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Bringing the MVP to Client Services

Ho to use the concept of the Minimum Viable Product in your freelance service-based business.

There are a lot of misconceptions about “smallness” in business: small clients don’t have the budget; you can’t get bigger projects as a freelancer; small projects can’t pay the bills…

But small — when done right — can be a beautiful thing.

Specifically, I’m talking about the MVP (minimum viable product), and how a small shift in your project process can open up the doors to much better client relationships, better projects, and more revenue.

There are two very common freelance scenarios that can benefit beautifully from this MVP approach (which I’ll get into more detail about) below:

Scenario 1: Over-Quoting

The client is approaching you for a specific scope of work, and from experience you realize that the client really needs either something else, or a much larger scope of work. Perhaps they approach you for a simple website redesign, but what they really need is a content strategy, a branding overhaul, quality photography, or all of the above.

“How do I convince the client that what they really need is [x, y, z]?”

Scenario 2: Over-Scoping

“The client is wants X, Y, and Z… but only has the budget or capacity for X!”

Sometimes a client will have big ambitious ideas of what they want to accomplish, but they don’t yet have the bandwidth to be able to commit to the follow-through required to make it happen, nor do they have the budget that aligns with their dream. Sometimes the client is sharing a 1-2 year vision, but hoping (unrealistically) to accomplish all of it within a few weeks or months (and for a modest budget!).

The Danger:

What typically happens is the freelancer gets so excited to show the client the plethora of options available and how they could execute, and they end up sending a gigantic unexpected proposal that doesn’t come close to aligning with the client’s budget.

If you haven’t gone through a deep enough discovery in your initial communication and sales call, this essentially takes the client off guard.

Without a full understanding of the entire scope of the project and the value that comes along with it, the client goes into analysis paralysis, and begins to doubt whether or not they should be investing so much money.

If you haven’t yet built trust with a new client, you’re going to have a tough time getting them on board with a quote that’s 3-4x what they were expecting.

What can happen:

  1. The client freaks out about the cost, which puts the freelancer on the defensive, and they’re now left trying to justify their pricing.
  2. The client disappears, never to be heard from again.
  3. The client sends a polite “no thank you.”
  4. On rare occasions, you might get lucky with a client that takes a chance on you, if you’ve written an excellent proposal.

Enter the MVP (Minimum Viable Product)

A minimum viable product is essentially the minimum feature set required to gather validated learning about a product in order to improve its development.

Extending this to client services you can think of this as:

What is the minimum we need in order to provide value to people now, while leaving room for improvement and iteration?

The MVP can take your client from dreaming to doing, and helps them validate their ideas in the market quickly.

They can find the answers to:

Should I offer this service?

How much are people willing to pay for it?

Will anybody buy my thing?

Is there even a market for this?

Taking an iterative approach helps you reduce risk, develop stronger relationships, and get more pro-active with your sales pipeline.

How does this look in practice?

I noticed so many of my clients were in fact “dreamers” and they needed someone to help guide them through the process of bringing their ideas to life. They were smart, ambitious and driven people, but they would often bite off more than they could chew, leading to very extended project timelines.

Noticing this trend, I decided to craft a process that got my clients smaller, quicker wins (helping them validate their ideas), and broke up large complex projects into more achievable phases.

A large part of taking an MVP-style approach involves educating your clients.
Now, right in my proposals I explain to prospective clients that new businesses tend to bite off more than they can chew, and that I recommend focusing on creating an MVP of their [website/brand/copy] first, that can grow with them as they grow and add new functionality.

There’s no sense in building a complex website for a business that is likely going to change and grow a ton in its first few years.

This takes out a lot of the overwhelm that comes along with launching, and helps them adapt an iterative mindset. It helps my clients kick perfectionism to the curb, and to say things like “this is good enough for now, and we can revisit that in a few months.”

Now with all of my clients, I loosely outline a budget and overview for the first 3 months of a project engagement, while giving a very rough idea of what the 3-6 months after might also look like (the emphasis on possibility, not accuracy). Essentially, the first phase becomes somewhat of a paid discovery process that allows you to get even more clear on what the future will look like.

Inevitably, I’ve found the direction we head 3 months into a collaboration is always drastically different that what we had initially discussed in our very first calls together. Rather than fighting this evolution, and trying to get a client to “stick to our original scope,” I’ve built this into the process through breaking up projects into phases, which phase 1 emphasizing research and discovery over execution.

I focus on identifying what is realistic and achievable now, while also factoring in future goals and desires (which makes it a lot more affordable to stretch out the big goals over a more realistic time-frame).

You do have to be willing to participate and support your clients through this process if you decide to explore it (which I hope you do!).

Using this approach has become a huge game-changer with my own client services.

Now, instead of trying to assemble a proposal that includes everything under the sun, I paint what success can look like in small increments, because progress is contagious.

When you help your clients succeed with small wins, it becomes really easy to grow that relationship.

The MVP approach can turn small engagements into long-term partnerships, small retainers into long-term revenue.

What do you think, is it time to bring an MVP-style approach to your project process?

Marie Poulin Marie Poulin is a designer and digital strategist who is passionate about using human-centered design thinking to build better businesses. She is the founder of Digital Strategy School, an online program that helps designers integrate digital strategy into their workflow and offerings, so they can increase their value to their clients (while also increasing their bottom line). She also co-founded Oki Doki, a consultancy and software application that helps entrepreneurs build, launch and market online courses and programs. When she’s not in business mode you can find her climbing rocks, cooking food, or playing board games. You can follow her on Twitter or Facebook.

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