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What is a Minimum Viable Product and How Do I Create One?

How a minimum viable product will launch your product-based startup.

There’s plenty of conversation in the startup world around minimum viable product (MVP). How do you define minimum viable product? Don’t you need a branded product to go to market? Do you need one to get a patent?

Let’s go through the basics. 

What is a Minimum Viable Product and Why is it Important?

Before investing a lot of money in an idea that consumers might not want, it’s best to get feedback. Surveys are only so helpful. It’s far better to let consumers experience an idea and, if possible, even sell it to them. That’s where MVP’s come in. They are simple representations of an idea meant to help an entrepreneur get feedback from consumers.

Brandon Cornuke, Vice President of Startup Services for MAGNET, describes it this way: “A lot of people think of MVPs as physical things – things that you need to build (probably because it says “product”). Actually, an MVP can be as simple as a description or a PowerPoint slide or a mockup. It’s anything that explains the concept you’re trying to get across without unnecessary detail and cost.”

Consider the following product. Le’Anna Miller founded BabyMunch Organics; the company makes fresh baby food and kids’ smoothies to nurture a love of healthy eating. One of Miller’s products is a 21-day weaning kit. Here’s a before and after of minimum viable product to what she produces today:

Miller tells this story about her MVP experience: “MVPs are scary for people. You have brands you love and want to emulate with pretty packaging. But I started at famers markets selling pouches of baby food and kids’ smoothies with no labels, and people still bought them. I knew that once I branded, people would love them even more. Don’t shy away from having packaging without pretty branding, because it’s really about the product.”

Why Make a Minimum Viable Product?

As much as she would have preferred starting with a well-branded product, Miller understood the need for an MVP. “You’re going to have an idea that no one understands but you…until you have a physical product to show them. Take your idea and create something physical – a minimum viable product. Then they’ll understand.”

“Get your product in the market and test it ASAP. You need something that will engage with the customer, even without the bells and whistles,” says Carla Macklin, founder of Alium Adaptive Apparel. Alium Adaptive Apparel makes better functioning clothes for seniors and their caregivers. Carla initially wanted to make her apparel from antimicrobial, moisture-wicking fabric, but when she ran into supply chain issues, she went with a non-tech fabric for her MVP. Her apparel in the market, and she’s collecting feedback that’s helping hone the product. 

The biggest reason startups fail is because there’s no market need for their product. MVPs are meant to validate (or at least provide some evidence for) market need before over-investing in an idea.

Another reason to make an MVP? You can’t get a patent on something you haven’t actually made. Intellectual property attorney Luis Carrion puts it this way. “Ideas are not patentable. Inventions are patentable. Take your idea and go through the process to develop the thing. Actually invent it. That’s the substance of intellectual property.” 

How Do I Create a Minimum Viable Product?

Northeast Ohio startups have some great resources available for creating a minimum viable product.

Case Western Reserve University’s Sears think[box]

Have a great manufactured product idea but no resources to actually create it? That’s where think[box] comes in. The Case Western Reserve University Sears think[box] is the largest open-access innovation center at any university in the world. It has 3D printers, laser cutters, sewing machines, a metal and wood shop and more available to the public. Sound intimidating? Don’t worry; think[box] offers training free of charge.

Cleveland Culinary Launch & Kitchen

Are you trying to enter the craft food market? The Cleveland Culinary Launch & Kitchen (CCLK) can help you every step of the way. CCLK is a shared kitchen and food business incubator in Cleveland. Along with providing a fully equipped commercial kitchen to food entrepreneurs, CCLK offers business support, mentorship and peer support and unmatched networking opportunities. Their goal is to increase the success rate of local food businesses in Northeast Ohio.

MAGNET Incubation Center

Some projects could use assistance from a seasoned engineer. The MAGNET Incubation Center (MIC) team includes product development engineers in addition to the strategy staff. With a machining shop on the first floor, MIC’s engineers can bring your design to life. MIC wants to help make your startup more focused, efficient, and resilient. (Sound like what you need? Find out more about MIC membership.)

Use an MVP to Your Advantage

Brandon sums up the importance of a minimum viable product this way: “You have to get it out there and learn what the market thinks. What we find is that entrepreneurs are constantly trying to perfect their product, but perfection is in the eye of the consumer. Make sure you’re always exposing consumers to your product. Let them tell you what makes your product great.”

