Apple, one of the most successful tech companies, does not do minimum viable products (MVPs) (at least they don't anymore, anyway). An Apple launch is probably one of the most choreographed tech launches you can imagine. The Apple Watch was years in development before Apple took it to market. The only thing close to an MVP was the iPod Nano that was square - it was accidental that it could also work as a watch. It gave Apple (as well as Pebble) the idea for the smartwatch, but it was not an MVP for a smartwatch. Even in its early days it focused on building whole finished products, not MVPs. The accepted wisdom of the Startup Community today is to build a minimum viable product, test it with early adopters, and then use the learning to build a successful venture. The theory is to learn fast, validate the business model and key assumptions, iterate until you have a product that customers will love, and investors will come flocking. But there's one big gaping problem with the MVP concept. The problem is with the target audience for the product. The Early Adopters. Early Adopters are, according to Geoffrey Moore, author of Crossing the Chasm, (check here for a good primer on the tech adoption curve) are the first individuals to try a product. They are willing to take extraordinary risks to be on the bleeding edge of new products and services. They are differentiated from other customer types, especially mainstream customers who tend to be more risk averse. The mainstream customer will not use a minimum viable product, because they are looking for a whole solution to solve their problem.
Early Adopters are Explorers First
The early adopter may have problem pain points that are similar to the mainstream customer, which might validate a market-fit for a product. However, they also have a very specific pain point that new products address, and that is the need to be on the leading edge. They have a very personal need to satisfy that is deeply emotional, the status that comes with being someone on the bleeding edge, to explore, to pioneer. It's the same drive that led Christopher Columbus to search for new roots to India, drives scientists to explore our world, and drives some to view the heavens and seek to explore outer space. Quite simply put, early adopters are curious and your minimum viable product gives them the opportunity to explore. It doesn't automatically mean that you've solved a market pain point. It means that as founders, you need to be a bit more careful about whether your MVP is addressing the right pain point. It's easy to see early traction and think that you have a winner on your hand, but it might just be the explorers testing the waters. By "validating" your business models with early adopters, you are missing key segments of the market that will use your product. So how do you know if your MVP is truly validating the problem scenario you've mapped out in your business model canvass?
Whole Product Simulations
If you really want to test your business model, then you need to test with "whole product" buying simulations aimed at mainstream market participants, as an MVP may not be enough. There are a whole lot of assumptions to clarify about this. They probably need to be able to buy the product online (although I can envision participating in trade shows with a demo to qualify). You have to be able to run these simulations without damaging your brand or your market viability. And you have to have enough graphical design & mockup of the product or service that the mainstream customer thinks the product is real. This ability to "simulate" a whole product has gotten easier with ever decreasing cost of computer power and the advent of 3D modeling and 3D printing. You can take this a step further by actually taking pre-orders for the whole product. This is risky, as you may in the end decide not to produce the whole product, but getting customers to actually commit to buy your product is very strong validation. It's a method that Tim Ferris recommended in the 4 Hour Workweek.
Crowdfunding is another way to potentially test the viability of the whole product, but be cautious as many people who crowdfund products and services tend to be on the early adopter end of the scale. Their motivations are not purely about solving a personal problem, but being part of bringing a solution to market. The point of the test is to test whether mainstream markets are ready for your solution or not. Part of the message on the test campaign should be that this is what the finished product will look like or be, and that people who are crowdfunding at high levels are effectively buying the product.
Another way of testing the market is to announce or "launch" vaporware. This is where you announce a product that hasn't been built or manufactured yet with a release date far into the future. In many ways this is how Apple, Video Game Producers, and Movie Studios go to market. Apple "launched" the Apple Watch far in advance of its actual launch. This "launch" allowed it to get real market and analyst feedback while completing the development of the launch itself. Video game developers and movie studios create trailers (essentially launch videos) for their product well before it's been produced, but it's billed as a future whole product. They then gauge the market reaction and market intention to see the movie or buy the game.
This approach has a number of risks. The first is that you might upset some future customers if they can't get the product you've advertised. They might be upset if the features you pre-announced are different from what you actually deliver. The second is that you are making your solution public before it’s built, and it may give your competitors time to watch for market validation and then copy your approach. And you may need to ensure that you are truly putting the product in front of your target customer set. The goal itself is to still be true to the Lean Startup approach. Build an MVP that can validate your business assumptions, and the key assumption that you need to validate is whether you have product-market fit with mainstream customers, not explorer-curiosity fit. What you need to decide is what minimum viable product approach is the right approach for you.