Q: How Do You Iterate An MVP So That It’s “Good Enough For Government Work”

Q: I am part of a hardware/embedded device startup working on our MVP. We want to develop a minimum product to cut our initial development costs and iterate scientifically through experimentation.  My concern is that State governments are my primary customer type and their buying model is to do a pilot project and then write what is essentially a white paper that specifies the product features tested and results achieved. This becomes the spec for future purchases.

Their approach doesn’t lend itself to iteration. I could certainly iterate after the fact, but then its too late: the papers out and their opinion is public. How can we take an MVP approach to product creation when our customer is a department? 

From your description of the situation your customer wants to buy an “off the shelf” device that has a fixed specification. They are not interested in supporting you to iterate or evolve your product except on what is probably a one to three year procurement cycle. You can still build an MVP but if you are entering an established market where the requirements are well understood you will need to satisfy most if not all of their expectations to be viable with your first offering.

Different agencies work in different ways. I am working with a team that is “selling” a hardware MVP to a group at the National Institute of Health (NIH) who understands that we are operating in an area of rapidly evolving requirements and that no viable alternative is available today. In this situation they are much more willing to fund a sequence of prototypes that can be used to address an increasing amount of the total problem.

You need to align your product development and customer engagement strategies with how the customer wants to buy.

Customer development is designed for early markets with high uncertainty or mature markets where there is an opportunity to segment ‘overserved’ customers of existing products. Where requirements are not changing–e.g. customers are well served by current status quo–and uncertainty is low it’s normally difficult for a startup to find a niche unless it can segment or discover a new category of customers for an existing product.

One good book on doing hardware MVP’s where a large firm is the target customer is “The Fail Proof Enterprise” by Bob Thomas.

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