by Leon Rosenshein


Just what is an MVP anyway? Like everything else, it depends. In this case on context. The Super Bowl has a Most Valuable Player, but that’s not the MVP I mean, In this case I’m talking about the MVP as Minimum Viable Product.

But even there, MVP isn’t consistently used. I first ran into the term when I was working on the initial release of in-browser 3D mapping for Virtual Earth. We (the dev team) were extremely busy trying to figure out how build a product that could stream a surface model of the entire globe down to a browser at sufficient level of detail to show the Microsoft Campus in the foreground and find the our office windows, but not flood the pipe with data for Mount Rainier. While we were busy figuring that out, a different group of people was figuring out what feature set we needed to make a product that fit into the Microsoft online offerings. Two groups trying to figure out what the MVP was. We eventually shipped something, but I’m not sure we ever agreed on what the MVP was. Since then I’ve seen the MVP debate play out the same way multiple times.

There’s 2 big reasons for that. First, because MVP is made up of some highly subjective terms. Let’s start with the last one and work backwards. Product is probably the easiest. It’s the thing you’re selling/giving away. Of course you haven’t defined what it is or why someone wants it. That’s where viable comes in. A viable product is one that a customer is willing to pay for. And for a product to be viable the total of what the customer pays, both direct and indirect, must add up, over time, to more than the expenses. If not, you’ll eventually run out of money and not be selling anything. Which leads us to minimum. What is the absolute least you can do and still have a viable product? The assumption here is that the minimum takes the least amount of time to build, makes the fewest wrong choices, and gets you more information from the customer soonest, so you can iterate on it and make better choices going forward. That makes sense, and is a good definition of MVP.

Second, there is another definition of MVP out there. One pushed by the Lean Startup movement. And it defines and MVP something as the minimum thing you can build to test the viability of a product idea. Which is a very different thing. The definition of minimum is about the same, and viability still refers to the product, but now, instead of validating the success of a product, it’s applied to the idea of the product. Which means when you’re building an MVP, you’re not checking to see if you can make money off it, you’re checking to see if anyone else thinks you have a good idea.

And that’s why we never reached agreement on what the MVP for VirtualEarth was. The dev team wanted to build and deploy something to see if anyone cared, and if so, what they cared about. Oh for sure we had ideas and built some of them in the first release, but mostly we wanted to find out from our early adopters what they thought was important. So we could build more of that. Meanwhile, that other group was trying to figure out, without actual data, what people were willing to pay for. We’ll never know for sure why Virtual Earth (Bing Maps) never became the standard online map, despite having 3D models, weather, moving trees, Streetside, BirdsEye, and user generated content first, but building things that people didn’t want or know how to use instead of what they wanted in the order they wanted it probably played a part.

So when you build an MVP, remember why you’re building it.

Stages of an MVP