Nicole Shedden
Member Spotlight - India Gill from Karis Dolls

Moving to Cleveland about five years ago and pursuing a PhD were both big plans for India Gill; she did not however, plan to become an entrepreneur.  Joining a small church in her new city, India became close with a family with three small children.  The children, especially one of the daughters, bonded with India.  When the children’s father passed away unexpectedly, their mother struggled with the thought of explaining this traumatic and life-changing event to her children.  India wanted to help the family who had helped her and decided to use her creative skills to develop a doll that matched her “little sister’s” story. 

With the help of the Women’s Business Center and Jane Conrad, India wanted to give back in a way that would help children who didn’t live a fairytale life like the dolls they already have.  Working toward this new goal has inspired India’s PhD dissertation topic of different lifestyles effecting the children living them.  As a busy student and working as much as possible, India needed some more help with her ideas.  As one of six winners of MAGNET’s 2017 [M]Spire competition, India received time and guidance from MAGNET’s Incubation Center and Brandon Cornuke, VP of Startup Services and Rahul Narain, Startup Associate.  So far MAGNET has helped her with some of her most challenging experiences.  Strategic decision making and planning her timeline have all been discussed and improved through the MIC services.  Her “perfectionist” approach to life has made it difficult to get prototypes out, but the MIC has helped to coach her through the process and develop strategies for a successful launch. 

If you want to learn more about The Karis Doll Collection, visit: www.karisdolls.com.

Rahul Narain
Member Spotlight - Lisa Oswald from Kay Chemical

Born and raised in Cleveland, Lisa Oswald has always seen the potential in her city.  She did not, however, always imagine herself owning a business.  As an audiologist at the Cleveland Clinic, teaching classes at the University of Akron, a mother of three children, and having a husband with a busy career himself, Lisa was looking for a way to help balance her hectic schedule and family life.  After the birth of their third child, Lisa and her husband started seriously considering their options. 

The Kay Chemical Company, creator of waterless industrial hand cleaner, has been a part of Lisa Oswald’s family for 55 years.  When her uncle was considering retirement, Lisa saw an opportunity to readjust her career path.  Lisa and her husband bought Kay Chemical in 2012 with the hope of not only taking a burden off of their own busy schedules, but also as a way to give back to Cleveland by creating local jobs.  Never owning a business before, Lisa needed some extra help navigating the murky waters of her “new” company.  Attending a meeting at the Garfield Heights Chamber of Commerce, Lisa had the opportunity to talk with Linda Barita of MAGNET.  From this conversation, it became clear that the MAGNET Incubation Center could help Lisa give Kay Chemical a boost and support her with marketing strategies and some critical path decisions to grow her business.   Kay Chemical is beginning to explore new markets where their hand cleaner can serve as a creative new solution!  

If you would like to learn more about Kay Chemical and their waterless hand cleaner products and uses, visit www.kaychem.com.

Rahul Narain
How to make money off your invention without building it yourself: When's a good time to license it out?

So you've invented the next big thing, now what? Most of us struggle to properly assemble a bed from IKEA, let alone put something into production. You have to get a patent, build prototypes, network with suppliers at trade shows, negotiate with manufacturers...the list goes on and on. It’s the rare entrepreneur who can do all of that and take their invention from inception through production. But for those who have a full-time job, kids, and other responsibilities, this can be a huge struggle. Thankfully, there are some other options!

Confused Guy with Hammer.jpg

Some background on your options

When you're trying to get your invention built and into the market, you can either sell it or license it out to manufacturers. If you sell, you can say goodbye to all of the rights to your invention. But that's not necessarily bad news! Although it's no longer yours, you might be able to get a lump sum for the sale. On the other hand, licensing your invention “rents” out your design to a company for the rights to produce it for a certain amount of time. Companies usually pay royalties on sales and you still own your design. Although these might be good options, the focus of this post is licensing your invention with the least amount of time and energy spent on your end.

There are a couple of choices for licensing      

Let’s be clear: If you want to license your invention on your own, it's going to be a lot of work. You're going to have to rub shoulders with companies at trade shows, market your invention whenever you can, and contact as many people as possible to find a manufacturer that's willing to take you on. More importantly, you’ll often have to demonstrate that there’s a market for your product, typically by making sales. Not only does this cost money but it will also cost you something even more valuable: your time.

