Regardless of what product you’re building, you’re not likely to succeed without a deep understanding of what your guiding vision is. There are many approaches to creating a compelling vision, but I highly recommend adopting simple solutions. The Radical Product Framework is a great place to start when you’re stuck for inspiration.
b) Plan your marketing and sales activities
Focused marketing and sales campaigns will help you create a strategic product roadmap and give you extra insights into your target audience. If you don’t have an in-house marketing specialist, consult an experienced digital marketer with a proven track record in getting products like yours off the ground.
Achieving commercial success with your product is like climbing up a mountain. Just like there are many trails that lead to the peak, you can use various technologies and target different audiences to meet your business objective.
However, both processes are underpinned by one principle: if you take too much with you, it will make it more difficult for you to move forward and reach the top.
When it comes to building an MVP, feature overload translates directly into:
- delaying the delivery of the first version of your product,
- having to rework product modules that failed to provide value to your clients,
- running out of budget faster and not meeting your targets.
How do you know if you’ve overloaded your MVP with features?
a) Your MVP takes over 3 months to build
Based on my experience of having worked on around 100 MVPs in the past 10 years, I believe that a reasonable timeframe for delivering one is about 2–3 months. If the estimate you’ve received from your development team exceeds this timeframe, it’s a good idea to give your schedule a second look.
b) There are too many large tasks in your MVP
The workload required for an average task in a medium-grained estimation normally varies from 2 to 4 days. Having more than 3 items in your estimation spreadsheet that take over 6–10 days to complete is a clear sign you should break them down. Large, complex tasks with no granularity provide the perfect conditions for feature overload to occur.
c) You don’t know how many tasks are conducive to achieving the key objective of your MVP
Can you clearly articulate why you’re building your MVP? If you can’t answer this question in one short sentence, it’s the first sign of trouble. Optimized MVPs are laser-focused. Without a precise objective, you won’t be able to realize when you’ve crossed the line and begun overstuffing your MVP with features.
Based on my experience, if 70% or more of your planned tasks are critical to achieving the goal of the MVP or testing your key assumption, you don’t need to worry about having overloaded your product with features at this stage.
d) You don’t know which features are created to meet the needs of your key user group
Before you set out to build an MVP, you should have a really good grasp of who your key end users are. The very rationale behind creating an MVP is that it should allow you to verify your key assumptions with a certain client group, as opposed to trying to cater to the needs of all potential clients. Try to widen your target audience too much, and you risk adding excessive features.
Solutions: How can I make my MVP lean?
The simple answer is that you need to prioritize your features. Don’t try to make your MVP perfect; instead, focus on the functionalities that are absolutely indispensable.
Here are some tips on how you can slim down your overstuffed MVP.
a) Ask yourself why you’re building your MVP, at least 5 times
The concept of the 5 Whys was developed by Sakichi Toyoda, a Japanese inventor who laid the foundations of the Toyota Group. He believed that, when faced with a problem, you need to ask yourself “why” five times to get to the root of it and prevent it from reoccurring.
The 5 Whys method is a great way to try and remedy an overloaded MVP. When using it, be as specific as you can be. Steer clear of any industry jargon and buzzwords—they’re often used to cover up vague and directionless ideas.
b) Figure out which of your product assumptions are detrimental to the project
Think about what actions you expect your users to take, then remove any product assumptions that don’t meet those criteria.
You can also apply the following format to clearly lay out the cause-and-effect correlation:
- We believe in this capability.
- This will result in this outcome.
- We will know we have succeeded when we see measurable results.
- We believe that we should increase the size of hotel room photos on the booking page.
- This will result in improved customer engagement and conversion.
- We will know we have succeeded when we see a 5% increase in customers who click on the photos and proceed to book a room within the following 48 hours.
c) Create a two-dimensional feature map
Although there are many sophisticated and complex ways to implement story mapping, you can start off with a simple graph. All you need to do is put yourself in your client’s shoes and write down the steps as you would work through them.
Every startup strives for scalability. However, trying to achieve perfection in design and creating features that provide optimal performance from the very beginning at the expense of practicality and functionality is not a sustainable way to go about it.
It’s not just excessive but also wasteful to try and create every feature from scratch while your product is at the MVP stage. Trying to reinvent the wheel by creating all elements by yourself without making use of existing libraries will only mean you end up spending too much and achieving too little.
