When you have a new business idea, you probably don’t have the budget to build your entire startup MVP. By being selective in what you build, you can deliver the full functionality of your app cheaply and start getting customers on-board. A Wizard of Oz prototype can help you get there.

Introducing the Wizard of Oz Prototype

The man behind the curtain from the Wizard of Oz. The metaphor behind the Wizard of Oz startup MVP.

A Wizard of Oz prototype is one in which most of the app’s heavy lifting is done by the “man behind the curtain.” (That’s you or someone who works for you.) Instead of building all the software up-front, you hold off on the parts that are hard to build, and you perform those functions yourself by hand. Once you have enough traction, build out the app’s key functionality. Until then you and your staff perform the key functions of the app.

How It Works

You build only the user interface and some mechanism to get jobs to you so that you can execute them. This could be as simple as a form where people submit their requests to you. Let’s put it in concrete terms with an example.

I frequently go back to the well of Derek Sivers’ music recommendation engine example, and it works great to illustrate this style of startup MVP. An entrepreneur asked Derek advice on how to get funded to build a music recommendation engine. Derek pointed out that he could make music recommendations face-to-face without any software (which is true). We can take this concept one tiny step further by making the recommendations look like a web app by way of a Wizard of Oz MVP.

Here’s what that prototype might look like in this example:

  1. Set up a WordPress site.
  2. Add a form where users can submit their name, email address, and a list of music they enjoy.
  3. You manually process these requests via email and reply with your recommendations. You apply your recommendation logic by hand and reply with the results.

It’s just that simple. It’s more work for you to process requests, but now you can start collecting critical validation. You can see how many people will actually sign up and get feedback from those who do.

Why Not Build Everything on Day One?

The Wizard of Oz startup MVP is cheap and easy to build. That’s why it’s a great choice for new startup founders with small budgets. You can easily save 80-90% of the cost of building your app outright. In fact, for the example above, you could set this up without a developer on a free WordPress.com site. Building an app like this would cost several thousand dollars even if you contracted a cheap overseas studio.

Besides that, if you build a nice Wizard of Oz MVP, you could even build out the software to back it later and swap it in without your users knowing the transition took place. That won’t work in every case because you may want a better interface to go along with the newly upgraded functionality. If your existing interface is working, though, why rip it out and start over? Just add in the automation, and let your users continue enjoying your app just as they always have.

Case Study: A Social Media Management App

I recently worked with a client bootstrapping a web app with a very limited budget. They had a vision for an app that would use AI to provide hands-off social media management — an extremely expensive app to build.

They were already manually providing this service to some clients, so we started small. We built an app that let users sign up for the service, fill out a survey, and start a paid subscription. At that point, the company kept operating just as it had. The CEO and COO played the part of the “A.I.” making sure their clients’ social media was filled with relevant posts. It didn’t change how the business ran very much, but it changed the perception of the business to both the clients and to potential investors. It allowed investors to see what an app that automated this would be like. Established revenue showed that users wanted it.

Once this Wizard of Oz MVP was up and running and users were signing up with their credit cards, the company used its revenue to slowly build out other pieces of the app and bolt them on to the existing MVP. Each new feature took a little more manual work off them and got them closer to realizing their ultimate goal of full, hands-off automation. They were able to use these humble beginnings to secure an investment without spending a ton of their own cash building the app on day one.

Who Should Not Choose a Wizard of Oz MVP?

Like all things, the Wizard of Oz startup MVP won’t work for everyone. You should avoid it if

  • you already have a budget for developing the entire app

and

  • you’ve already done validation
  • you have zero time to be the man behind the curtain and prefer building the app to hiring a man behind the curtain

A Fast, Simple Way to Build a Startup MVP

By using the Wizard of Oz MVP, you can quickly start getting validation for your startup idea. It requires a very small budget and no experience in programming or web development. It’s labor intensive, but you can be up and going extremely quickly. Most founders skip right over this because it’s not glamorous. It’s far more glamorous than wasting money to build an unproven idea. Aside from running your “app” both manually and offline (which is also a great idea), this is one of the simplest ways to get your startup MVP up and running.