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Proof of Concept vs Minimum Viable Product: What Are They, and Which Should You Be Focusing On?

Jul 7, 2022 1:20:22 PM

Are MVP and POC the same? Do businesses need to do both, or should one come before the other? What are these processes and what are they intended to achieve? In this post, we’ll clarify what the three most-used testbeds for building new products and businesses actually are, and look at when businesses should use them. By the end, you’ll know which approach makes more sense for your business. First, what exactly are POC and MVP?

What are POC and MVP?

Proof of Concept and MVP are different tools, designed to achieve different purposes. A Proof of Concept (POC) is there to show that the idea (concept) you’ve had works. It’s a proof in the sense we normally mean, to show conclusively or to prove that something’s true. But it’s also a proof in the older, original meaning of the word: to test or try. So it’s there to both showcase and discover the value of your idea. Your idea might turn out not to be very valuable at all! Better to discover that before thousands of hours and dollars are lavished on it.

MVP is Minimum Viable Product. It’s the one thing you do that demonstrates value to a group of people, and the least amount of tools you need to achieve that. We’ll keep this intro to the concept brief — if you’d like a more in-depth discussion, you’re looking for this blog post.

In software, MVPs often involve a certain amount of clumsy working around. Many are assembled by scavenging from existing tools and components. It’s not about creating novel code, it’s about demonstrating new value. MVPs are often scrappy, sometimes not very easy on the eye, or perhaps don’t work as well as they should.

How much all of this matters depends on the intended audience. Some software companies create an MVP to show to five VCs. It just has to give those users a feel for what the tool will do. Others are consumer-focused and need to convince end users, so UI matters more.

When we worked with NexRev, a Variable Frequency Drive (VFD) company that supplies control tools to reduce HVAC costs and energy use, we built an MVP for the software we were going to create for them. It required manual inputs, was a little slow to use, and part of the audience for it was us, as well as NexRev. It wasn’t targeted to end users. But it did the job: it demonstrated that a tool could generate input values for installation technicians. Automating sensor input was an iteration, so was creating a robust codebase and intuitive interface. The MVP proved it was worth doing those things.

We should also talk about a third type of testbed: prototypes. A prototype is the first draft of something you’re going to produce for sale. It’s a proto (first) of a type. This is where you’ll specifically identify and iron out the bugs and problems associated with building and marketing a particular product.

In general, you’d pay more attention to MVP if your concept was already proven and the technical demands of the solution are also well-understood. If the concept is totally novel it might require more extensive demonstration and testing. And if the concept is well-founded but the solution requires experimental technical elements, more prototyping might be required.

As an example, let’s suppose you wanted to set up a business tailoring and adjusting clothes. Your POC might be checking around with family and friends, getting a couple of customers, and doing the work for them, for the price you’re considering. Now you can find out if you have the tools you need, if people want what you’re offering, and if you can run a profitable business doing it. The concept for your business can be proved.

Your MVP might be shortening, lengthening, and hemming pants: there’s lots of demand, lots of repeat customers, low price point, technically undemanding. You can easily delight people by doing something they can’t or don’t want to do for themselves. If my pants used to fit horribly and now they fit great, I’m pleased If the change cost $15, I’m downright delighted. You can generate income and reputation now, and move on to recutting formalwear, repairing biker leathers, and tailoring wedding dresses later.

Prototyping might involve doing some practice pieces using specialized tools like overlockers for denim, or handling specialist materials like leather.

This example uses an already-existing business model, tailoring, to make the point. Hopefully, it also shows that MVP, POC, and prototyping are not totally separate. Many MVPs exist to provide POC!

MVPs are often tests for new business ideas that aren’t proven or familiar, meaning that while potential profits may be higher, so are risks and technical limitations. It’s a more agile way of allocating capital and effort, versus opening a full-service tailor’s shop and then looking for customers.

What are POC and MVP for?

proof of concept

POC is about finding out two things:

1: Does anyone want it?

2: Can we build it?

This is the stage at which to discover and address any particular engineering issues. You don’t have to have schematics of every nut and bolt of the finished product. But you do need to have some kind of idea of what challenges will be involved and how you’ll address them.

So far in this post we’ve used quite abstract examples: cars, or a tailoring business. But we’re really talking about software. When you build a new tool you have to identify what you need it to do, what you’re going to use to make that possible, and what skills you need to do that. For instance, building a basic web app with some interactive functionality might require a database, an HTML page with some CSS, and some JavaScript to handle the interactive elements. If your team has no JavaScript skills, you need to go get some: hire, outsource or upskill until you’re in a position to build the features your product needs to have.

MVP is about finding out a broader range of information, including:

  • How do we build it for production?
  • What minimum set of features does our audience want?
  • How do they experience value?

Done perfectly, MVP lets you line up core features with your core audience.

For example, let’s look at an app that lets you post photos and geotag where you were when you took them. That app could have a ton of other features. But if it won’t let you upload photos, and tag their location, it’s a failure. Those are actually quite simple features to build, so we’d recommend building them, launching, and attracting some users. If 25,000 users sign up in the first 24 hours, you might be Instagram. Now, Instagram has tons of other features, all launched to and tested by a constantly-growing user base. But it started with a restricted set of core features that was of value to a core audience.