Remember that you don’t need to respond to all user needs at this stage. Focus on the core functionality and stick to the actions that will provide the most value in the future.
Overengineering your MVP can have serious consequences for your project, including:
- allocating a large part of the budget and development time to custom design and manual architecture setup, rather than using frontend frameworks;
- spending too much time on continuous integration during the first weeks of development work and not focusing on providing value for the end users;
- generating code that won’t be of use in later versions of the product;
- causing a delay in the deployment of the MVP;
- spending too much time creating the final solution, rather than focusing on understanding your clients’ feedback.
How do you know you have overengineered your MVP?
a) You haven’t incurred a technical debt
When you rush to finalize functionalities and release your MVP, there is a chance you might be putting some strain on the product infrastructure. Although the prospect might seem scary at first, incurring a technical debt in a conscious and manageable way is often the best solution when you look to create a lean MVP. The key is to be aware of the underlying process and know exactly what elements will need reworking in the future.
b) The product is being developed 100% from scratch
Oftentimes, there is no need to build the whole product from scratch, as there is a number of libraries available out there. Although the components you can take from there won’t be unique to your project, they will significantly speed up the development process.
c) The software vendor’s offer doesn’t leave room for maneuver
If you’ve hired a software development company, you should be offered various options of having your MVP built. As the founder, you need to be firmly in control of what features you go with and which ones are unnecessary at the stage you’re at.
If the vendor’s offer is limited, there’s a risk you will end up with a bloated MVP, so scrutinize it closely before you commit. As Thomas A. Edison said, “There is a way to do it better—find it.” Be relentless in your pursuit for the best development model.
d) Your MVP will take longer than 3 months to build
There are no hard-and-fast rules here, but if the development of your MVP is estimated to take longer than 3 months, very often it is a clear sign that you are overengineering it.
e) You can’t clearly define why you’re building an MVP
For your developers to create the right technical architecture, they need to be made aware of the business context of the product they’re working on. If you have trouble pinpointing the exact objective of your MVP, the specific assumptions you want it to verify, and your plans for future expansion, you might give misleading instructions to your technical team and end up with an under- or overengineered MVP.
Solutions: How can you make sure your MVP is not overengineered?
a) Keep the team informed
Make sure everyone on your team is kept on the same page when it comes to the business context of the product being developed, the reasons you’re building an MVP, and the assumptions you want to test.
b) Keep your tech debt in check
Don’t shy away from incurring some technical debt, but do so in a sustainable and manageable way.
c) Use off-the-shelf components
There is nothing wrong with making use of existing libraries and components. If customized appropriately, they will speed up the development process and free up some budget that might, for instance, be spent on product strategy instead.
d) Ask for a range of development models
If you work with a third-party software house, ask for offers that reflect various strategies of delivering your MVP. Explore your options.
It’s tempting to think that the more developers you have on board, the quicker you’ll be able to release your MVP. However, this couldn’t be further from the truth.
While getting the extra expertise might be great in the short term, having a team that is too large too soon might seriously hamper the success of your project in the long term.
Some of the consequences of having an oversized team include:
- slowing down the development speed, decreasing performance, and lowering team morale because there isn’t enough work for everyone;
- using up your budget and keeping your planners busy with tasks that don’t get you any closer to generating revenue;
- creating a deficient product strategy.
How do you know if you’ve built a team that is too large too soon?
a) Most of your tasks are not directly linked to the MVP’s business objectives
On average, 70% of the tasks within a working cycle should directly support achieving the goals of your MVP. If you find yourself constantly working on issues such as bugs, integrations, or back-office features, it might mean that you haven’t given product strategy the attention it deserves and instead focused on filling up a backlog for the development team.
b) Your workload is not well defined
A clear sign that you’ve taken on too many people is that you start work without defining your backlog properly for every single one of them. Before you recruit developers, make sure you know how to organize their workload.
As you consider new people in your sprint planning, keep your product strategy and workstreams such as research, marketing, and sales in mind.
c) Your strategists are overstretched
If you don’t have enough planners on board, it’s easy to misjudge the workload. For every few developers you take on, you need a strategist such as a Product Owner or Business Analyst to be able to schedule ahead.
