Minimal Viable Concept > Minimal Viable Product
I’m going to begin with a hot take: starting with an MVP (minimal viable product) without validating your concept first sets startups up for failure in the future. Don’t get me wrong, the MVP and lean startup methodology created by Eric Ries has been instrumental in developing efficient and scalable processes in startup development. But like like everything, there is room for improvement.
Much like Ries, I believe in applying something akin to the scientific method in company development (check that out here). In fact, the MVP is one of the most powerful tools to minimize risk while maximizing results. The lean startup clearly outlines the process for identifying product-market fit in a way that is very similar to the 6-step scientific method I discussed in some of our other content.
- Determine your target customer
- Identify underserved customer needs
- Define your value proposition
- Specify your Minimum Viable Product (MVP) feature set
- Create your MVP prototype
- Test your MVP with customers
However, a fundamental assumption Ries makes in the process flow above is that the founder already has a viable concept. This is where I think we could use some methodology refinement.
The Minimal Viable Concept
The development of the MVC is something that founders often overlook as they rush to build their MVP and take it to market. Having worked at an early-stage venture studio, high-growth startups, and several accelerators over the last few years, I have seen countless founders present a problem passionately, dive into solving it, and still struggle for years to get the first check. There is simply not enough traction behind “I know this is a massive problem, and here is how I would solve it” for early-stage investors to begin to back a company.
To me, this issue is quite reminiscent of the entry-level job seeking multiple years of experience. Many people overcome the years of experience requirement by providing evidence that they can perform the tasks required. So why can’t founders do the same with their concepts?
The MVC is not a standard practice in early-stage builds. It’s likely because it isn’t viewed as “lean” because adding any element of scientific methodology in the early creative processes of ideation is often considered overkill (check out our science vs. art content). However, our goal is to make this process as lean and mean as the MVP/Lean Startup Methodology so that founders stop hearing that they are “too early.”
The MVC is developed in three discrete steps: design, discovery, and validation, to determine if an idea has legs before the MVP is launched and openly tested. While these three steps are particularly beneficial to work through at the earliest stage of ideation, any company can revisit the drawing board and test its concept quickly, getting necessary proof points for investors and customers.
The discovery process is the one that needs the most work. Far too often, founders say, “I’ve talked to people, and they need this,” without really understanding how to have a conversion with customers or even identify your audience. Our discovery process incorporates top-down and bottom-up research strategies to help founders genuinely understand the white space opportunities in the industry.
The top-down process begins with proper market research. It’s much more than TAM, SAM, and SOM — it is a deep dive into the real world.
This means spending time conducting a competitive analysis, engaging in social listening, and understanding how people interact with products in your space. Other crucial methods include a STEEP analysis (social, technical, environmental, economic, and political trends) to better forecast company needs in the future. Why? If you don’t understand challenges that might come your way (e.g., regulation for the blockchain), you may be shortsighted in product creation and viability.
The bottom-up approach involves understanding customer needs and behaviors. You need to understand where your customers are today, their pain points, the current solutions they are using, and the emotional or societal pressures that affect their decision-making in your category. Crucially, at this stage, you’re not talking about your product; rather, you are learning what type of product to create that is actually needed to solve a problem. We’re big proponents of using “Jobs to be Done” to frame early consumer research and various interview tools to talk to your early adopters.
Why do we have to do both? Most founders rely exclusively on market research to get stats for the pitch decks, but they have no idea what people actually need. Macro trends help know what is out there, but it does not tell founders where and how actual people need innovation. On the other hand, relying only on conversations with a few customers may lead you down the path of building something the market already has or isn’t prepared to accept.
The design stage is where most MVP-first founders begin. They observe a problem, do a smidge of market research, and devise a solution. Our approach to design is concept ideation. We encourage founders to find the points of convergence between their market and consumer research and to start ideating at that intersection point. This guarantees that your ideas are things the market and the consumer are both ready for — minimizing the risk of building a product that nobody can or wants to adopt. We use a few tools from the design thinking toolkit to synthesize your information from “discovery” and approach ideation using questions like “How might we create a product that solves [my problem].”
At this stage, founders will generate several concepts and evaluate them on viability in their business. Do they have enough funding to create this? Does our expertise set us up for success? Using a variety of questions will allow the most founder-feasible and market-ready concepts to emerge and prototype.
From there, we kick off rapid prototyping: producing a mock-up of an MVP that you can take into the concept validation stage.
Validation is one of the most crucial steps in generating an MVC. During this stage, founders identify their assumptions, create testable hypotheses, and gather early adoption, interest, and scale indicators through structured experimentation. You’ll take your concept to people and conduct qualitative and quantitative tests to understand how the product is received.
Out of these experiments, founders can pivot to the product and retest until the delta between what the founder thinks people need and what people actually want to use shrinks.
Validating a concept allows you to change your conversation with investors completely. It shows that you are a highly productive and methodical founder, which is where the biggest bet is placed at the early stage, and you also can provide concrete proof that your idea can thrive in the market.
Now you build the MVP.