Eric Ries popularized the concept of MVP – Minimum Viable Product. MVP is a product or service that is good enough that the customers are ready to start paying for it (it gives them return on investment), yet still needs some polish. But adding those finishing touches would require putting in effort (and often money) that a young ever-changing company cannot afford yet. Lean startup methodology says — in essence — make a quick-and-dirty prototype and start selling as soon as possible; if you produce and they come to buy, start improving. It is thus a great method for testing if the market is ready for what you are trying to build. But is it the one and only method?

Build it and they will come is a philosophy characteristic for the factory era. Remember the time when the consumers told one another that oranges showed up in a store on the corner? And then bought those oranges in heaps, without looking at their quality or customer service? They were a crowd whose needs were largely unmet — all you had to do was to produce and they appeared. Today the same consumer can choose from ten different kinds of oranges in five shops. The information that oranges appeared in a nearby store does not affect him in a slightest bit anymore, he’s more likely to be wandering around the store than fighting at the shelf or standing in line for his goods. A line for a new PlayStation or an iPhone? Forget it! Maybe in America. Our reactions are more calm — we’ll order, wait…

I’ll tell you a secret. Do you know where people stand in lines today (but nobody can see those lines anymore because they queue in the privacy of their homes)? They line up to get information on products. A conference introducing the new iPhone has a huge, global audience, they’re watching it live. They are the most engaged fans, they’re the first wave. The second wave reads the information about the device on the following day along with the morning press. You can be certain that it is them: the first and the second wave, who will order the new phones ahead of the others.

Why am I telling you this? Because I want you to be aware that a successful story about a product or service is the new produce and they will come for this generation of consumers. If you manage to gather an audience big enough, you can start your production lines without fear, you can invest in prototypes or promotional campaign. But the thing you need at the very beginning is called Minimum Viable Audience, your own crowd (big or small, it’s up to you) that will be fueling your marketing machine. But without the audience your prototypes will pass unnoticed.

So the next time you plan your marketing actions, introducing a new product line to the market, commencing the works on the prototype should only come after having asked the question:

  • What should my minimum viable audience look like?
  • What kind of people they are, what message should they receive, how can I reach them in a most effective way?

If you plan this step carefully the people will be standing in lines before even you start selling anything. This is the best scenario you can imagine.

Broken Age © Double Fine Productions

Case study

On February 9th, 2012 a game studio called Double Fine Productions started a Kickstarter project for their new game, Broken Age. Kickstarter is a crowdfunding platform — you can tell people about your product there and if they deem it worthy, they will help you finance it. There is no better way of testing your audience than to actually ask for their money.

Broken Age project was credible — people who founded Double Fine Productions had worked for Lucasarts on legendary games such as Grim Fandango, then successfully released their own Brutal Legend. And they were good at telling their own story. They were aiming at raising 3 million dollars.

On March 14, 2012 the Kickstarter project ended. It took Broken Age only a month to raise $3,336,372, a record even at Kickstarter’s standards. All the backers (people who paid money) were promised a copy of the game and some bonuses — if your support was big enough you could even have a character in the game named after you.

Double Fine Productions was one of the first in a very long line of independent game developers who first found their minimum viable audience, and only then started production.