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The Business of Software and the Minimum Viable Product

Software is the great equalizer. It doesn’t take much to get started in this business. The product is virtual, so there’s no inventory costs to deal with. Distribution is also virtual, so as long as you maintain a web site (or membership in platform app stores), you have the means to distribute your product — globally. At the very least, you need a good idea and the means to pull it off. If you’re a software engineer with her own computer, you’re more than halfway there. I think that’s what’s most appealing about this industry. Anyone can get started anytime as long as they have (and keep) the drive and passion to see it through. The American Dream re-imagined.

Getting Started — Bringing the Idea to Market

There are a number of different strategies for approaching product development. One that seems to get a lot of traction in the software industry is the Minimum Viable Product (MVP) strategy. Popularized by Eric Ries, author of The Lean Startup, MVP focuses on building the version of a new product that allows you to validate assumptions about a market as quickly as possible with minimum effort. The generalities inherent in this definition lead to wide interpretation as to what qualifies as minimum effort. What’s important to understand is the concept of failing fast, correcting course, and learning from the market in order to build a loyal customer base. For example, let’s say you have an idea for a mobile app that lets you take photos from your phone, match them with some kean phrases in a database and combine the data into a printable greeting card. You could invest all your time in building the app, the payment processing system, an automated process for compiling the greeting card data and sending it to a print vendor for production and fulfillment, but that’s an awfully big investment for an idea that hasn’t been fully tested.

So what can you do? Well, start out by mapping that grand scheme as a potential future end goal and then look at the bare minimum it will take to actually get something functional into the hands of the consumer. You’ll obviously need the app, otherwise how will the customers prove your theory that people want to print custom greeting cards from photos on their mobile device. You’ll certainly need a payment platform, and while you may be tempted to try and build a custom one around your bank and its transaction gateways, with direct deposit and auto-pay to the print vendor, why not start out with one of the more simple, readily available payment services (like Stripe or PayPal) and work your way up to the custom automated payment gateway. Likewise, instead of investing a lot of development time in creating an automated workflow for sending greeting card data to the print vendor, maybe you can start out by managing that transaction manually by collecting a cue of emailed data and sending them in a daily batch to the printer as needed.

Now, I know what you may be thinking…why introduce these bottlenecks in production? Shouldn’t I try to make the process as smooth and automated as possible? Eventually, yes. But, without proof of validity for this product idea, that’s a large investment in time for potentially very little return. Let’s say, for example, you launch the product and after a few weeks of market testing you start getting feedback from users that they’d rather email an electronic greeting card than have one printed and shipped. The investment in creating the automated workflow for submitting data to the printer ends up being a wash since it’s only used for 1% of each transaction. Best to fail fast, correct course and continue with version 2.0 that lets you email greeting cards instead of printing them. This is the main principle in the MVP approach. Build the minimum amount it takes to get your product into the hands of the customer to learn as much about their needs as soon as possible.

A Minimum Product Isn’t Necessarily a Minimal Experience

Just because you’re after the minimum viable product to test within your market, doesn’t mean you have to create a minimal experience. Consumers are quite savvy and refined in their tastes when it comes to software these days. Particularly mobile software. If you want to make a lasting impression and encourage continued use of your app, it had better be well polished and sport a good user experience. It should be obvious regarding its purpose and the problem it solves and it should be a joy to use.

As for the level of polish your app requires, that’s a point up for debate. There are those who take a more Spartan approach and try to get by with the bare minimum with no embellishment. These apps, while still providing a good user experience by performing well, lack that extra bit of charm (like a whimsical approach to writing the in-app copy, or some form of custom navigation/animated screen transitions) that sets it apart from other apps. An approach at the extreme opposite end of that spectrum, an incredible amount of time and attention are paid to getting all the little details just right. These apps provide the utmost in user experience, but are often unsustainable due to the amount of effort required for production, especially in the initial product launch phase. I say do as much as you can afford and still get the product into the hands of consumers as soon as possible. Those added bits of charm and personality in an app do a lot to create that special emotional connection with your audience. There’s a lot of value in that, but it shouldn’t get in the way of releasing your product and getting valuable feedback as soon as possible.

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