Congratulations! You've got an idea for a product that you think is innovative and engaging and might even attract investors. You're excited...and you have an initial budget...but you don't know what comes next in the progression from light bulb moment to product launch.

Enter the MVP, short for "Minimal Viable Product" — the validation of a concept in physical form. As the simplest possible iteration of a product needed to prove it works, an MVP is all you need at the start for an early customer (or investor) to grasp your product’s value proposition.

A properly executed software MVP enables you to:

  • Test if your assumptions hold water
  • Gather user feedback to fix initial issues
  • Rapid-test iterations for a faster launch
  • Conserve valuable time and money

Think of your MVP as your product minus bells and whistles — those can be added and perfected later on.

MVP development can be approached in several ways depending on the product, but these five steps will always be critical:

1 - Do your homework.

How valuable is your product? That's one question any would-be founder must answer, yet it's impossible without understanding the market, the needs of your target audience, and your competitors.

Start by establishing your target audience, identified only by demographic essentials (e.g., age, interests, habits, and device usage) and what the problem you are trying to resolve for them or the need your product addresses.

Once you have that identified, consider conducting small surveys of members of your target audience to gauge their interest and uncover details you might not have thought of.

Your competition is going to be one of your best sources of information. Identify who the competition is and study feedback from its users. For example, if your competition is another mobile app, look at customer reviews of that app to see what they might be missing and how you could do better.

The research phase is all about validating your assumptions regarding who your user is and what they need that your competitors don't offer.

2 - Identify your product's value.

Now that you know the competition and your target audience, you can craft your value proposition to reflect your clients' needs. Knowing what makes your product relevant to your target audience helps you zero in on the fundamentals of your product — the guts of your MVP.

Think of it this way: Your product has to solve a problem in a way that both your target and your potential investors can instantly identify. For example:

  • Airbnb allows hosts to generate extra income by pairing them with tourists looking for an authentic, unique experience that hotels can’t provide.
  • Lyft enables rides any time, anywhere.
  • Robinhood enables retail investors to access the stock market via mobile.
  • Fishbowl provides a community space for professionals to discuss their industry anonymously.

Startups often fail because customers don't see the value of their product — and that's a failure of the startup, not of the customers. Make sure your concept and the product’s value and user interface are clear from the get-go and your chances of success are much higher.

3 - List all of your features. Then kill most of them.

Working for months (or even years) on a project is a substantial emotional and financial investment, and it's easy to not see the forest for the trees. Some features that you might think are essential might be fluff or not necessary at the MVP stage.

To sort what matters from what doesn't, list every feature you think the product could include, and then go through each one, asking yourself if it is core to the product's value. If the answer is yes, good — keep it. No? Cut it.

If you're resisting letting go of features in the "no" pile, remember that every feature means more time building and testing (and budget) before your MVP can launch, and that you can add any feature you want back in later on.

Also, discipline when it comes to cutting features helps you see your product's fundamental value better, as the user experiences it.

4 - Build, launch, and test your MVP.

So by now, you've researched, deliberated, and made some tough calls. That means it's finally time to translate theory into practice by bringing on developers to design the UX and UI and get down to coding.

Your MVP build should be rooted in understanding the user experience of your product as a series of steps. For example, if you're building an E-commerce mobile app, you need to think through how many steps it takes a user to go from opening the app to making a purchase. Designing the app for quick and easy interaction is essential for the MVP's functionality, and a low-barrier interface means more user engagement and more customer feedback in future iterations. Ideally, you also want to make the user experience enjoyable, even at the MVP stage.

Once you have the actual build nailed, test it, gather feedback, and iterate based on your findings. After your QA team greenlights a stable version, you can try it out on your friends and family; their experience will offer additional insight into how the outside world will respond to your product.

Continue to make adjustments based on feedback. When you're ready, beta test it with your target audience. Collect all relevant data and metrics, clicks, downloads, conversion rate — anything related to how your MVP is used.

5 - Listen, ponder, reiterate, update, repeat.

Feedback from the beta release will enable the barebones product to transform into the dazzler you envision, and for the duration of the product's lifecycle, user feedback will be one of the most reliable sources for educated insights about improvements, possible pivots, and the general viability of your idea.

MVPs shine their brightest and demonstrate their value in the beta phase. By enabling nascent startups to "fail" faster, MVPs support trial-and-error product development for a fraction of the cost — and thus a fraction of the risk — compared to sinking years and untold amounts of money into a full build.

If your prototype sails through testing and wows investors, consider it ready to grow and meet its potential. With an MVP under your belt, you can invest time and money with confidence, reintroduce technical complexities and features you might have sacrificed early on, and see how far you can push the performance and profitability of your product.

No full-blown product can succeed without that initial research, strategy, feedback analysis, and iteration that go into an MVP. Everything that is learned, confirmed, corrected, and debunked in the course of developing an MVP carries over to future versions and even to other endeavors. With a good MVP, nothing goes to waste.