Another option is submitting your invention to a company like Lambert & Lambert or Enhance Product Development. These companies are both middlemen that provide services like competitive product market research, presenting at trade shows, negotiating with manufacturers, marketing, and eventually getting your invention into production. Lambert & Lambert have an initial $199 fee to evaluate your invention, but then don’t charge you anything until they get your product to a manufacturer to sell. After it's in production they take 25-30% of your royalties. However if your product doesn’t sell, the $199 will be your only cost. Enhance Product Development is basically the same idea except you have to contact them for an initial quote and they only take 20% of your royalties. These are just two examples, but there are numerous companies that with similar business models.

A few other resources

It's probably good to start off your journey by looking at websites like Invention Partner for some background information on the invention process, patent licensing, etc. This isn’t required, but understanding the basic parts of the process will help you in the long run.

You should also do some research on Thomas Net to see which companies manufacture products in your invention's industry. After making sure you have all of the necessary intellectual property protection needed to keep your idea safe from those who can reproduce it (patents, trademarks, NDAs, etc.), it might be good to reach out to the companies you find to see if they're interested in hearing your pitch for the product. It’s possible that they’ll agree to manufacture it for you. If not, they might be able to connect you to someone who will.

Finally, there’s MAGNET’s Incubation Center! We have the resources to help you develop a working prototype with our in-house engineers, figure out your go-to-market strategy, and even coach you on how to pitch to manufacturers or investors. Whether you want to find a manufacturer to build your invention or put it out into the world yourself, we can help.

See how MIC can help with your invention here!

Licensing is just one of the many ways to bring an idea into commercialization, and there are tons of resources that can benefit you every step of the way. I’ve hit on a few here, but one of the best things you can do is make sure you’re well and truly informed before committing a lot of time, money, and effort into a project. Do your research, talk to as many experienced people as you can, and before you know it you might see your idea on the shelves. Good luck!

Rahul NarainComment
MSPIRE 2017 Winners Announced!

MAGNET has revealed the names of six entrepreneurs, startups, and small manufacturers who will receive an array of services and connections through the second-annual [M]SPIRE pitch competition.

Announced in late July, the winners span many different areas, backgrounds, and industries. Over 40 applications were received from individuals and companies across Northeast Ohio, including submissions from Cleveland, Youngstown, Akron, Elyria, Lorain, and Canton.

“Entrepreneurship is an essential and irreplaceable component of Northeast Ohio manufacturing, and MAGNET is thrilled to help these individuals and small companies achieve their potential by connecting them to the funding and resources necessary for success in the long-term,” said MAGNET President and CEO Ethan Karp.

Sponsored by Bank of America, AT&T, and Jumpstart, the submission period was held through the month of May. 11 finalists were selected to meet with an expert panel of judges comprising area entrepreneurs, engineers, consultants, and more. The six winners will receive varying types of assistance from MAGNET and MAGNET partners, including grant funding, product development, market research, and specialized consulting services.

These winners include:

  • Holmes Mouthwatering Applesauce – a local manufacturer of 100%, all-natural applesauce
     
  • Karis Doll Collection – a line of dolls that aims to help young girls adapt to diverse, non-traditional family arrangements
     
  • SmartMulch – an innovative landscaping solution that’s lightweight, easy to transport, and cuts down on waste
     
  • Cleveland Sewing Solutions – provides fashionable, adaptive clothing for seniors and other individuals facing physical challenges
     
  • Storm Mountain Coffee – French-press coffee on an industrial scale for use in restaurants and coffee shops
     
  • Peaceful Fruits – fruit snacks using wild, sustainable ingredients ethically harvested from the Amazon

“MSPIRE 2017 was a huge success,” said Brandon Cornuke, Vice President of Startup Services at MAGNET. “Our six winners demonstrate the breadth of Northeast Ohio manufacturing. We have consumer goods, food products, clothing, and mulch, and our winners come from all backgrounds. We’re excited to help these businesses grow and have already started working with each of them.”

MAGNET is currently planning to launch MSPIRE 2018 in the spring.

Nicole Shedden