Minimum Viable Products and the Power of Validated Learning

BY Celisa Steele


minimum viable productA few weeks ago, I mentioned the idea of minimum viable product in a post on market assessment called “Are You Testing Like You Should?

Today I wanted to provide more detail about what a minimum viable product is—and how you can use it in your association’s education business.

What a Minimum Viable Product Is

Eric Ries, of Lean Startup fame, popularized the term minimum viable product, seeing it as a way to bridge the extreme of the build-it-right approach and the release-early-release-often extreme.

Organizations tend to use the build-it-right approach when they think they only have one chance to get it right (whatever “it” is—Web site or widget or educational product), and so they withhold it until it’s as perfect as they can make it. The dangers to this approach are are at least twofold:

  • Maybe the organizations are wrong about only having one shot to get it right. Maybe their market is more forgiving and would welcome the chance to see the “it” earlier. Maybe they’re losing their market to competitors while they’re polishing the product behind closed doors.
  • Even if the organization does have only one shot, without market input until the end, there’s no guarantee that the product, no matter how perfect, is going to be needed or wanted.

The dangers of the release-early-release-often approach are the “it” may be buggy and the “it” may be too dependent on user feedback. Listening to the market isn’t so great if the market doesn’t know what it wants or needs—or if the organization listening can’t get a clear bead on what the market is saying (e.g., every person in the focus group says she wants something different from the next potential customer).

The minimum viable product approach tries to minimize the dangers of both extremes and blend the best of the two approaches by building a viable product (beyond release-early-release-often phase) but doing it minimally (not to the point of build-it-right perfection).

The Importance of Validated Learning

Validated learning involves testing an initial idea (e.g., our members would welcome more education products on topic X) and using metrics to confirm or disprove the accuracy of the initial idea. Combined with a minimum viable product, validated learning provides invaluable information for building and growing your education business.

You can, and should, assess your market—ask your members and other customers what educational products they would like to buy. But there’s often a saying-doing gap. What members say they want, they don’t always use.

With a minimum viable product, you aren’t asking your customers to tell you if they would sign up for a course like Y or Z—you’re asking them to actually sign up for course Y or Z.

How You Might Use Minimum Viable Products in Your Education Business

If you’re already using the minimum viable product approach for some of of your education products, I’d love to hear your comments on what you’re doing and the results.

If you’re not yet using the minimum viable product approach, are there opportunities to apply it to your development of new education offerings?

Here are some potential applications. Spark any ideas?

  • Build out the first month’s worth of content for a six-month course.
  • Rather than investing in hotel and place-based logistics, use WebEx or GoToMeeting to try out a new conference to gauge demand.
  • Cobble together free or cheap tools (YouTube, Google Drive, Skype, etc.) to offer a new education program (like a mentorship program for young professionals in your field) rather doing intense integration or white labeling of platforms upfront.

The power of validated learning is that you get feedback before you go too far down any particular path. If what you learn validates your initial idea, then you can proceed to add more features—or determine you really don’t need particular features. Maybe that new conference is just fine as a virtual event – but you won’t know unless you take the concept for a test run.

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