Solutions: How can you avoid building a team that is too large too soon?
a) Start small
Begin with 2–3 developers and recruit more to keep pace with the expanding workload and not the other way round. Make sure your recruitment is guided by business needs and that each developer has enough tasks to complete as you take on more people.
Have a designated person on your team who will work directly with the developers to give them input.
c) Plan ahead
Hold product discovery workshops to refine your product input for the next 2–3 sprints. This will help you figure out the workload in advance and inform your recruitment decisions.
d) Fill strategy and planning roles
Make sure you create positions that will support product strategy from the very start. Recruit for roles such as Business Analyst, Product Designer, and Product Strategist.
Although having a lot of feedback might seem like a blessing when you’re just starting your business, you have to be picky about who you source it from and what you implement at the MVP stage. Narrow it down to what best furthers your key objective and responds to the needs of your target audience.
Try to implement too much feedback, and you risk the following:
- a slower pace of development and a delayed launch;
- repeatedly reworking the product, including after the sign-off;
- losing sight of the bigger picture and not planning ahead accordingly;
- running out of budget due to constant pivoting;
- underutilizing your key resources by keeping your strategists busy implementing excessive changes and causing them to neglect long-term strategy;
- decreasing team morale.
How do you know you’re trying to take on too much feedback?
a) Your design has been changing on a regular basis, including after the sign-off
While introducing valid changes to your product as it’s being developed is not always undesirable, doing so too often will significantly slow down your progress and even derail your product launch.
How many times have you pivoted during the course of building your MVP? Were these changes valid and indispensable? Did the benefits of reworking your product strategy outweigh the drawbacks?
b) You feel like you’re running in place
Are you always busy reworking your product, but the launch date doesn’t seem to be getting any closer? Are you working tirelessly, yet growing concerned about running over budget? Have you had to delay the launch date due to unfinished reworking of a product feature?
Prioritizing feedback is difficult but imperative. If you don’t do it, budget leaks caused by implementing too many changes may eventually sink the whole project.
c) Reworking is done based on internal decisions
This is not to say that you should disregard internal feedback. Listening to your strategists and developers alike is of vital importance, but you should always keep in mind and prioritize the feedback of your target audience.
Solutions: How can you make sure you implement the right amount of feedback?
a) Create a “client advisory board”
If you receive a lot of feedback, make a list of up to five strategic clients that fit your ideal client profile. Those are the clients you’re building your MVP for, and your priority is meeting their needs first and foremost. Seeking their input regularly will also help you let them know you value their opinion.
b) Streamline client feedback
The feedback you have gathered might be scattered around different sources, from client surveys and emails to meeting minutes. Decide on how you’re going to collect and act upon it.
c) Provide robust onboarding
This applies to both new team members and clients alike. A comprehensive introduction to your business context and factors such as your product vision, strategy, and roadmap will help them give you relevant feedback.
d) Use your key hypotheses when analyzing client feedback
Before you analyze your client feedback, have a clear understanding of what you want to learn from it. Oftentimes, it’s easy to get overwhelmed by the sheer volume and scope of feedback, so deciding what aspects of it are the most important is invaluable.
First and foremost, you want to know if the product you’re designing does its job and how happy your clients are with its core functionality. Prioritize the remaining input so that you don’t get carried away implementing changes of secondary importance.
e) Create a validation board and keep it transparent
Having a physical whiteboard for your colleagues to familiarize themselves with the hypotheses you jot down can be helpful in making sure that everyone is on the same page when it comes to key assumptions.
Creating a perfectly balanced MVP is an art that is inherently difficult to master. The elements that need to come together to ensure its success—from being able to assemble a skilled team and crafting a sharp marketing campaign to creating your own key differentiator—are in a constant state of flux.
Although you might not be able to cover all eventualities, you can find out what the best practices are, so that you’re prepared to face off any challenges as they emerge.
The five anti-patterns I described above are just some of the potential obstacles you might encounter while working on your MVP. If you come across other problems and would like some help solving them, feel free to reach out to us! With over 14 years of experience helping clients build their MVPs, we’re uniquely positioned to advise you on the best development model for your business.
You might also be interested in our previous articles with some more tips on how to build a successful MVP: