Examples of successful apps that were MVPs first

11 min read
August 17, 2022

As of 2022, Uber is a $59.9 billion company.

Facebook has 2.934 billion users.

And Amazon saw revenues of $485 billion.

What these apps have achieved is nothing short of spectacular.

But what’s even more amazing is that these apps had humble beginnings.

They began life as MVPs or minimum viable products.

MVPs are the bare-bones version of an app that contains only the essential features. They’re fast and inexpensive to launch, which makes them the perfect tool to validate an idea quickly.

That’s what many of the big-name apps did—and to great success.

Here are their case studies.

Facebook

Looking at social media giant Facebook now, it’s hard to imagine its humble beginnings. But like most successes, it began life as an MVP.

A screen of the original Facebook then known as Thefacebook started by Mark Zuckerberg in 2004.

Source: Cincinnati.com | The Enquirer

However, founder Mark Zuckerberg didn’t start with an idea for a global social media network. Instead, the clue of its original purpose is in the name—face book.

A face book is a web directory that contains the photos and names of all students in a college or university.

And that was Zuckerberg’s intention when he created the early MVP of Facebook for Harvard University.

But at this early stage, Facebook already had the features that would make it a hit less than a decade later. This includes the user profile and Facebook groups:

Thefacebook

Source: Time

As you can see, the early MVP of Facebook already had its iconic blue color scheme. But it didn’t have that visual appeal yet.

It didn’t matter, though, because the Facebook MVP was a surprise hit. Within days of building the site, Zuckerberg already had 1500 users.

After a month, half of the students at Harvard already had Facebook accounts.

Bolstered by its early success, Facebook soon expanded its MVP to other Ivy League schools, like Stanford and Yale, before finally covering all universities in North America by 2004.

By September 2006, it became open to the worldwide public, and the rest is history.

The success of Facebook showed that an MVP can be a tool to refine the app idea over time with reduced risk.

Amazon

Retail giant Amazon is another big-name platform that grew thanks to the power of an MVP.

Founder Jeff Bezos originally came up with the name Amazon because it’s the largest river in the world.

It was the perfect name for his vision for his company—the biggest bookstore in the world.

Amazon.com MVP

Source: Dittofi

Bezos decided to sell books first because they were readily available, were easy to ship at a low cost, and had a worldwide demand.

Amazon’s MVP adopted a Wizard of Oz approach. This refers to an app with a manual backend that the user doesn’t know about.

In Amazon’s case, Bezos had to personally buy the book from a bookstore and ship it to the customer via the post office.

It was a low-cost bootstrap approach, but it worked. Within two months, Amazon was earning $20,000 a week. Just two years later, it became a public company.

Bezos also used his MVP to refine Amazon through customer feedback.

Amazon in 1999

Source: Web Design Museum

Eventually, Bezos expanded to other products. And this is where he listened to his customers about what they wanted to see on Amazon’s online shelves.

Today, Amazon is one of the biggest companies on Earth, offering any product imaginable. It’s proof that a humble MVP can morph into great things with enough feedback and iterations.

Amazon’s success had everything to do with its MVP.

The best move Bezos made was to focus only on a single offering—books. It’s a lesson that app developers should apply when building their lean MVPs.

Groupon

Groupon is a good example of a piecemeal MVP. This is where you put together an app using third-party tools, thus further reducing development costs and time.

Andrew Mason initially had the idea of a collective buying platform, which he successfully tested with a mailing list called The Point.

Now, he wanted to translate the vision into a platform called Groupon.

the point

Source: stfalcon

Groupon initially focused on selling a single product—T-shirts. But instead of building the infrastructure from scratch, he used existing solutions to bootstrap the operation.

The website was built using WordPress, eliminating the need for a web design and development team.

There were no e-commerce features like shopping carts and checkouts, either. To order, customers needed to send an email directly to Mason.

Once an order came in, Mason used FileMaker to generate a PDF coupon. This was sent automatically to the user via a script in a local machine—no servers were involved.

It was terribly inefficient, but it was enough to give Groupon the traction it needed to become an eventual success.

Groupors old website design

Source: RST Software Masters

All in all, it took Mason roughly a month to put up the Groupon MVP. Not bad at all.

Groupon proved that you don’t need access to a development team or fancy technology to build your MVP. In fact, they will only slow you down.

By using proven solutions, you’re more confident that your MVP is stable so that you can focus on your core idea.

Airbnb

Cobbled-together websites and bootstrapped operations are the themes of our MVP list so far. And Airbnb continues with this tradition.

Airbnb was born out of two problems that founders Brian Chesky and Joe Gebbia experienced in 2007.

First, they were struggling to pay the rent of their San Francisco apartment.

Second, they noticed that attendees of a sold-out design conference had difficulty finding affordable accommodation.

Their elegant solution was a platform that allowed homeowners to rent out extra space to strangers. The question is—was there a big need for it?

To verify their hypothesis, Chesky and Gebbia used their living room as a test accommodation. They then put together a rough website to advertise it:

original airbnb landing page in 2007 with picture of deck chairs on roof

Source: Fueled

They ended up renting their place to three people, who paid them $80 per night. That validated their idea on the buyer’s side.

To test if homeowners were receptive to the idea, they expanded their MVP to allow people to list their space for rent.

Again, they took the lean approach. Listings were limited to only locations near high-profile events.

AirBnB minimum viable product

Sourced: Ecommerce Platforms

With the seller side of the platform also validated, Chesky and Gebbia knew they had a winner on their hands.

Like many examples on this list, the success of Airbnb’s MVP came down to speed and focus.

They initially only targeted one demographic and location—conference attendees who wanted to stay in their San Francisco living room.

This eliminated the need to build a robust MVP that offered multiple options, places, and dates which the final product would eventually provide.

Dropbox

Dropbox is a unique example of creating an MVP without an actual product.

Instead, founder Drew Houston opted for a video that walked users through how Dropbox works.

DropBox Demo

Source: Tech Crunch

(You can watch the Dropbox demo here)

For all intents and purposes, his MVP was nothing more than a product demonstration. But it worked better than even Houston imagined.

The beta waiting list for the service jumped from 5000 to 75000 users almost overnight.

How did the Dropbox demo do so well?

In Houston’s case, he had no choice but to keep things simple. Dropbox’s core feature, seamless file sharing, was challenging to make.

It required technical expertise and months of development, which meant a proper MVP was out of the question.

But a video also had advantages. It was easy to share around the Web, so the Dropbox demo quickly went viral.

The concept was also easy to understand and explain in a video—users didn’t need to experience it first-hand.

And the fact that thousands of people signed up proved that there was a real market demand for his solution.

Dropbox illustrates that an MVP can take any form and still work. So long as you can genuinely validate your idea, anything’s fair game.

Uber

Uber started life as an MVP back in 2009 under the name of ubercab.

At the time, founders Travis Kalanick and Garrett Camp wanted to test if there was a demand for their new ride-hailing idea.

How Uber started with an MVP to become a 68 billion unicorn

Source: Enlume

Kalanick and Garrett started small, with only a few cars in their fleet.

It was also an invitation-only service for New York and San Francisco residents, which kept the number of users manageable.

The Uber app also focused on only one feature—booking a ride.

Users can specify their location in the app (or, alternatively, send an SMS text), and Uber will dispatch the nearest cab to the rider’s location.

ubercab ubers first app 1

Source: App Sumo

While simple, the Uber MVP allowed the founders to validate their idea. More importantly, it also gave them valuable feedback that enabled them to iterate their app.

Using the MVP as a foundation, they eventually introduced more features like fare estimation and in-app tracking.

Uber is the perfect example of a single-feature MVP. You can go this route if your app only has one core service you want to evaluate.

Etsy

Etsy was founded in 2005 by Rob Kalin, Chris Maguire, and Haim Schoppik. Their idea was born out of a common complaint at the time.

You see, eBay was the dominant marketplace during those years. The problem was that many sellers found eBay’s fees too high. So the founders came up with an alternative for craft sellers.

Etsy Old Webpage Design

Source: RST Software Masters

Now, you had to understand that, at the time, dozens of eBay website clones were vying to be the next big e-commerce platform. But all of them failed.

What made Etsy an eventual success is that the founders already knew there was a huge pain point that needed to be addressed quickly.

Thus, it was only natural that they build an MVP rapidly (it only took them two and a half months) so they could be the first to tackle it.

Etsy’s early success and traction eventually led it to become a serious eBay contender. As of 2022, the platform currently hosts 4.36 million active sellers.

One of the biggest advantages of an MVP is that you can quickly bring your idea to market —something that Etsy proved with flying colors.

Instacart

The beginnings of Instacart constitute perhaps one of the best success stories of apps making it big—even without big funding.

Grocery app

Source: Arkenea

Founder Apoorva Mehta had the brilliant idea of a mobile grocery delivery service. However, at the time, he didn’t have the resources to build the extensive backend of the app.

His solution? A manual backend.

In other words, whenever a person ordered something from the Instacart MVP, the founders had to purchase and deliver the products to the customers manually.

In fact, the backend was so rudimentary that the system just accepted any order, regardless of whether the company could fulfill it. Brandon Leonardo, one of the co-founders, recalls:

“There were a lot of times where me, Max, Apoorva, everyone there ended up going out all day Sunday delivering orders ourselves until two in the morning because we’d taken so many orders that we didn’t have enough drivers to fulfill.”

But despite the rough infrastructure, the MVP worked. Users didn’t know that everything was being manually done in the background.

That allowed them to evaluate the MVP as if it were the final app version.

Ready to build your successful MVP?

We hope these case studies have inspired you to pursue your own app success story.

On the flip side, these stories also showed that building a great MVP is no walk in the park.

Many of these founders needed to put up with manual labor, inefficient systems, and constant iteration during the early years.

But that didn’t matter to them because they only cared about one thing—validating and refining their app idea.

And that should be your mindset coming in.

Of course, a little assistance wouldn’t hurt, either. And with DECODE’s experience and expertise, we believe we’re the perfect helping hand!

Interested? Give us a call today, and let’s talk!

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Written by

Ante Baus

Senior Team Lead

Ante is a true expert. Another graduate from the Faculty of Electrical Engineering and Computing, he’s been a DECODEr from the very beginning. Ante is an experienced software engineer with an admirably wide knowledge of tech. But his superpower lies in iOS development, having gained valuable experience on projects in the fintech and telco industries. Ante is a man of many hobbies, but his top three are fishing, hunting, and again, fishing. He is also the state champ in curling, and represents Croatia on the national team. Impressive, right?

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