I read again today about the importance of the lean startup movement. I have never been a big fan. Of course you need to interact with customers (at least to sell something) but you should not become a slave of your customers and pivot as soon as you can not get validation from them.
Do not get me wrong, I am a big fan of Steve Blank and customer development, I use his work a lot. But there is so much uncertainty, the tool should not replace the vision and intuition of the entrepreneur. Let me quote again Horowitz for example: “Figuring out the right product is the innovator’s job, not the customer’s job. The customer only knows what she thinks she wants based on her experience with the current product. The innovator can take into account everything that’s possible, but often must go against what she knows to be true. As a result, innovation requires a combination of knowledge, skill, and courage. Sometimes only the founder has the courage to ignore the data.”
It reminded me I had read something about this from Peter Thiel. I found it again in a 2014 post: Should entrepreneurs have start-up skills? Two counterintuitive answers. Here is what Thiel had said: “What do I think about lean startups and iterative thinking where you get feedback from people versus complexity that may not work. I’m personally quite skeptical of all the lean startup methodology. I think the really great companies did something that was somewhat more of a quantum improvement that really differentiated them from everybody else. They typically did not do massive customer surveys, the people who ran these companies sometimes, not always, suffered from mild forms of Aspergers, so they were not actually that influenced, not that easily deterred, by what other people told them to do. I do think we’re way too focused on iteration as a modality and not enough on trying to have a virtual ESP link with the public and figuring it out ourselves.”
In a nutshell, “Lean Startup is best used as a teaching tool for those who need a little help in learning how to use their mirror neurons to feel the real needs of the real people they are seeking to serve. It can help to reduce waste. It can help to slow the rate of decline of organizations that are being disrupted.”
I teach entrepreneurship and I often wonder. What should be taught? I am not sure. In the class How to Start a Startup, both Paul Graham and Peter Thiel did provide feedback on some examples. First Paul Graham. Just click here or go to time 5:26 below or read after the video frame.
“The second counterintuitive point, this might come as a little bit of a disappointment, but what you need to succeed in a startup is not expertise in startups. That makes this class different from most other classes you take. You take a French class, at the end of it you’ve learned how to speech French. You do the work, you may not sound exactly like a French person, but pretty close, right? This class can teach you about startups, but that is not what you need to know. What you need to know to succeed in a startup is not expertise in startups, what you need is expertise in your own users.
Mark Zuckerberg did not succeed at Facebook because he was an expert in startups, he succeeded despite being a complete noob at startups; I mean Facebook was first incorporated as a Florida LLC. Even you guys know better than that. He succeeded despite being a complete noob at startups because he understood his users very well. Most of you don’t know the mechanics of raising an angel round, right? If you feel bad about that, don’t, because I can tell you Mark Zuckerberg probably doesn’t know the mechanics of raising an angel round either; if he was even paying attention when Ron Conway wrote him the big check, he probably has forgotten about it by now.
In fact, I worry it’s not merely unnecessary for people to learn in detail about the mechanics of starting a startup, but possibly somewhat dangerous because another characteristic mistake of young founders starting startups is to go through the motions of starting a startup. They come up with some plausible sounding idea, they raise funding to get a nice valuation, then the next step is they rent a nice office in SoMa and hire a bunch of their friends, until they gradually realize how completely fucked they are because while imitating all the outward forms of starting a startup, they have neglected the one thing that is actually essential, which is to make something people want.”
Second Peter Thiel about the Lean Startup movement. Again just click here or go to time 44:55 below or read after it.
“What do I think about lean startups and iterative thinking where you get feedback from people versus complexity that may not work. I’m personally quite skeptical of all the lean startup methodology. I think the really great companies did something that was somewhat more of a quantum improvement that really differentiated them from everybody else. They typically did not do massive customer surveys, the people who ran these companies sometimes, not always, suffered from mild forms of Aspergers, so they were not actually that influenced, not that easily deterred, by what other people told them to do. I do think we’re way too focused on iteration as a modality and not enough on trying to have a virtual ESP link with the public and figuring it out ourselves.”
There is nothing really new with Steve Blank’s 5th edition of The Four Steps to the Epiphany. But first I lost my first copy (who has it?) and second I thought I should read again this bible for entrepreneurs. So why not a second look.
Ten years after the 1st edition, Blank is as right as ever. His Customer Development model is a great lesson about the dangers of business plans and of product development without some validation form early customers and the Market. You can read my post from 2011, Steve Blank and Customer Development. You should, as I will not say again what I said then. I do not have much to change. Let me just say again a few key elements:
– “The good new is these customer and market milestones can be defined and measured. The bad news is achieving these milestones is an art. It’s an art embodied in the passion and vision of the individuals who work to make their vision a reality. That’s what makes startups exciting.” [Page 22 and see note (1) below]
– Start-ups are not early versions of established companies. they have nothing to do with them in fact. “Startups are temporary organizations designed to search for a scalable and repeatable business model.” As a consequence, people running start-ups (product, sales, marketing, management) need to understand the start-up culture and dynamics. “Traditional functional organizations [Sales, Marketing and Business Development] and the job titles and the job descriptions that work in a large company are worse than useless in a startup. They are dangerous and dysfunctional in the first phases of a startup.”[Appendix A, “The Death of the Departments”.]
Blank’s Four Steps to the Epiphany is not easy to read but it is a must have and a must read for any entrepreneur!
