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Software Prototype vs. MVP?

If you've ever been involved in a software startup, do you distinguish between creating a "proof-of-concept functional prototype" and creating an MVP? Why or why not?

EDIT: I'm assuming you'd create a static mockup first (eg., using notecards, PP, or Photoshop). Then you'd build a functional prototype to demonstrate proof-of-concept, effectively creating a more dynamic mockup.

16 Replies

Rob Gropper
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Rob Gropper Entrepreneur
Director at PetHero, SPC - Member at Eastside Incubator - Principal at Tuxedo Technologies Group
i do distinguish, but lately i've tended to skip developing prototypes in software opting instead for powerpoint or other mockup tool. PPT is easier to build and modify. After we prove product/market fit then we move to a software MVP (or even rev1).
Stan Podolski
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Stan Podolski Entrepreneur • Advisor
CEO at Nimble Aircraft.
Just by definition, prototype is not useable, but you can show off, MVP is where you can get customers.

I agree with Rob, mockup is easier to create than prototype and the results are usually the same (or sometimes even better, mockups are not buggy)
Ezra Smyser
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Ezra Smyser Entrepreneur
Web Developer at Squire
I'd generally say that a proof-of-concept is about proving that the technology works, whereas an MVP has everything needed for at least a limited release.
David Schwartz
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David Schwartz Entrepreneur • Advisor
Multi-Platform (Desktop+Mobile) Rapid Prototyping + Dev, Tool Dev
I'm assuming you'd do a mockup first.

Then build a prototype to demonstrate proof-of-concept, effectively building a more dynamic mockup.

David Schwartz
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David Schwartz Entrepreneur • Advisor
Multi-Platform (Desktop+Mobile) Rapid Prototyping + Dev, Tool Dev
A static mockup, functional prototype (dynamic mockup), and MVP (something you can charge for) are each roughly an order of magnitude different in time, effort, and cost. I see lots of people talking about going straight from back-of-the-napkin to MVP, with maybe a wireframe or simple static mockup in between.

This is what I'm trying to suss out ... wouldn't a dynamic mockup help reduce risk by allowing you to further validate product-market fit before investing in the MVP? Is a static mockup sufficient? (Given the relatively high number of startups that never get past MVP, one can only conclude that they missed something important along the way.)
Ryan Nobrega
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Ryan Nobrega Entrepreneur • Advisor
Head of Growth and Engagement at Flywheel Software Inc.
Hi David, yes, I would use the following distinction:

The goal of an MVP is to validate customer adoption while the goal of a Functional Prototype is to prove a capability and / or better articulate a concept.

To illustrate, an MVP may be lacking a critical capability (e.g., you may brute-force a critical tech component with a manual process until you can prove customer traction / justify the tech investment to prototype + fully develop) while a Functional Prototype may lack the key feature your customer is looking for (e.g., your key feature has a tech dependency which you need to isolate / prove you can develop before building out the rest of the MVP required for your initial release).
David Schwartz
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David Schwartz Entrepreneur • Advisor
Multi-Platform (Desktop+Mobile) Rapid Prototyping + Dev, Tool Dev
Thanks, Ryan. I understand this. I'm looking to see where others are at. (I posted a survey as a discussion topic and it got deleted as "spam", so I'm asking the individual questions here.)
Rob Gropper
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Rob Gropper Entrepreneur
Director at PetHero, SPC - Member at Eastside Incubator - Principal at Tuxedo Technologies Group
I think whether or not you take the time and $$ to produce a dynamic prototype depends on what your skills are and what you are building. I think (generalization here) that, for example, mobile apps where UI and UX take higher priority then i think building a functioning prototype makes sense IF you have the time and $$ resources. Also, if you have the tech skills on your team certainly a prototype is more likely to make sense in terms of time and $$, but still most of the validation of product/market fit can and in IMHO should be done before any code is produced. Again the approach to validating product/market fit can depend on what you are building, but if i can properly validate without taking the time and $$ to build (or pay someone else to build) a functioning prototype i will. It's just faster and cheaper. In my experience working with startups and incubators/accelerators, founders tend to stick within their comfort zones: if the founder(s) is technical s/he starts cutting code and then goes out to validate product/market fit armed with a cool prototype. that's great. I think the "failure" rate is exacerbated by the fact that the majority of tech-only founding teams simply don't do product/market fit validation at all or not until they've spent months or years on development. I can't count the number of tech-only teams i've seen that are months into development without REALLY doing significant market/product validation. Non technical founders, typically out if necessity, stick within their comfort zone and do product/market-fit validation before paying for development (and specs).
Karl Schulmeisters
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Karl Schulmeisters Entrepreneur
CTO ClearRoadmap

of course there is a difference between a prototype and an MVP. whether you build a mockup or not depends on a variety of factors

  • as Rob points out - your dev process.
    • If its just you and you lack dev skills - do a mockup
    • if its a relatively straightforward thing, start the MVP
    • if its more complex do some mockups
    • If its agile - part of your dev process is mockups
  • your financing
    • if you need to raise funds to build out the full MVP and market it- build the mockup
    • if you are self-financed and think you've got enough for an MVP - skip the mockup and save your $$
  • how well understood the user interactions with the product are
    • If its an incremental improvement or a new take on an existing idea - start an agile process for the MVP
    • if its a disruptive product - build at least a mockup of the UX and get feedback from users


Generally its a good idea to mockup at least statically your UX. you can use something as simple as powerpoint. And if you animate it, you can get user feedback in the form of questions of "will it be able to tell me X"...or "do Y".

that then helps with the dev cycle

Stephen Cataldo
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Stephen Cataldo Advisor
Drupal | Startups | Green Conferences | Carpooling | Strategic Planning During Conflict
David -- I usually dev in Drupal these days, and it's modular enough that for small projects these often roll into each other. MVP is a clear line: one day you launch. If there's no investment round needing a prototype, if the prototype is for us, then there isn't one day where we have "the prototype." Pages start back-of-napkin quality describing what they will eventually do but in the system, or using out-of-the-box code, and then slowly those get developed out. The prototypes generally are uneven: some existing opensource code will fit into place and be MVP quality right from the beginning, other modules are being tested, other pieces have to be developed. It makes cost estimation a nightmare but goes much faster (and often better tested - my last project the out-of-the-box commerce solutions were much better than our mockup sketches) than pure-custom work. This isn't how I used to work, which, to be honest, was prototype-to-bloat and skipped the MVP stage.
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