The Minimum Viable Transaction


In 2009, an entrepreneur named Eric Ries coined at term that would move the field of product development forward. The minimum viable product (MVP) making something that could “collect the maximum amount of validated learning about customers with the least effort. Over time, the MVP stood for the difference between shipping “error-free” shrink-wrapped software, and releasing something barebones that you can test and learn from. And while corporate America and the U.S. federal government are just starting to adopt the ideas of lean startups, the term is starting to show its age.

In the late 00’s, the core experience of many Silicon Valley startups was entirely contained in their website (and later mobile app). Using Facebook, Zynga, Mint, or Basecamp started and ended on a user’s browser or mobile phone.

Of course we had Paypal, eBay, Amazon and lots of other transaction oriented services, but they were fewer in number and mostly around buying goods, rather than buying services. I’m not saying making products is suddenly trivial today. But there are now so many more tools like Heroku, Stripe, Bootstrap, Ruby on Rails + Libraries, compared to the mid 00’s.

The world has changed a lot since Ries coined his term, and I think we need a concept that goes beyond MVP. Many of the fastest growing startups right now – Instacart, Homejoy, Airbnb – they facilitate real-world transactions of goods, services, and money. Sometimes this is called online-to-offline: technology facilitates the transaction, but it is just the beginning.

Transactions are the New Products

When I was in DC, I met a woman working on an interesting app idea: a marketplace bringing together piano players and piano owners who rarely use their expensive instruments. The idea was that pianos could be listed on the marketplace and players, who often couldn’t afford a piano of their own, could play their instrument. When I asked this woman what her current plans were for the project, she said she was trying to wireframe the marketplace for a web and mobile application, figure out payment processors, etc.

She was thinking about a minimum viable “product”, assuming that the product would be the biggest risk factor. When in fact, it was whether anyone would be willing to actually “do the deal”.

Would a piano player actually fork over cash to go to a stranger’s house and play the piano? Would a home owner allow someone they didn’t know into their house and potentially bang up their precious piano? The only way to find out is the make the transaction happen, manually if necessary.

Introducing the Minimum Viable Transaction

A Minimum Viable Transaction is the simplest possible exchange of goods, services, or cash that allows an online-to-offline entrepreneur to extract maximum learning. After you execute a few MVT’s, you’ll have a way better idea of the market need for your business and how difficult it will be to execute. Often the “product” is nothing more than text messages, emails, and web forms. The real work is bringing the various parties to the table to do the deal.

Note: this is similar to, but not the same as, “sell before you build”. Because it’s not enough to get someone to “pre-order” software. You really want them to go through the experience of the transaction, whether it is going to get your hair cut on a scheduled appointment or recruiting two friends to go out for drinks with three strangers of the opposite sex.

To build a successful online-to-offline business, you need to validate the market with a Minimum Viable Transaction

The Biggest Risk is Not the Tech. It’s the Market

One more story: before we settled on Ridejoy, my cofounders and I were thinking about related peer-to-peer sharing businesses. One idea we tested was renting/lending camera lens. They are expensive and rarely used, so perhaps there was value for both lenders (extra cash) and borrowers (lens for one-time use for cheap).

We didn’t build any software because we knew the hard part was getting people to part with their precious lenses. We hit up our photographer friends and tried to see if they would let us borrow and lend out their lens. We also hit up people on Craigslist who were trying to sell their lens, and asked if we could “rent” it for a few days and pay them for the time.

What we found that 1) our own friends, who presumably trust us a lot, were very nervous about letting us rent out their lenses and 2) people who are selling their lenses are NOT interested in renting them out. They want to get rid of them. We saw that the transaction was going to be too hard, and software was not going to magically make it better.

So don’t get hung up on your product, especially if your business idea involves real-world interactions. Go execute an MVT.