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With Matt Weiss

Common traps when building an MVP

When you’re building your minimum viable product for your early-stage climate startup, a lot can trip you up. From thinking you know more than your customer, to building a product that isn’t user friendly, there are many stumbling blocks that will stop you gaining the insights you need - and all the time and money you spent on your MVP will go to waste.

Matt Weiss is head of product at Ezra Climate, and was previously a partner at IDEO. We sat down with him to outline the most common traps he’s seen founders fall into. Get to know them, make them common parlance in your business, and do everything you can to avoid them. 

1. The ego trap

As a founder, you probably have a high level of expertise when it comes to your company’s focus area. You know the industry inside out, maybe you’ve been in your user’s shoes. That experience is a huge advantage when it comes to developing your idea, but in the testing phase - when you’re building wireframes or conducting user research - it’s more important that you can listen and learn, which means you need to let go of what you think you know.

If you let your experience get in the way, you’ll assume your users are anomalous or wrong and won’t learn anything. In a worst case scenario, you’ll defend your ideas in front of your users - a pointless exercise which won’t change anyone’s mind. If you don’t like what you hear from your users, accept that it isn’t because you’re testing it wrong, or speaking to the wrong people. Listen without judgment and let your users teach you what your product really needs to be.

Note that despite its name, the ego trap doesn’t mean it’s wrong to think you’re the only person who can make something really ambitious work - it’s OK to be bold, and successful founders need a high level of conviction and self-belief.

2. The wild belief trap

Wild ideas are great when you’re in the exploratory phase and brainstorming creative, out-of-the-box possibilities. But they stop being so helpful when you’re considering an MVP. At that point, you need to reign in your wild ideas and start being diligent and more realistic about what you’re going to build.

Don’t abandon your big idea completely! You can look for a way to walk it back to something that’s much more achievable, but accomplishes a similar goal. For example, say your wild idea is to share equity in your venture with all of your customers - dialing that idea back might mean paying a dividend at the end of the year to a certain number of users.

There’s three points you need to consider before going ahead with building your MVP: 

  1. Do you have evidence that people will switch from the status quo to use your product?
  2. Will building it create meaningful value for your company, right now? This value can take many forms, depending on your current situation - it could be revenue, a higher user count, data, etc.
  3. Can you actually build your MVP without getting stuck in trap #4?

3. The crap trap

MVPs are meant to be scrappy - after all, the intention is to build as little as you possibly can and then iterate. But if you don’t take the time to make them compelling enough for users to enjoy them, you run the risk of not getting to test what you actually wanted to test. 

Say you come up with a new piece of functionality that you’re keen to put in front of your users as soon as possible, so you slap something together in a hurry, but it’s messy and hard to use. Compared to everything else they’ve seen from you - where you sweat the details and spent time on making it a pleasant experience - your users will probably think it looks scammy and low quality, and they’ll quickly jump ship. 

To avoid the crap trap, your first filter needs to be whether the people in your company are proud to put it out there and excited to have people use it. Even though it’s just an MVP, it should be able to stand alongside everything else you’ve built. If it checks that box, put it in front of some friendlies to get some quick feedback - they don’t have to like everything, but you should be able to test what you had in mind very quickly.

4. The trap of a thousand cuts

This trap involves building too wide and too shallow, and typically occurs when a founder thinks their MVP needs a baseline across all the features, or people won’t be able to use it. This creates huge problems - it’ll take forever, and there’ll be countless bugs, generating an insurmountable amount of product debt. Plus, you’re not going to get your users deep enough into any part of your product to get worthwhile feedback, because they’ll be frustrated with how precariously things work. Essentially, you’ll die from a thousand cuts. 

Instead, follow the ‘land and expand’ model outlined in our conversation with Josh Felser - focus on building the features people really want first, so you’ll have an easy job selling your product, and layer more down the line. It’s better to have delighted users of a specific feature who are banging down your door for more, than users who are disappointed and confused with your product. 

5. The roadmap trap 

When - at long last - you’ve finished and shipped your MVP, it’s tempting to finally get on with whatever’s next in the backlog. But you can’t move on just yet. If you want to actually learn anything from your MVP, you need to pause and learn from what you’ve just done. Although it can be hard to carve out the time as a startup with a small team, you need to be monitoring emails, talking to people, watching user sessions, and looking at bug reports and metrics. This is how you truly dial in your product functionality and decide it’s ok to move onto the next part of your roadmap.

6. The revenue later trap 

This mistake involves thinking it’s OK if your MVP doesn’t bring in any revenue - surely it’s just around the corner, and will come with the next release. Your MVP isn’t just a test of a product, it’s a test of a business model. If it’s not driving a business model related metric, like revenue, that’s a major red flag. Don’t try and convince yourself otherwise. Establish these metrics ahead of time, engineer them into your MVP launch, and don’t kick the can down the road on making your business model work.

Matt Weiss leads product at Ezra Climate, a climate fintech infrastructure company. He was previously a partner at IDEO where he built and led the CoLab and led the company’s early Climate Venturing work. Matt’s a former founder himself, and advises and invests in climate startups. 

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