Building an MVP from First Principles

How to test a new idea

Happy Saturday to every unicorn in the galaxy.

When I started getting active on Twitter in late 2021 I was struck by two things:

  • “Everyone” wants to get more followers

  • Twitter doesn’t make it easy to search and analyze your followers

It seemed like a big disconnect.

So I hired an engineer to code up a searchable Twitter follower database:

  • Authenticate via Twitter

  • Syncs all followers in real-time

  • Search, sort and label functionality, etc.

It was cool because my Twitter audience was growing quickly back then and I could easily discover any “founder” or “marketer” etc. following me.

The problem was that syncing followers in real-time is idiotic.

Let me tell you why:

  • It’s an engineering nightmare

  • It’s expensive

  • It’s unnecessary

I was personally curious to use the tool for networking, but once it was built I rarely used it in a valuable way.

Ironically, once it was fully functional, I decided to shut it down.

I made a few classic startup mistakes on this side project and it’s a useful example for the discussion that follows.

Today we’re going to look at how to build an MVP from First Principles.

You’ll learn:

  • How to develop a hypothesis and validate it

  • How to minimize unnecessary effort and investment

  • How to maximize the likelihood that your MVP gets traction

Today’s growth strategy is Building an MVP from First Principles.

Growth stage: Early

Difficulty level: Medium

“Make something people want.”

Y-Combinator’s famous mantra, a nod to a first principle of business

First Principles Thinking

I’ve been on a first principles kick lately.

If you’re new around here, you can check out my other first principles guides below:

First principles thinking is great for introverts, because it gives you a framework to arrive at unique and potentially profound approaches to solve problems and grow your business.

You don’t need to do what everyone else does.

In fact, mimicry will almost never lead you to breakthrough new ideas.

But the thing about new ideas is that most great ideas appear dumb at first.

MVPs are perfect for testing wild new ideas.

So let’s dive into the first principles of building an MVP so you can launch something successfully.

What Is a Minimum Viable Product? (MVP)

MVP in startup terminology means the simplest thing you can build to prove out the potential value of a business idea.

The goal of an MVP is to validate a hypothesis without spending much time or money up front on it. Just enough to get some customers and discover whether people would actually pay money for what you’re offering.

No bells or whistles.

Nothing fancy.

Your hypothesis could be many things, but the validation you’re looking for usually comes down to answering this question:

“Would people pay money for this?”

Building an MVP from First Principles

I met an old friend recently who’s building an interesting machine learning tool.

He spent about 20 minutes giving me a demo and then asked if I would find it useful.

It was clear that his application would help non-technical folks.

But I couldn’t think of a single urgent need I have personally that would require his product.

Sure, I could spend 10 minutes brainstorming the type of information I would find useful to predict at some future point as a marketer. But I didn’t have an urgent need.

So instead of answering Yes or No around whether I would find it useful, I explained that he should approach his user interviews inversely:

Find a single use case with tons of obvious utility and build the best tool ever for that specific use case.

The people with that problem will go mad for your product.

The value will be OBVIOUS to the intended user:

  • They will intuitively understand when they see it

  • They will want to pay money for it

People want solutions to their problems.

Start with a SPECIFIC problem.

Build a SPECIFIC solution.

That’s it.

First Principles for Building an MVP

  1. Identify a strong desire, large problem or need

  2. Brainstorm novel ways to solve that problem or fill that need or desire

  3. Take your best idea and develop a hypothesis around it (see above)

  4. Choose a level of investment you’re comfortable with:

    • pre-product (yes, you can get a signal pre-product)

    • minimum viable product

  5. Choose a validation method based on your chosen level of investment

  6. Identify & build only the features necessary to validate your hypothesis

  7. Establish the parameters of a quantifiable test

  8. Run your test

  9. Use test results to decide whether to continue iterating or not

The question is not to build then validate or validate then build.

It should be:

What’s the minimum “thing” necessary to gauge whether this idea can (some day) make money?

It’s up to you when defining your test what level of evidence you’re going to accept as a signal to keep going.

MVPs are all about: should we keep going down this path or try something else? 

Don’t expect to have a profitable business from an MVP.

You’re simply looking for enough signal to decide whether to continue your exploration.

How to Validate an Idea Without a Product

There are several ways to validate a product idea without actually having a product.

I’ve used many of these myself over the years.

If you have experience with online ad platforms like Facebook and Google, it’s straightforward to use advertising and promotion to gauge potential interest.

Run paid ads to a fake page:

Tim Ferriss famously A/B tested different names for 4-Hour Work Week to see which one got the highest CTR.

Running different product ideas to a lead capture form can be useful to get a rough idea of lead acquisition costs.

Even a CTR test can help you decide between different products, value props, or as mentioned, company names.

Run a pre-launch pre-sale:

Pre-launch pre-sales are fairly common. Offer a big discount for a new product to people willing to pay up front.

I did this myself earlier this year for the SEO optimization MVP I was working on.

Build an audience:

Having an audience on organic social, a newsletter or elsewhere allows you to put ideas in front of a supportive community and get instant feedback. The downside is that building an audience is very time consuming.

When Is an MVP The Right Approach?

Uncertain demand: afraid your idea is dumb? an MVP can give you confidence or set you straight before you throw away your life savings.

Limited resources: MVPs are great for broke and scrappy entrepreneurs.

Raising funding: investors usually want signs of traction or market validation. An MVP can show existing demand.

Complex products: why spend years building something no one wants, when perhaps you can get a good enough answer in a month?

Common MVP Mistakes

Feature creep: adding more features can be a form of procrastination. Don’t let fear of rejection keep you from putting your ideas out there. It’s been said that if you’re not embarrassed by your first product launch then you’ve waited too long.

Not considering monetization: it’s easy to fall in love with an idea and pursue it in a trance without anticipating the need to make it into a business. Look a few steps ahead and be sure to ask yourself, “How will this make money?”

Not thinking about scale: imagine validating that people want something you’ve made but you have no way of making more of it. Think ahead and ask yourself, “If this is successful, is it possible to support 1,000x the scale?” You’ll need technology, manufacturing, people or some other repeatable processes.

Not having a clear goal: going back to my original example of the Twitter follower tool, I could have validated the idea without building the sync functionality at all. I should instead have studied the value of identifying your followers effectively and whether that’s something people would pay for. The reality is that people selling services via Twitter DMs do pay money for that, in static list form. But this isn’t an interesting product or value to me.

If you’ve been reading this newsletter for a while, you know that I’m a fan of avoiding complexity.

Minimum viable products are a great way to focus on the essential.

Even if your idea fails to take off, building MVPs is a great way to hone the skill of seeing what is necessary vs nice-to-have.

This skill can be applied to many areas of business, allowing you to shorten time to learnings across your activities.

For example, how would you devise a minimum viable ad campaign to test whether a new traffic source or ad angle is worth pursuing?

I may tell you in an upcoming issue…

If you read last week’s edition you heard that I went to a concert and sent out a brief note about the Metallica Razor.

Here are the results of that “brand study”.

I’m happy to report that my unsubscribe rate was no higher than any other week.

Thank you for reading, it means a lot.

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✨ That’s it for today!

I hope this helps you in your growth journey.


PS - I’m going on vacation next week to cap off a beautiful summer. The next edition of Unicorn Growth Strategies will hit your inbox on September 9th.

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