Read this before building your next projectMost new ventures fail.

This statement has been pounded into our entrepreneurial souls, at every step of our product development and growth journeys. It’s the reason why so many startup entrepreneurs and corporate intrapreneurs stop before they have a chance to get started. Nobody likes the thought of taking on a big risk, especially when facing a failure rate that some startup analysts quantify to be 92 percent.

It’s this idea that underscores the rationale for running a minimum viable product (MVP) that yields the highest return on investment at the lowest risk.

MVPs help entrepreneurs and corporate intrapreneurs outsmart the odds of failure by compartmentalizing big decisions—and big risks—into a series of smaller ones. As a result, we’re empowered to course-correct our decisions before risks outpace our chances for success.

Here are 3 product development stories from past Lean Startup Conferences to guide you, regardless of whether you’re part of a 3 or 30-person team, through the experience of building your next MVP:

1 – Diagnose your customers’ needs, in depth, before writing any code

Tip inspired by: Daina Burnes Linton, CEO and founder at Fashion Metric

Wasted engineering resources are a new venture’s worst nightmare.

The most important step that startups and enterprise organizations can take is to gain an understanding of your customers’ exact needs and pain points, before writing any code. This curiosity, patience, and planning will help us ensure that products are solving the ‘right’ problems instead of throwing darts in the dark.

For a case study, check out this talk from Daina Burnes Linton, CEO and co-founder at Fashion Metric, at the 2013 Lean Startup Conference. In it, she shares how she validated—and pivoted—her product’s direction before investing in engineering.

Prior to building, Linton and her team challenged themselves to understand the precise pain point that customers were facing, and through a process of rigorous and iterative experimentation, realized that Fashion Metric would be something different than the product originally envisioned.

Linton traveled to malls all over the country to ask potential customers about their most pressing shopping challenges. Linton explains that surprisingly, none struggled with deciding what to buy — the original problem that the Fashion Metric team wanted to solve. Instead, the team discovered another consumer pain point: the ability to find items that fit well.

Burnes and her team developed a landing page advertising a great product to deliver shirts with an impeccable fit. Interested audiences could sign up by sharing their email addresses. Linton and her team would then connect with customers, walking them through a 10-minute questionnaire. At the end of the process, customers would receive custom-fitted shirts.

This ‘Concierge’ was a manual process that empowered Fashion Metric with two advantages: (1) the ability to accurately gauge interest, as some consumers were spending upwards of 45 minutes on the phone and (2) the opportunity to identify questions that weren’t effective in predicting fit size.

Before writing code, the Fashion Metric team was able to develop an accelerated understanding of the problem, a thorough understanding of the target customer’s pain point, and a more in-depth view of trends and technology feasibility.

2 – Sanity check your ‘expertise’ against the needs of your market

Tip inspired by: Margo Wright, founder at Yenko

Margo Wright, founder of education technology platform Yenko, has spent years empowering students for success and helping schools build upon their graduation rates. For the past five years, she had been wrestling with the big question of how to improve graduation rates for college students.  In her talk for the 2013 Lean Startup Conference, she shares what she learned from launching her MVP to challenging her assumptions and pivoting her initial idea.

Having spent five years tackling this question and working with countless students, Wright felt confident that a web-based app would the right solution. She built a platform that pulled multiple sources of student data, but when she tested the concept with customers, she realized that her solution was the wrong one. Wright’s target market of educational organizations didn’t want what she had built. Not to mention, her initial assessments were missing a very important piece—student perspectives.

From this feedback, Wright embarked on a journey to uncover her next learning milestone—what customers and students actually needed. She realized that her domain expertise was clouding her product direction and that her best solution would be a fresh perspective.

To start, Wright aimed to learn why some students prioritize some initiatives like sports over others, like studying. What she uncovered was that students have more success with accomplishing  shorter-term rather than longer-term goals—the consequences of showing up late to basketball practice, for instance, are more immediate than the outcomes of procrastination.

This insight was critical to the next iteration of her product, which helps students break down ‘big’ milestones into smaller steps through financial aid monitors, assignment calendars, and a grade dashboard. By diagnosing the needs of her end users, Wright was better positioned to create a more tailored technology product.

She’s tackling a big vision by taking very small steps.

3 – Streamline your operations before building backend technology

Tip inspired by: Keya Dannenbaum, founder at ElectNext/Versa (acquired by Change.org)

The Ubers and Airbnbs of the world make growth look easy. Create an innovative product in a new market, and bam—explosive growth ensues. What these idealized perspectives overlook are the incremental decisions that founders are making along the way. When visualizing the learning process, don’t imagine an exponential growth curve. Imagine and prepare for a slower and steadier process with roller coaster-like ups and downs.

In her talk for the 2013 Lean Startup Conference, ElectNext’s founder Keya Dannenbaum points out that the key to success is practice. She encourages founders to prioritize keywords like ‘minimum,’ ‘accounting,’ and ‘batches’ above words like ‘passion’.

Dannenbaum explains how her team powered the earliest version of ElectNext with Google Docs rather than a sophisticated backend system. From this very basic product, her team was better-positioned to gain an in-depth understanding of how future technology should look.

What’s notable about ElectNext’s Google Doc- meets-email platform was that it was the company’s first profitable product. It wasn’t anything fancy.

It was enough, however, for Dannenbaum’s team to learn, practice, and evolve.

The big takeaway

Every company will have a different definition of ‘minimal.’ Challenge yourself to trim down the features that you think you need. Outsmart your assumptions. Don’t marry yourself to technology. We achieve big wins by taking small steps everyday.

Now in its sixth year, The Lean Startup Conference empowers business leaders, managers, and founders to become visionary entrepreneurs and corporate innovators. Join us from Nov 16-19, 2015 in San Francisco to hear ‘in the trenches’ stories and to connect with a community of innovators who are tackling the exact same business challenges as you.  Tickets are on sale now. Register and learn more about the conference here.

There is still time to get your tickets at the ‘spring sale’ price. Click here for all the details.

This post was written by Ritika Puri, resident storyteller at The Lean Startup Conference.

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