Kickstarter Lesson #105: Minimum Viable Product

24 June 2014 | 37 Comments

If you’ve heard the phrase “minimum viable product” (MVP) or the term “pivot” over the last few years, they’re probably an indirect reference to a book called The Lean Startup by Eric Ries. The basic concept of the book is that if you want to start a business or launch a product, don’t spend years perfecting it before you introduce it to the public. Instead, create the cheapest, most basic form of it and share it with the world to see how people use it before “pivoting” (adjusting your strategy).

Now, I want to be clear that you should not take the MVP approach on Kickstarter. Don’t put an untested concept on Kickstarter. Your product and your project page should be as refined as possible before launching.

However, I think the MVP concept can teach us all about the things we want to start or make, yet we can’t seem to bring ourselves to actually get beyond the conceptualization stage and share it with other people. It could be starting a blog or a podcast, playtesting a prototype game, recording a song or video…the list goes on.

Lots of things (fear, rejection, laziness) hold us back from actually starting something, and we have to get over that. But the point I want to make today is that by sharing your product with the world in some form and allowing people to interact with it will significantly improve the product in the long run, which will hopefully set you up for a successful Kickstarter campaign. Zappos-1

Here’s my favorite MVP story to serve as inspiration for you (I learned this by reading Delivering Happiness by Tony Hsieh: Have you heard of Zappos, the huge online shoe store? It was acquired by Amazon a few years ago for $1.2 billion, but they still continue to operate independently.

Given their size and success, you might thing that Zappos started with a boom–a beautiful, well-stocked, streamlined website, warehouses full of shoes, and a customer service department bustling with cheery employees.

In reality, Zappos was originally called A guy named Nick Swinmurn had this “crazy” idea that shoes could be sold online, so he patched together a very basic website. But he needed shoes to sell, and he had no money.

Nick happened to live near a small shoe store. One day he went to the store and took photos of a bunch of shoes to post on his website. Whenever someone bought a pair of shoes, Nick would run over to the store, buy the shoes, and ship them to the person.

Now that’s what I call minimum viable product! By spending next to nothing and having no inventory, Nick was able to learn a ton about how people responded to the idea of buying shoes online. He was able to evolve the concept over time, and he soon attracted the attention of Tony Hsieh, who helped take the site to the next level.

So the next time you’re struggling to get an idea off the ground, think about how Zappos started. Let go of whatever is holding you back and create an MVP. Maybe it’ll fail miserably, but at least you’ll know right away that it isn’t going to work instead of imagining how it might work for weeks or months. What will your MVP be?

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37 Comments on “Kickstarter Lesson #105: Minimum Viable Product

  1. One of the things I remember from reading “The Lean Startup” Mentioned here is what Eric Reis calls “The Wizard of Oz” approach. This is when you advertise a service, but behind the curtain it’s just you or your co-founders manually doing all the work. Just like Jamey mentioned Zappos here.

    I think that in the world of board games this can apply to two things:
    1 – When designers obsess about art or theme before testing the basic mechanics of the game, thinking that if they could just get the right illustrations the game would work. I always leave the theme and the art for last, making sure the mechanics are rock-solid and that the game is fun, even if it’s just abstract paper cutouts with numbers written on them with a sharpie.

    2 – When designers overly complicate their games before making sure their cardinal mechanism works. Often times I see designers who have a concept of a game mechanic they’d like to implement and when they test it out it’s a little jolty. Instead of shaving down and perfecting that one core element around which the rest of the game should revolve, they start appending sub-mechanics to take care of all the not-so-edge-cases that should have been avoided to begin with if they’d really thought their MVP through.

  2. Hey, so I really was not sure which blog to post this under, but I am curious about compliance testing. I noticed that Charterstone says Ages 14+.

    As I have begun my research for my card game design, I noticed that the government says that even if you place 14+ on the box, it can still be considered for a younger audience, simply based on artwork.

    Charterstone is probably the closest game you have to artwork for a young audience. How did you approach compliance testing in the US/Canada/UK/Worldwide?

