“Building a Tech MVP” by James Zhao, Co-founder of Thought&Function
So you’ve got a great idea for a tech product, you’ve researched the market and defined your solution, and now you’re ready to get started on making your idea a reality. All you need is that first Minimum Viable Product to start winning over early adopters and investors.
But where exactly should you start, and how do you make sure your MVP keeps serving you in the long term? As a non-technical founder it can be tricky knowing the best way to set about creating a tech product, so here are some tips on what processes to follow, finding the right technical support, and how to keep it all within your budget.
Start with Your Users
The most important part of any product’s success is the customers that use it, so any journey towards an MVP has to start with them.
You’ve probably already done plenty of market research to validate your idea and the problem you’re trying to solve. The next step is to take that research and create user personas, and if possible, create a user group of your target persona. This will help you make informed decisions and fewer assumptions when deciding what feature set to build into the first iteration to best meet their needs.
User personas are a way to align your team around a focus on the user, instead of the founder (a common mistake). They give you a base for decision making without having to engage with your actual users every time. Just remember that while user personas aren’t real people, they are based on them. Don’t build profiles from what you assume people want — talk to your potential customers and use their feedback to inform your user personas.
Think of the Bigger Picture
When you’re building your MVP, it’s important to remember that it’s not just a one-off task on a to-do list. The startup journey is a continuous, iterative process, and the MVP is just one milestone along the way.
Think of it like climbing Everest. You first need to get to basecamp (MVP) so you can collect information and map out your route to the next step (product-market fit). At every step, you’re assessing your expedition based on new information around the weather, the route, and your team.
There are a few methodologies that are perfect for this: design thinking, the lean startup model, and Agile. Design thinking is all about empathising with the user and centring your product as a solution to their problem. The lean startup model encourages a measure, learn, build environment. While Agile allows your product team to develop in short cycles, giving you time to learn from what the other two processes teach you and adjust your course.
The lean model is especially helpful for the MVP process. With such an emphasis on the feedback cycle, it’s all about treating each iteration as part of ongoing development, and not something you tick off the list and move on from.
The last thing you want to do is just build something and hope that it works. That’ll likely leave your team stranded on the side of the Himalayas. Instead, build your MVP with the right infrastructure — facilitating these design and learning processes — so you can keep moving towards the summit.
Build, Borrow or Buy
To create an MVP, you’ll also need a technical team for the build itself, and there are a few different routes you can take.
Building an in-house team might seem like the obvious option. But hiring full-time employees requires a lot of commitment upfront and is very costly for a young startup. Bringing in freelance developers is an alternative, but it can be a tough task for non-technical founders who aren’t experts in the field to find the right mix of skills and manage them.
Most of the time, engaging an agency will be your best bet. This way, you’ll get the wide range of expertise you need early on, as well as a team who’ll work with you to facilitate the process.
But it’s also important to find the right agency that can offer the flexibility you need as a startup. Most fixed price agencies will ask for a full specification upfront and build a single product from that, which can make it difficult for you to make changes to it for later iterations.
At Thought&Function, we keep a focus on where startups want to go in the future as well as what they need right now, and we build MVPs that can scale continuously with the business. If you’re going down the agency route, make sure you find a team that specialises in MVPs and not just app development. You need them to understand the need for a startup product to constantly grow and adapt.
Keep It in Budget
The key to MVP budgeting is to think about return on investment, not just what you can and can’t afford to do. For example, implementing multiple sign-in options alongside email might not break the bank, but as a feature it’s unlikely to attract many customers by itself. If you’re working with an agency that’s got a lot of experience with startups, their insight can help guide you through what features are likely to bring the most value.
Don’t be afraid of starting small. For instance, you might decide to only support a specific location or limited number of users at first. When Airbnb launched their MVP in 2007, for example, they had barely any tech and only focused on renting air beds and sofas to conference visitors in San Francisco.
Keep the goal of your MVP front and centre in your planning. Like Airbnb, do you just need to prove a concept? Or are you looking for specific metrics like user signups to help you get the next round of investment? Be practical, and prioritise what you need to build based on what your MVP needs to achieve.
About the author: James Zhao began his career as a software engineer – and quite a successful one – working for Barclays, KPMG, and on various projects for McLaren, Aviva and the Metropolitan police. Four years ago he co-founded Thought&Function where he brings commercial and product expertise together – along with an understanding of the start-up process – to give start-up founders the start they need: advising on strategy, handling marketing and sales, all while still dabbling in the build process.