What’s the difference between MVP and POC??

POC is used by developers to test whether an idea is practical. What that means for developers is, can we make this function? They’re less concerned with whether it has product/market fit, and more concerned whether it’s capable of functioning technically. When Apple made their M1 chip, they will have done some POC work to make sure it can carry the Apple OSX and run Mac software effectively. But these tests were technical in nature; they’re not about whether there’s a market out there for the M1 chip.

On the other hand, MVP is used more by businesspeople. It’s about getting a product that’s useful enough that users will engage and give you feedback, so you can iterate in response to that feedback. MVP is their reason to care enough to tell you what they want.

One idea we’ll come up against repeatedly in this post is that these aren’t hard and fast distinctions. A lot of the time, technical and marketing people are in the room when product decisions get made. And in small startups, they’re often the same people.

When should you focus on an MVP vs a POC?

The decision really comes down to where information is missing. If you’re at the stage in your decision-making process where you already have an audience, features, go-to-market plan all validated, money coming in from enthusiastic users… well, then you wouldn’t need either. The decision, ‘focus on MVP or focus on POC?’ is part of the process of determining what you need to get you to that point and don’t have yet.

In general, businesses should focus on POC if their product is concept-heavy. For instance, nowadays, the idea that people might want to buy something online has been pretty comprehensively validated by some of the biggest companies on earth. We can say, with some certainty, how they prefer to do it. There’s a set of best practices: free shipping, secure checkout, and so on. So if your idea is for an online store, that part of things does not require POC testing.

On the other hand, if your idea is reliant on a novel or unproven technology, or it is a genuinely novel business idea, you might want to spend more time testing the concept itself. Imagine you’re AirBnB: do people actually want to rent out their spare rooms to strangers? Hard to say a decade ago, pretty much settled now. POC testing was important here.

MVP testing is more important if you’re relatively sure of the concept. People love to eat sandwiches, but will they love to eat ours? Depends what we put in them. If your business’ service or product is a well-validated concept you’ve effectively outsourced the POC process to legacy competitors who were there before you and did a lot of the legwork. You should still do some; fortunes have been lost by overestimating public demand for another app that serves an already-saturated market. But much of the ground has been covered.

So should your business focus on POC or MVP?

focus

The trouble with this question is best illustrated by looking at a case study. I mentioned above that the concept that people want to buy stuff online was comprehensively validated. But it wasn’t always so. One of the people who did a lot of the heavy lifting for it was Nick Swinmurn. In 1999, Nick’s concept was selling shoes online. But there was no reason to believe that there was a market; no data existed. Nick set out to prove his concept.

He built a website, named shoesite.com for the avoidance of confusion. Here’s the Wayback Machine link, but there’s not much to see, just a bunch of text links and broken images. When someone bought a pair of sneakers off his site, Nick would go to the store, buy the sneakers, and mail them to the purchaser. (This mechanical-turk frankenproduct approach is common in the early days of new ideas when they’re still being tested.)

The following year, shoesite.com became Zappos. The concept had been validated and the beginning of the long, still-continuing ecommerce boom had started. Now, partially thanks to Nick and his trips to the store, there are people who have never bought a pair of shoes in person.

So was shoesite.com a POC? Yes, of course. But wasn’t it also an MVP? Without a website for people to buy from, how was Nick to test his idea? The question POC or MVP is a question of emphasis, not an either/or.

How can AndPlus help?

AndPlus has helped businesses design and build new products across multiple niches, industries and platforms. We’ve helped startups create their first product, scaleups build their first app, and established companies innovate and grow. In many cases, projects to build innovative solutions inside existing businesses involved the creation of MVPs or prototyping of technical solutions. When we work with startups we’ll seek to validate business and technical concepts, engaging with your team to ensure that you’re making decisions based on reliable data.

We can also help with technical preparation. When you’re building a new solution we can match the most appropriate existing technologies — from interface design to database architecture — to create the best possible result for your users and your business. It’s not just a question of bolting together pre-existing systems; AndPlus’ team includes world-class software engineers, UX/UI designers, and project managers, so we can build your whole solution from the ground up.

Takeaways

  • POC: Proof of Concept. Demonstrates that the idea of your product or service is valid.
  • POC seeks to answer: ‘Is this idea feasible?’ with a focus on ‘if’ and ‘why’ questions.
  • Prototype: testbed for product. Identifies problems and jobs to be done to permit production.
  • Prototype Seeks to answer the question: ‘how will this product work, at a technical level?’
  • MVP: Minimum Viable Product. Demonstrates that your product or service itself is worthy of investment, subscription or purchase.
  • MVP asks: ‘What are the core features, how do they facilitate the product’s value proposition?’ with a focus on ‘what’ and ‘how’ questions.
  • In software, technical and business issues are two sides of the same coin, so seek to work with a partner who can see them in an integrated way and offers assistance in both.

Image Credits

Featured Image Source, Robot Hand, Focus

Brian Geary

Written by Brian Geary

Brian is a true believer in the Agile process. He often assists the development process by performing the product owner role. In addition to his technical background, he is an experienced account manager with a background in design and marketing.

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