    As I approach Kickstarter with HERO, I am wrestling with how to approach compliance testing. It’s a card game, that would be challenging for anyone under 14 years old, but certainly has that anime-ish art vibe to it.

    Moreover, not sure where to get the testing done.

      1. Do you know what tests need to be done for EU compliance?

        Also, do those test guarantee worldwide accessibility?

  3. Great advice! Definitely solid info for project creators. I completely agree with you concerning the importance of not taking the MVP approach on Kickstarter. Even though it is rare, often times those who take the MVP approach or just try to Kickstart a concept (and significantly overfund) end up disappointing their backers with a poor experience and giving KS a bad name.

    I believe this is largely due to 3 different reasons or outcomes.
    One, because they either end up providing a terrible untested and rushed product that has not been thoroughly tested.
    Two, the project is significantly delayed and shipped way later than promised (sometimes years later) because they have to take the time to create, test, and provide a great product.
    Three, the project completely fails and they give up on their product and often times backers are left hanging without a product or money return.

    Thanks Jamey, another great post.

  4. Stephen: Thanks for your comment. There are some tips about prototyping at the link below, and I can add one of my own: Get InDesign and use it to design the prototypes (Illustrator is fine too). I’m self-taught at InDesign, and I’m not very good at it, but I’ve learned enough that the UI of my prototypes is functional for playtesters (both local and blind playtesters). Good luck! :)

  5. Jamey Stemaier: Reading this along with your other lessons on Kickstarter have given me a lot to dwell on. David mentioned newtons first law. Its true and I’ve lived it for the pasted 3 years, with school by day and design by night. I started my designs using other game pieces, and drawing cards and tokens with pencil and paper.
    I’ve poured a substantial amount of time into this game I’ve been designing.. but I’ve hit a wall with my progress. Long story short, people say they really enjoy the game and ask when it will be ready to test again. The problem is the wall. The lack of uniform and functionality makes the game difficult to play and its no surprise that testers all say that its what needs the most attention.

    I need an official prototype something uniform that doesn’t look like its a PnP that uses other pieces from games to function. Currently I’m working on the blueprints for this prototype but I don’t know how I will be able to get it to physically exist.

    I’m wondering how you guys went about getting a prototype that you were able to show people and improve upon in order to get it ready to present as a project for crowd funding.

    Are there connections that I should get? People I need to make deals with?
    Do I just need to get better at crafting the prototype on my own?

    Any information/advice on how to get a quality prototype would be greatly appreciated.
    -Stephen I. Satnik

  6. Really wonderful advice. “Perfection as the enemy of the good” seems to be one of my biggest obstacles in professional life. By the time I feel confident enough to share an idea or strategy, the window of time has passed. Going to read this post in particular over and over again!

  7. Hi Jamey, do you think Tabletop Simulator be a good platform for MVP of board game? I think one challenge with MVP via this channel is that the players need to read the rule on their own, so it will be more of a blind test.

  8. I had a funny reaction to your comment “cooperative variant”. I got defensive and thought “it’s not JUST a variant, it’s a whole game!” And then it struck me, your comment was genius. What I think I’ll do is make up complete prototypes and submit them to reviewers (as you suggested).
    And it’s true, no matter how small the changes, they do carry costs, so if I was going along the lines of MVP I should base my campaign on the complete competitive game. Then hopefully if the reviews are positive for it AND the co-operative versions then the reviews will help to build the excitement for the corresponding stretch goals.
    Thanks again, you’re a machine!

  9. Conor: I think there are a few answers to your questions. For playtesters, show them everything. Test everything up front, for sure. Use that process to figure out what is core to the game and what could be set aside as a stretch goal or expansion (if it costs extra–if it doesn’t cost extra to make, it doesn’t need to be a stretch goal).

    As for adding a cooperative variant to a competitive game, that’s an interesting question. As a gamer, I want to play the best, most tested version of a game. I’m not big on variants because they don’t feel like the “real” game. However, I’m just one person. I’m curious what others think about that–you might start a thread on BGG about that to see what people think.

