The Article MVP: How to Test Business Ideas Fast, Free, and Solo

in Learning

In a world of infinite opportunities, one challenge is picking which opportunities to pursue. Each project necessitates some fraction of your life, so whenever starting a new one, you have to quickly determine whether that project is going to move in a meaningful direction or whether you’re wasting your time.

The entrepreneurship world addressed this problem through “lean principles,” as outlined in The Lean Startup and expanded on in The Lean Entrepreneur. It’s centered around the “Build-Measure-Learn” cycle, which Eric Reiss describes the Lean Startup:

“The fundamental activity of a startup is to turn ideas into products, measure how customers respond, and then learn whether to pivot or persevere. All successful startup processes should be geared to accelerate that feedback loop.”

The system is based on design thinking and the scientific method through which you can rapidly determine if a project is working and what to do if it isn’t. For many first time readers, it introduces a new view on life: entrepreneurship doesn’t need to be expensive, risky, or uncertain. It can be scientific, methodical, risk-mitigated, and financially responsible.

Since Lean Startup’s publication in 2011, much more has been said on the specific methods of implementation and the tools have improved significantly. The ultimate form of this is Kickstarter, where you can take an idea, write some copy, make a video, and find out in a month whether or not you have a company to go off of like Harkla did for their weighted blankets.

You can even forego Kickstarter and hack it together yourself, using a landing page, PayPal, and free Google Adwords credit like the initial test of Kettle and Fire.

But a less talked about option (and why this blog is so niche-unfocused) is using articles as mini MVPs: the “Minimum Viable Products” that entrepreneurs use to test business ideas. An article doesn’t get you the early sales that you really need to see if an idea has legs, but it does give you a sense of whether a topic is interesting or not so that you know what you should expand on. It’s the extreme version of a core Lean principle:

“The lesson of the MVP is that any additional work beyond what was required to start learning is waste, no matter how important it might have seemed at the time.”  – The Lean Startup

When we started working on Programming for Marketers, one of the reasons we thought it would do well was an article that Justin had written on basic technical knowledge for marketers, which was one of the best-performing articles on his site. He’d seen the article do well, it gave him the idea for more content around the topic, and when that extra content worked out, it made sense for us to start making full products.

When Neil and I started the Made You Think podcast, it was partly influenced by how popular my book summaries had gotten. That content’s popularity gave us a sense that there was interest in a podcast around big ideas from tough books, and after that did well on Nat Chat, we decided it made sense to start a separate podcast completely dedicated to it.

I didn’t invent this, of course. Naval Ravikant used it when he built AngelList off the success of Venture Hacks, which in turn was probably influenced by his own blog Startup Boy. Mattermark was started as The Y Combinator Startup Index. The blogging platform “Ghost” was started from a blog post by the company’s founder. Neil Patel started KISSmetrics off the back of his successful blog QuickSprout.

The MVP potential has been one of the biggest boons of having this site. It’s not incredibly profitable on its own, but it lets me test out types of content and ideas that people might be interested in. If I have an idea for a new company, product, or side project, I can write a few articles and see how people react before making a decision to move ahead or not. And by building up some readership that shares my interests, I have a test crowd that I can launch the project to in order to accelerate its initial traction.

For someone who wants to get into entrepreneurial work but isn’t sure what kind of projects to start on, writing about topics related to the area you want to tackle isn’t a bad place to start. It will give you an excuse to research and learn more about your area. It will get you in the habit of putting your ideas out there. It will help you test what parts of it are interesting or not. And it will let you build up an audience to launch the eventual product to.

Since writing is fast and free, you can run more tests in a shorter time period to get all of your ideas out there before picking which one to run with. Few of us are good at evaluating the quality of our ideas. We need the market to help us see what works and what doesn’t so we can recalibrate our thinking in response.

To do this yourself, start writing. Do a few articles on Medium to get your feet wet, but transition to a platform you own (like WordPress on CloudOptimus) as soon as possible. Medium is helpful for building the habit, not helpful for getting SEO juice and building an email list.

Pick topics you might want to build a business around, and see how you can write about them in a tangential way that will test people’s interest in the eventual product. The Fluent Forever kickstarter that’s running right now was built off the back of a successful book which was based off the back of a successful LifeHacker article.

You never know when one article could change your life.