As you’ll probably know if you’ve hit this blog, the idea of the ‘minimum viable product’ is a key part of the popular lean startup approach to developing products these days. For clarity though, the idea is that you develop a product with the minimum possible set of features and test that with potential customers. You do this because in reality you can only really guess at what they might like, and why bother building features that they might not pay for?

Building an ‘MVP’ isn’t always as easy as it sounds though. When you’re developing a new idea, it can be hard to resist the siren call of more features. It might be that you think you only get one shot at it, so why put a ‘half baked’ product into the market? In my case (with WineMinder), we didn’t really have the money to go around the block twice, so it was hard to pare things back. Still, things crept in, as they often do. You also need to be brave to put an MVP out there. It’ll be under developed compared to future versions, and it might not reflect your vision of what the product could/should be. So summing up the courage to do something less is a real challenge. Might sound strange, but it’s true!Which brings me to something point that I’ll tie back to the MVP in a moment.
There is a tendency to knock universities in Australia when it comes to innovation, including the type of graduates they produce. It’s pretty easy to throw stones at them, because universities haven’t really evolved to commercialise ‘stuff’; they have evolved to do research, and to teach. So saying they are terrible at developing ideas and people that can be turned into cash (which is what a lot of innovation is really about in the end, right?) is kind of like saying that Australians are bad at winter sports. It’s just the nature of the thing.
In any case, in light of those sorts of comments, I was surprised recently when I was dealing with a researcher who had created a device designed to support a research project. The ‘device’ is only a small step away from being a product with commercial value, but that’s not what they designed it for and they really don’t have the skills to turn it into a product (and if they did, they wouldn’t be researchers). And in talking to them, these were some of the things that came out;

  • They designed and built the project not with ideal parts, but with what they could lay their hands on, and they had the skills to combine into a functional device
  • They developed the device using a whole stack of hypotheses about how it might be used; their driving goal was to investigate those hypotheses and find out which were true and which were not (which is what researchers do!
  • They were keen to test the product with their target audience, to find out what features they’d use and how they’d use them; not because it would make the product more appealing, but because it would answer the questions (hypotheses) they had

Now that really sounds like an MVP to me. Simple, basic features designed to test assumptions, with a plan to test their assumptions and improve the device.

So I think I’d like to have a researcher or two on my startup team. They come armed to identify problems and strong frameworks to investigate them. And they tend to have a strong sense of curiosity which is a real asset when developing an MVP.

So I’m not as down on universities as some. I think they’re a great source of ideas, the key is knowing how to work with them. That’s not always straight forward, unfortunately, but that’s a subject for another time! But if they can create good MVPs that are a step away from being a useful product, then it’s definely worth working with them!

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