  10. I’m not sure if this question really fits in here but I’m having trouble finding a home for it. It kind of relates to the minimum viable product but in a different way. I’m designing a slightly more complex board game with a large number of variables to maximize replay-ability, and through play testing they all seem to work great. So my question is: how much of your game do you show? And it’s not a simple answer. I believe I’ve created a unique game, but If I show everything I worry about stretch goals, rewards and exclusives. Conversely if I hold back, what if that leads to my project failing? While I look at other campaigns sometimes I think “that’s a simple stretch goal, why isn’t it just part of the game?” The most obvious stretch goals to me would be to increase the quality of components. But does that generate enough excitement for backers? Maybe giving an example from my game would be easiest. The game was designed as a competitive game, but with a few interesting changes and a few new cards I’ve also created a stand alone cooperative game with the same theme but a completely different feel all contained in one box. Should I offer both at once or will that confuse people? Would it be better to offer it as a stretch goal because of the extra cards needed? But if it’s only 20 cards in a game that has over 150 unique cards why wouldn’t I just include it from the start and offer the complete package?
    Sorry for the ramble, but appreciate any insight you ladies and gentlemen may have!

  11. Definitely agree with kickstarter is not the place to launch a minimal viable product. I almost did with my game until a few good friends quickly grabbed me and warned me not to. I likely would’ve killed my game before even giving it a chance if I had done that. Especially as Kickstarter continues to grow. I remember a couple years ago I would see many campaigns that were print n play games that went through a few short rounds of playtesting and that was considered okay. But now those same campaigns compete against others with polished, well tested games and a manufacturing and shipping plan which just grabs my attention and boosts my confidence that they will deliver and I’m far more likely to give those campaigns my money over a minimal viable game. I have nothing against PnPs but like you said, Art is king.

    1. Jack: Well said! Sometimes I think it’s tough to know when your game is ready, but hopefully with the wealth of resources available, designers are becoming more and more aware of the full design and development process.

  12. ATXInventor – I’m curious, would you be willing to show your first Kickstarter? I would love a frame of reference for what you deem to be a small enough or “silly” idea to use as a test run.

    I have a number of ideas I am working on and hadn’t considered making a test run with something smaller before moving the first one into a Kickstarter.

    I’m here in Austin, also, by the way. Loving this weather :)

  13. My biggest advice to first-timers: do not Kickstart your dream idea, unless you are way beyond “dream” and the thing is fully functional already. Find the MVP, as explained above.

    Something hopefully simple, that you can follow through, test, make sure all is ready and together *before* you launch. If you don’t find a MVP inside your dream idea, do your first Kickstarter with some silly something else – don’t forget that the first successful Kickstarter had a goal of $20 for a hand-drawn picture. And of course delivered late…

    With the change in rules you can again offer multiples – when we couldn’t, we tended to overcomplicate our higher pledge Rewards. At least I did. – not a problem anymore. That will reduce your stress level as you try to deliver on time.

    The reason I suggest to keep your dream project for your second or third KS is that it’s hard enough to get it right without adding the emotional weight of your baby suffering. Your goal will be too high, etc. chances you will make it are very, very low. Your heart will break, you will end up paying 8% elsewhere, or worse, give up. Start small, simple, on something you can afford emotionally and money-wise to fail at. Make your mistakes cheap, hopefully get some minor level of success like I did (yes, my goal was only $650, but, how many people can go around saying they did over 300% their first time around?).

    Later you may try to complicate it, as I will… ;-)

  14. I see why MVP is attractive as a concept to you, Jamey. It’s your business model. You wouldn’t build a $70 or $90 game without pre-orders and backers and feedback. I also see why so many games that depend upon league or competitive play (under, say, a CCG model) fail, even with Kickstarter, because that MVP is much higher. The CCG is attractive because of the potential for continuous income streams, but unless you’ve got a local tournament with prize backing there’s not much reason for me to invest in the model (aka, buy boosters).

