MVP Forms and Manifestations
As Figure 1 suggests, MVPs fit between the testability threshold and the exploitation threshold. MVP forms that are displayed above the testability threshold indicate that they deployable for experimentation. The upper bound of the MVP space is referred to as the exploitation threshold (we describe this threshold at the end of this section).
The most basic form of entrepreneurial artifact that has been described in the previous literature is the thought experiment (Shepherd & Gruber, 2021). A thought experiment is an abstract hypothetical scenario that lies within mind of its creators (Folger & Turillo, 1999). As it relates to entrepreneurship, thought experiments are at the highest level of abstraction, and can be used to imagine how new products could be deployed to meet unmet market needs. Indeed, the ability to imagine new possible scenarios is an important skill which can influence idea quantity and quality (Kier & McMullen, 2018). However, the inner thoughts of entrepreneurs are not spoken; in many cases entrepreneurs may not even be able to articulate such thoughts (Cornelissen & Clarke, 2010). Moreover, the thought experiment alone cannot furnish new empirical observations (Haggqvist, 1998). Given our definition of MVPs as tangible substantiations deployed for the purpose of learning, thought experiment fall outside the boundaries of the MVP. We acknowledge that a thought experiment could certainly have internal value for an entrepreneur and is representative of an entrepreneurial artifact; however, without tangible representation it is not testable.
Just above the testability threshold, lies the napkin sketch. The founders of Southwest airlines famously developed a “napkin sketch” of their idea for an airline that would transit from Dallas, Houston, and San Antonio, Texas. The sketch mapped out the initial business model to use as a point of internal discussion and fulfilled the goal of communicating the idea, however napkin sketches are limited in their testability as they are essentially a basic drawing or illustration of an idea. However, it is possible that entrepreneurs could still conduct relatively weak testing with a napkin sketch, although it is likely that such actions could have negative consequences for perceptions of the venture’s legitimacy and reputation (a critical point we will return to later in our proposition 2). Yet, the MVP in sketch form is still tangible as it can be shared and understood by others even though it is not a three-dimensional object.
One level up from the napkin sketch, there are several MVP manifestations that fall into the zone of passive interaction – where users testing is possible but largely a passive experience. The explainer video is an MVP form that is used to visually display a potential solution. Before developing the full product, Dropbox co-founder Drew Houston developed an explainer video to convey to potential users how the product would allow for seamless syncing across devices. Dropbox was proposing to build what at the time of launch was a very complex product; one that required multifaceted integration across operating systems, management of large files over slow internet connections, and handling of file conflicts. The explainer video, although non-functional, helped Mr. Houston ensure that people were interested in the product and enabled Dropbox’s waiting list for the beta product to go from 5,000 people to 75,000 people almost overnight. Nonetheless, while viewing the explainer video potential users could not actually interact with the MVP itself. Other MVP forms in the zone of passive interaction include the wireframe diagram, the live product demo, and the 2D mockup.
At the next level up, we find the zone of dynamic user interaction. A commonly used form here is the landing page. A landing page is a basic webpage that displays a visual representation of a product or service to a potential customer. In some cases, the landing page is used to gather initial customer acquisition estimates or to gather basic contact information from potential customers. A slightly more deceptive form of the landing page presents customers with a “buy now” button. Other manifestations in the zone of dynamic user interactions include the clickable web/mobile app, the 3D physical product, and the crowdfunding campaign.
Finally, in the zone of simulated experiences we find several forms. The Wizard of Oz MVP is used to create a simulated customer experience using a combination of technology and manual workarounds. In a recent New York Times article, Eric Reis, the founder of the lean startup movement discussed an “app where you could take a photo of food and it would tell you how many calories were in it. They said it was driven by proprietary technology. But they were really just using people hired to look at the images” and manually estimate the calories (Kessler, 2021: 2). This hybrid tech-human arrangement exemplifies the Wizard of Oz MVP, but also reveals that implicit in this type of MVP is deception. Reis responded, “Customers generally don’t especially care how the technology works as long as it accomplishes their goal… this happens very often.” Entrepreneurs who use the Wizard of Oz MVP attempt to put users in a fully immersive front-end experience without vision or knowledge of what exactly is happening “behind the curtain”, hence the name Wizard of Oz. If well designed, users might (falsely) believe that the technology or back-end that supports the product is fully functional. The concierge MVP is very similar to the Wizard of Oz MVP, however rather than relying on deception, users have a view of what takes place “behind the curtain”; continuing the above analogy. With the Concierge MVP the back-end including individuals providing manual services remain visible and transparent to the customer (Bland & Osterwalder, 2019). Entrepreneurs often rely on these two forms of MVPs when the full product requires an extensive technology build out. As such, a reliance on manual processes that don’t require an initial investment might be a necessary first step to test user experiences. As Hoffman explains, “sometimes in order to scale, you have to first do things that don’t scale.” Other forms in the zone of simulated experiences include “pop up” physical tests and function heavy inventions/innovations (see Table 1 for more details).
The upper bound of the MVP space is referred to as the exploitation threshold. March’s (1991) seminal work distinguished two distinct organizational modes, exploration and exploitation. Exploration involves search, variation, risk taking, experimentation, play, flexibility, discovery and the pursuit of new knowledge; whereas the exploitation phase is focused on production, efficiency, implementation, execution, refinement and the use of things already known (Levinthal & March, 1993; March, 1991). Theoretically, once a firm reaches the exploitation threshold, the driving motivation of the firm shifts from an experimentation motive to a primarily exploitation-motive. At this point product artifacts deployed by the firm no longer fit the definition of the MVP, even though additional learning is likely to occur; consistent with prior exploitation research that specifies a shift to routinized learning and the tendency to institutionalize reliable behaviors into routines during the exploitation phase (e.g., Laureiro-Martínez, Brusoni, Canessa, & Zollo, 2015).
Of course, in practice it is not uncommon for entrepreneurs to combine several MVP manifestations. For example, sometimes Explainer Videos are displayed directly on Landing Pages, Crowdfunding Campaigns might display 2D Mockups, the Wizard of Oz MVP might rely on a Clickable “no code” App to facilitate interactions with users, and so on. Nonetheless our discussion and representation of discrete MVP forms and the boundaries of MVP space provides a conceptual foundation upon which the rest of our work (and future MVP research) can be built. Such definitional and concept clarity is an overdue contribution that is needed in the literature (Shepherd & Gruber, 2021). In the next section, we continue our foundational conceptual development of the MVP construct by presenting three important dimensions of MVP fidelity.