How to Validate Your MVP with Real Users

A Guide for Early Stage Startups

You’ve got what you think is a fairly solid concept - you’ve analyzed your market, identified a pain point among a group of real, living (potential) customers, and determined that there’s a solution you can actually charge money for.

Wait. Stop. Did you skip that last step? Go back. Ask more questions. Find out if there is *really* a market opportunity for you here: will real people actually hand over cash in exchange for the product you want to build. If the answer isn’t “hell, yes”, and you don’t know - to within maybe an order of magnitude - how much they’ll pay, then you aren’t working on an MVP. You’re wasting your time.

“But Ben, how will we know if people will pay for our product before we build it? Or at least an MVP?”

This seems like a complicated question, but it really isn’t: you ask them. First, you should have identified actual, living, breathing, functioning people who have a well-defined problem that you want to solve. And then….

Wait for it….

You ask them how much they would pay to make this problem go away.

Here’s an example from my own business(es): Like every small business person, I have to keep a set of financial books. For the most part, it isn’t terribly complicated: I bill clients, they pay me, I pay my team (and, usually, myself) and a few bills for overhead like my @indyhall membership.

There are a LOT of tools out there which make bookkeeping “easier”: QuickBooks, FreshBooks, Xero, etc. And some very smart people have put a lot of earnest, thoughtful effort into making these tools easy to use, automatically pulling in data from different sources, and outputting absolutely lovely reports and financial statements.

And I hate using each and every one of them with the white hot rage of a thousand burning suns.

It’s not that I *can’t* use them, it’s not that they’re *hard* to use; it’s that I have better things to do with my time than reconcile bank statements (or even review statements that have been automatically reconciled.)

I hate it. So much so, that I once left my books completely untended for an entire year.

This is me, as I contemplate having to balance my books each month

Me, thinking about bookkeeping

My accountant was furious thrilled; he got to charge me to review 12 months of books in addition to preparing my taxes.)


These people are brilliant, for one simple reason: they have taken an aspect of business management which is necessary, painful, and often avoided, and made it stupid-easy for people like me.

For about $200/month.

That is dirt-cheap. Stupid-cheap. It’s-costing-me-more-not-to-buy-this-cheap. All I have to do is look at the pretty reports and graphs once a month.

broken image

Me, thinking about the work I've been avoiding

So: if you haven’t validated with actual customers that there’s cash-money waiting around for you to collect in exchange for solving some problem of theirs, stop working on your MVP, and go figure out what problem exists which you can actually get paid for.

So You’ve Validated That There’s Money In This For You

Believe it or not, the next part is easy: creating a continuous feedback cycle that you can leverage to create and improve your product, refine features, target specific submarkets, and generally bring something to life that will deliver real value (for your customers, and for you.)

Those folks you talked to earlier about whether or not they’d pay for your product?

Welcome to your new Customer Experience Advisory Board.

Send each one of them a short email like the following:

“Hey [[Debbie/Brad/Whatever Their Name Is]]


It’s Ben - we chatted a few months back about a my idea for a product that would [[solve some annoying problem you have]]. We’re building it, and I need your help again.


Would you be willing to be a member of our Customer Experience Advisory Board? This is a small group of potential customers who will have a major impact on the direction of [[product name]] - people I trust to give me honest and direct feedback on [[product]], and who currently [[have the problem which product intends to solve.]]


When we last spoke, you said you’d be willing to pay [[price/month or year]] for [[product]]. I know your time is valuable - and I know that [[product]] doesn’t actually solve anything yet - so if you’re willing to help us make [[product]] work exactly the way you need it to, I’ll gladly give you the first year of [[product]] for free.


If you’re interested, just reply to this email, and I’ll send you some more details.





You Have Now Completed the Hardest Part of Any Research

Getting feedback from customers - really useful, really insightful feedback - is hard. But getting valid, useful participants to give you that feedback is even harder.

Now that you’ve enrolled a panel, your job is much easier. Each time you need feedback, just email your panel. One person at a time, personally addressed. You’re getting the big picture here and you need to treat your Advisory Board as individuals; this is not automated testing (though you might mix in a few remote automated review sessions), and it isn’t acceptance testing. This is Customer Experience Research, and you need to conduct each conversation one-on-one.