    So MVP works if you’re selling a product. What about a service? What If I wanted to start up a business that sells marketing analytics to startups? I suppose that falls neatly into MVP since the minimum viable product is nil, other than maybe a dozen case studies. Perhaps MVP is capacity, ie “I’m offering my analytics services to you because I have hours available in the timeframe you need, and if you purchase my services I”m not going to have extra to sell to your competitors.”

    I’m curious at what point Zappos changed their logistics model from “walk down to the store to fill an order” to “order inventory in advance and in bulk to reduce per-unit costs”. But Swinmurn’s idea worked because he recognized that shoe-shopping suffers from an information deficiency, especially when it comes to women’s shoes – you have no idea if this particular store will have something that you like, and in fact you may not know what you like until you actually see it.

    1. JT: I think MVP works really well for services (Zappos is essentially a shoe-selling service–they don’t make shoes). In the example you gave, I think the MVP would be to voluntarily give marketing analytics to companies for free until you build up a reputation, and then you start to charge for it.

      I think Zappos changed to a better model pretty quickly after Tony Hsieh came on board.

  15. In the board game world this is your playtesting prototype. Get it in front of friends/family as soon as you have a playable concept. Observe them playing and let them shoot holes in it and provide feedback. It is much better to get early on in the process in case there is a fundamental flaw.

  16. Interesting thought! As a meteorologist and science teacher I always wanted to educate others so in 1988 I came up with my first game, Hurricane – The Game of the Tropics. I figured it would help educate the players while it was fun to play. It had to be fun or no one would play it. I sold thousands of copies and the media loved it. Needless to say that really motivated me, but due to my job and having a family I had to put my dream on hold. I loved playing and creating games and my passion has always inspired me. Now today I have re-created the Hurricane Game, created Weather or Not board game and now my son and I have a created Tau Ceti – Planetary Crisis which will be on Kickstarter sometime this summer! I am so excited! Dreams continue to become a reality!

  17. There is a lot to be said for just doing something. It actually boils down to Newton’s first law: An object in motion tends to stay in motion and an object at rest tends to stay at rest unless acted on by an outside force. Whatever force it takes you to actually start something, will perpetuate and continue moving you forward; likewise, whatever is keeping you from doing anything, will continue to do so. I think this blog acts as a nice outside force to get people moving!

    I have never heard of MVP until I read this. It makes perfect sense – when I reflected upon how I might be able to get involved more with board gaming I asked myself, “What can I do that might be viewed as useful (or restated – what is my MVP)?” My answer – teach games in a comfortable and socially welcoming environment. Then my next question was, “who would actually pay for that?” My answer – corporate team building. And that is exactly what I have been doing!

    Fish or cut bait. Or as my grandpa used to say, “[Poop] or get off the pot!”


    1. David: I like the comparison to Newton’s Law, and that’s awesome that you’ve found a way to apply your interest and skills to something that’s profitable and helpful for other people!

  18. So true! Many of us gamers can spend lots of time dreaming of an idea, and many times we get in our own heads and don’t consider the market or how we might execute the idea. While dreaming and conceptualizing your idea is important, I think it’s just as important to spend time planning the implementation and execution of your idea. Of course, dreaming and conceptualizing is more fun, but we need to balance it with reality if we want to see it come to fruition.

    For us gamers, BGG is the perfect place to test the waters with your new idea. Early on, I posted my ideas on the forums, set up polls, connected with artists, and received lots of invaluable feedback for my game concept. This helped point me in the right direction, and gave me peace of mind in ensuring that I was creating something that would appeal to others. I was also able to move forward with art/graphic work, and begin investing money into my project because I was confident I was on the right track. It’s much better to do this work ahead of time than dream your way to Kickstarter, only to find out you had invested all that time into something that wasn’t feasible or marketable.

    1. Mike: That’s a great point about BGG, and I like the way you started discussing your ideas there from the beginning. I know I’ve had a few times where I thought, “This would be an awesome game!”, only to learn from people on BGG that the game already exists. :)

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