Startup founders love adding new features to their MVPs – they just don’t love paying for them with time and money.  Given that your typical startup team is already pushing their limits on budget and time, every new feature comes with a dire cost.  If adding a feature delays reaching your customer, it could end your startup.  So the question is, “When is adding a feature worth it?”  If you’re successful, you’ll be able to add features later.  But if you don’t choose the right features early on, you may never be successful.  So the question is really one of Return on Investment – ROI.  Hopefully, this blog will help you think about ROI for features.

Time to Build

In my experience, there is no such thing as a startup MVP. There is no company in history that has ever created a minimum experience that is viable for scaling.  Every startup tweaks, adapts, and adds to their minimum non-viable product (MNVP).  When a product becomes viable for scaling, it is no longer minimum – it’s a viable product, or VP.  On the road from MNVP to VP, consider how long each feature will take to develop.  The more useful features you can build in less time means the sooner your product will approach VP.  The sweat equity it takes to build your viable product is your investment.  If you can get closer to VP with less sweat equity, you maximize ROI.

Feature Roadmap

Some features enable other features.  In such cases, you have to build one feature before you can build the next.  For example, you might need a login (feature 1) to enable peer-to-peer social chat (feature 2).  When considering your roadmap, list out all the basic features that are required for your most important features.  Lump these into the time allocation for your most important features.

Toothbrush Test

If you haven’t heard, Google uses the “Toothbrush Test”  to determine if they should build a new product or buy a startup.  If their customers won’t use the service/product several times a day/week – like they would a toothbrush – it doesn’t have enough impact for their customers.  If you look at Google’s core products (search, email, calendar, and mapping) they all pass the toothbrush test with flying colors.  So when thinking if you want to add a feature, ask yourself if it will increase your customers’ frequency of use.  Will adding a feature put you into the toothbrush category?  If not, the feature probably isn’t worth it.

Steak or Gravy?

All too often product launches are delayed by side features that fall in the “nice to have” category instead of the “need to have” category.  The nice-to-have features are the gravy, while the need-to-have features are the steak and potatoes.  Most people would eat steak and potatoes without gravy, but very few people would eat gravy without the steak and potatoes.  As a new restaurant owner, would you delay a waiter from delivering steak and potatoes until the gravy was done?  No!  No customer wants cold steak and potatoes.  Instead, run multiple trips – steak and potatoes and then gravy.  So why is it that startups make this mistake all the time?  It’s because they are trying to create the VP when they should be focused on a gradual transformation from MNVP.

Easy Sale

No features roadmap should be set without discussing the list with your marketing/sales team.  If a particular feature can drastically increase your startup’s traction, that’s the one you need to focus on.  If you can sell ten times as many widgets because of a particular feature, stop wasting time elsewhere.  That one feature will help you pay for the other features on your list. As I’ve said before, the best cure for an ailing startup is revenue.


Fun Bits:

  • Being able to separate the bells and whistles from the must-have features will help you get to market faster and validate your hypothesis with a lower investment.” -Rahul Varshneya (Entrepreneur)
  • Here’re a few important steps towards building an MNVP: 1) Work on the most important things first 2) Maintain quality 3) Ask yourself, is my product viable? –Stirling Olson
  • When deciding on the number of features that your MNVP should have, check out this graphic from Alex Iskold at Techstars  Features visual










Jesse Lawrence

Author: Jesse Lawrence

Founder and CEO of @Boulder_Bits also a Sci-fi lover, game theory strategist, and idea generator