A Primer to Live Free or DIY

Ever wondered why Google’s home page is just pure white space with a search field in the middle?

Back in 1999, when the Google team began to add additional content to that home page, they started receiving anonymous e-mails. Those e-mails contained just a single number: 37, then 43, and so on. What was the significance of the number? Soon the team figured out that it was the number of words cluttering the formerly pristine website.

More than fifteen years later, Google.com remains completely focused on the one thing that made the company famous: Web search.

It runs counter to the instincts of many entrepreneurs. Indeed, businesses are continually adding new features and services to their core offerings in an effort to chase what their customers might want (or, worse, what the entrepreneurs themselves think is cool). In fact, what separates successful businesses from failing ones isn’t the knowledge of which bells and whistles to add; it’s recognizing which features to eliminate.

And that’s why the concept of the Minimum Viable Product (MVP) is deeply powerful The Minimum Viable Product (also referred to as Minimal Viable Product), or the Minimum Viable Service (MVS), is the product or service that delivers the greatest return on investment for the least amount of risk.

That might not sound like a big deal, but in fact, it’s astonishingly powerful. Done right, an MVP can unlock billion-dollar markets. Consider, for instance, a scrappy little start-up called Dropbox.

When the digital file-sharing company Dropbox first started out, it was just two guys and a simple question: “If we can make sharing files across devices easier than anyone else, will customers give it a try?”

They weren’t proposing the best file-sharing tool or the one with the most features. They were only proposing the simplest. It’s the embodiment of that powerful three-word business plan: Do less, better.

These two guys had a great and simple idea, but the odds were still stacked against them. They planned to enter a market in which they’d be competing with Microsoft, Google, and Apple. Meanwhile, the Dropbox founders were just two guys nobody had ever heard of.

So how did they make their start? With a video that made the new company’s value proposition crystal clear: effortless file sharing across a variety of platforms. The video was also carefully crafted to attract a techie crowd— in other words, precisely the people who would be the most likely early adopters of such a technology. The video was just three minutes, and it was full of inside jokes that the techie audience loved. Then there was a simple landing page where viewers could log their names and e-mail addresses to become the first wave of Dropbox users.

The two founders launched the video and watched their list grow. In no time, they had five thousand people, then seventy-five thousand. Boom! No focus groups. No surveys with potentially biasing questions. They had seventy-five thousand people who didn’t just say they were interested, but who had actually taken an action to show they were interested, by putting down their name and contact information.

Armed with rock-solid certainty that there was a market for their product, the two founders then got to work. But did they build out their own servers and develop a product with a ton of features that would work on every imaginable platform? Nope, they sure didn’t. They built an elegant MVP.

Rather than build their own servers, they simply rented space from Amazon, and then built an interface that would allow users to easily move their files onto Amazon’s servers, and then back to their devices again. Did it work on every major platform? No. Was it the most secure system in the world? No. Did it have features for collaboration and ways to prevent two people from editing the same file at once? No. But what it did do, it did well. It just worked.

Then the two founders listened. Carefully. They collected data from their initial user base to keep improving the product, day by day, week by week.

Customers flocked. In 2008, they had one hundred thousand users. In fifteen months, by January 2010, that number had shot up to over four million. By May 2012, it had reached fifty million, then more than one hundred million, and over two hundred million by the end of 2013.

By the end of 2015, Dropbox was valued at over $10 billion. How did this lean start-up outcompete big-time challengers like Microsoft (SkyDrive and SharePoint Online), Google (Google Drive), and Apple (iCloud)? By maintaining a laser focus on their core value proposition: ease of use.

To this day, one of Dropbox’s biggest competitive advantages is how seamlessly it works across a tremendously wide variety of devices. Over time, Dropbox has expanded to more and more platforms, and has added more and more features, but it’s never compromised its core value. It just works.

So what’s your MVP? And how can you tweak the way you do business in order to do less, better? For starters, flip the pyramid. That’s next.