Is a Survey An MVP?

Surveys Aren't As Valuable as MVPsI get this question from time to time from first-time entrepreneurs, and I got it A LOT during my business school days.

Does a customer survey count as an MVP?

The assumption behind the question is that by asking potential customers (and presumably receiving positive feedback) about their interest in a product, you can determine whether they will actually buy your product. The short answer:


Feedback from investors, friends, and business contacts about your offering is valuable, but doesn’t count as a product. We’ve all seen ideas trumpeted as brilliant by the investor community that customers yawn at. Google Buzz comes to mind. Entrepreneurs routinely fail at creating companies which seem like rock-solid ideas once market contact is made.

Here’s why: there’s a huge difference between the thought process of analyzing a business concept and the though process behind actually buying a product. I’ll bet if someone turned on an fMRI machine and looked, we’d see that wholly different parts of the brain are used.

One big reason is that abstract concept analysis is by definition impersonal and abstract, whereas buying decisions are inherently personal and specific. When you’re being asked to buy, you automatically ask “what’s in it for me?” Surveys and other proxies start with the premise “what’s in it for someone else“?

Another huge difference is the time available to reach a decision. When one agrees to take a survey (or hear a pitch, or take a meeting with a colleague), one is willing to invest time and effort into the endeavor for abstract reasons (professional interest, personal connections, novelty). The anticipated payoff is similarly abstract. Buying decisions aren’t like that – getting someone’s attention and persuading them buy from you is a wholly different challenge from asking them to consider an idea. If you can successfully get a customer’s attention and close the deal with some sort of buy (or promise to buy) decision, the results are more valuable by orders of magnitude.

Pro Tip: Sell First, Then Build

Here’s the pro tip: technically, you don’t actually need a product to engage a customer with your marketing message. Crowdfunding site got thousands of startup investors to “commit” tens of millions of investment dollars before they even opened their doors (technically when what they were doing was actually illegal). This strategy places achieving product/market fit first, and product design second.

If you 1) practice selling people on what you’re *going* to do for them (on your website and marketing materials), 2) market your idea as if it were an actual product to actual customers, and 3) capture customer interest by asking for a commitment of some kind, you’ll gather hugely valuable market intelligence – from conversion and traffic analysis alone, not to mention direct comments and conversations with actual customers. Once you’ve got the hang of it, *then* invest in your MVP. And if you can’t get at least some people to commit on the strength of your promise, maybe your idea needs to be tuned until you can.

This process arrives at product/market fit sooner and is FAR cheaper and less risky than building an MVP on the basis of abstract survey data alone.

Michael Sattler

With a career spent in founding and technical leadership roles with new and enterprise-level organizations, Michael Sattler is a veteran in technology strategy, operations, and product management. He’s spent decades in B2B and B2C SaaS product development, software and application design, engineering operations, new venture creation, and innovation practices.

He has scaled and managed technical teams from 2-50+ across three continents, led large-scale cross-functional program management, and founded or co-founded six companies.