Maybe you work at the one company that built their product right the first time. If you do, you’re not at Google. Google (and many others) have followed an iterative development process that started with a very minimalist, majority functioning, prototype that proved to the world - and future investors - that the idea behind the product was legitimate. Sometimes this minimalist first version of a product is called a proof of concept. Product Owners refer to the same as an MVP or minimum viable product. MVPs are a bit more rigorous than simply proving the idea, but that’s basically the purpose of an MVP: Reliably demonstrate that a product concept (a) has market value, (b) functions as expected, and (c) has the potential to scale. Of course, you’re friends at Unicorn Corp - the ones who built a perfect product from the get go - may simply be counting users, which is great, but they may do well to remember that MySpace once had the entire total addressable social media market as their user base and now feature as the literal “but” of this - and every - social media joke.
Why Google loves MVP development
It’s easy to find a screenshot of Google from a time before their Mountain View campus, self driving cars, and Alphabet. It’s even easier to have a good laugh at the screenshot because… well… it’s just ridiculous to think that the data gathering, advertising, software developing monstrosity that Google is today could ever have such humiliating origins. Any company with an exclamation point in its name just can’t be a serious enterprise, right?! But that is exactly the (exclamatory) point.
What is clearly visible about basic product functionality from the above is two things: 1. Google indexes sites and 2. You can search that index quickly and easily. These are the building blocks of Google’s greatness. Without reliable search there are no users. Without users there is no ad revenue. Without ad revenue there is no Googleplex campus, no Alphabet, no acquisition of YouTube. What the above screenshot shows, is that MVP development focuses on the core functionality to deliver a repeatable and valuable experience for users. What you can’t see is that behind the scenes a simple and effective algorithm is automatically indexing sites, outstripping the competition by orders of magnitude.
Does it have market value? Yes - 10,000 queries / day in 1998. Unless they’ve got one really excited user, lots of people are on board and returning often.
Does it function as expected? Yes - again - Google would see declining query numbers (and likely a much smaller average with low reliability).
Is it scalable? Not an easy question to answer from that sparse splash page, but we know from the history books that Brin and Page had an algorithm indexing websites, where others were indexing manually.
All in all, this is a great MVP and a great example for future product owners. Google proves that their tech works and that they have a growing user base. They have established product-market-fit.
Why Amazon loves MVP development
Here’s another hilarious screenshot. It’s final resting place is probably in Bezo’s Lunar cottage in an anti-matter encrusted frame, over a carbon-neutral-wood-burning fireplace, right next to a similarly framed Billion dollar bill. The point being that, like Google, Amazon’s hilarious origins demonstrated product-market-fit and defined what would eventually become a completely new market.
Clear in this screenshot is Amazon’s purpose: selling books. Not clear is the product that they were proving. Many think it’s ecommerce. It’s not. Three years before Amazon.com “opened” its doors, Books.com (now owned by Barnes & Noble) was driving more than 500k users a month to their online bookstore. For all the history buffs, the first official sale made over the internet was made between MIT and Stanford students over ARPANET in the late 1970’s. Books.com was simply books and, according to its founder was intended to make “every book ever published” available for the owner. In contrast, the Amazon vision was easy, self-service transactions, over the internet; a store with no cashiers, that never closes, and doesn’t require high-priced retail real estate. It took nearly 10 years for Amazon to prove to the world that they could effectively eliminate retail overhead and, thus, gain a competitive edge over every brick and mortar store, ever. With the closing of hundreds of retail locations from the nation’s most popular brands, Amazon’s case is proven. All the same, let’s go through the list:
Does it have market value? Yes. Books.com validates the market. 500k users a month ain’t no joke in ‘94.
Does it function as expected? Yes. Books available for self-service purchase, 24/7.
Is it scalable? Yes. This seems obvious to us in retrospect, but in the beginning the demonstration of scale was not as clear. Amazon needed to show that they could sell books online with minimal overhead and thereby prove that they could sell any book sized object with the same minimal overhead - which they did by expanding to offer DVDs and CDs in later iterations.
Again, this is a great MVP and a great example for future product owners. Amazon didn’t need to invent a new thing - like Google or Facebook - they just had to build a version of someone else’s idea that worked at scale.
Why Facebook loves MVP development
More recent in the way back machine is the humble origins of your mom’s favorite way to see what you’ve been up to: Facebook. Before we get too far into the tale of Zuckerberg’s uncanny luck at developing a product for naval gazers right when naval gazing comes into vogue, it must be said that Facebook is distinct from Google and Amazon in the sense that it was never intended to be what it’s become. How can it still be relevant to our present discussion of MVPs? Easy. Just as Amazon’s rise to glory shows that you don’t need to invent something new to develop a billion dollar MVP, Facebook shows us that you don’t even need to have a business plan to take your small scale popularity survey (the original Facebook) from a prank to a premier example of great product development. Whether or not he actually came up with the idea, Zuckerberg’s true genius is following the market he created to a product that 1/8th of all humans on earth couldn’t get through their days without. In fact, Facebook today is as much an MVP for what it will be in the future as it’s 2008 origins were an MVP for what it has become. But - just for good measure - let’s put it to the test:
Does it have market value? Yup. While Facebook may not have had user numbers to write home about, it’s viral nature and invite-only access made it the coolest thing on the internet before things were even cool on the internet.
Does it function as expected? Yes. Although, users set their own expectations for Facebook - even in the early days - and with the exception of a few scandals, those expectations are largely met.
Is it scalable? Maybe. Before we can answer this, we need to know what it means to scale a social network. In fact, dictionaries and MVP handbooks point to Facebook as an ideal example of scaling social. But what is it - in the early days - that shows us scale? Virality and engagement. That same invite-only, stealth launch between college campuses that characterized the early days is what proves scale. Zuck didn’t spend a dime attracting users. As we would later find out, the value of a social media platform is exactly equal to its users.
Great MVP even if it took 5 years to prove that what he built was even monetizable. Our hats are off both for the product and for Facebook’s ability to let user behavior drive development iterations.
What have we learned? (1) Build a thing people need. (2) It doesn’t have to be a totally new, 100% original, groundbreaking idea to be successful. (3) Listen to the market. Start slow and add more, as needed. As always, we’re here to help if you get stuck.