(1) In another interview Balnk explained: Over the last decade we assumed that once we found repeatable methodologies (Agile and Customer Development, Business Model Design) to build early stage ventures, entrepreneurship would become a “science,” and anyone could do it. I’m beginning to suspect this assumption may be wrong. It’s not that the tools are wrong. Where I think we have gone wrong is the belief that anyone can use these tools equally well.” In the same way that word processing has never replaced a writer, a thoughtful innovation process will not guarantee success. Blank added that ” until we truly understand how to teach creativity, their numbers are limited. Not everyone is an artist, after all.”
You must read The Anorexic Startup. Just because it is a funny tale about start-ups. More precisley author Mike Frankel claims it is a “A Tale of Sex, Drugs, and C++”. You will follow entrepreneur and hero, Dale Schmidt, from Day 37 to Day 155 of his great adventure!! You can either download the 15-page pdf on the author’s site or please him by buying it on Amazon for $1.20!
Following my review of The Lean Startup, the author of The Anorexic Startup contacted me and asked what I thought of his work. I read it, smiled first and then laughed. I love this short story and the 10-20 minutes it takes to read is worth your time. Realistic I am not sure, but certainly close to many true stories. The shortest and probably among the best stories I read on the (high-tech) start-up and entrepreneurship words. Enjoy!
After reading Clayton Christensen, Geoffrey Moore and Steve Blank, I was expecting a lot from The Lean Startup by Eric Ries. I was disappointed. It could be that I did not read it well or too fast, but I was expecting much more. But instead of saying what I did not like, let me begin with the good points.
Just like the previous three authors, Ries shows that innovation may be totally counterintuitive: “My cofounders and I are determined to make new mistakes. We do everything wrong. We build a minimum viable product, an early product that is terrible, full of bugs and crash-your-computer-yes-really stability problems. Then we ship it to customers before it’s ready. And we charge money for it. After securing initial customers, we change the product constantly. […] We really had customers, often talked to them and did not do what they said.” [page 4]
On page 8, Eric Ries explains that the lean startup method helps entrepreneurs “under conditions of extreme uncertainty” with a “new kind of management” by “testing each element of their vision”, and “learn whether to pivot or persevere” using a “feedback loop”.
This is he Build-Measure-Learn process. He goes on by explaining why start-ups fail:
1- The first problem is the allure of a good plan. “Planning and forecasting are only accurate when based on a long, stable operating history and a relatively static environment. Startups have neither.”
2- The second problem is the “Just-do-it”. “This school believes that chaos is the answer. This does not work either. A startup must be managed”.
The main and most convincing lesson from Ries is that because start-ups face a lot of uncertainty, they should test, experiment, learn from the right or wrong hypotheses as early and as often as possible. They should use actionable metrics, split-test experiments, innovation accounting. He is also a big fan of Toyota lean manufacturing.
I loved his borrowing of Komisar’s Analogs and Antilogs. For the iPod, the Sony Walkman was an Analog (“people listen to music in a public place using earphones”) and Napster was an Antilog (“although people were willing to download music, they were not willing to pay for it”). [Page 83]
Ries further develops the MVP, Minimum Viable Product: “it is not the smallest product imaginable, but the fastest way to get through the Build-Measure-Learn feedback loop.” Apple’s original iPhone, Google’s first search engine, or even Dropbox Video Demo were such MVPs. More on Techcrunch [page 97]. He adds that MVP does not go without risks, including legal issues, competition, branding and morale of the team. He has a good point about intellectual property [page 110]: “In my opinion, […the] current patent law inhibits innovation and should be remedied as a matter of public policy.”
So why did I feel some frustration? There is probably the feeling Ries gives that his method is a science. [Page 3]: “Startup success can be engineered by following the right process, which means it can be learned, which means it can be taught.” [Page 148]: “Because of the scientific methodology that underlies the Lean Startup, there is often a misconception that it offers a rigid clinical formula for making pivot or persevere decisions. There is no way to remove the human element – vision, intuition, judgment – from the practice of entrepreneurship, nor that would be desirable”. I was probably expecting more recipes, as the ones Blnak gives in The Four Steps to the Epiphany.
So? Art or science? Ries explains on page 161 that pivot requires courage. “First, Vanity Metrics can allow to form false conclusions. […] Second, an unclear hypothesis makes it impossible to experience complete failure, […] Third, many entrepreneurs are afraid. Acknowledging failure can lead to dangerously low morale.” A few pages before (page 154), he writes that “failure is a prerequisite to learning”. Ries describes a systematic method, I am not sure it is a science, not even a process. Indeed, in his concluding chapter, as if he wanted to mitigate his previous arguments, he tends to agree: “the real goal of innovation: to learn that which is currently unknown” [page 275]. “Throughout our celebration of the Lean Startup movement, a note of caution is essential. We cannot afford to have our success breed a new pseudoscience around pivots, MVPs, and the like” [page 279]. This in no way diminishes the traditional entrepreneurial virtues; the primacy of vision, the willingness to take bold risks, and the courage required in the face of overwhelming odds” [page 278].
Let me mention here a video from Komisar. Together with Moore and Blank, he is among the ones who advise reading Ries’ book. I am less convinced than them about the necessity to read this book. I have now more questions than answers, but this may be a good sign! I have been more frustrated than enlightened by the anecdotes he gives or his use of the Toyota strategy. In na interview given to the Stanford Venture Technology program, Komisar talks about how to teach entrepreneurship. Listen to him!
To be fair, Eric Ries is helping a lot the entrepreneurship movement. I just discovered a new set of videos he is a part of, thanks to SpinkleLab.
Fred Destin had also a great post on his blog about the Lean Startup and you should probably read it too to build your own opinion. Lean is hard and (generally) good for you. Fred summaries Lean this way and he is right: “In the real world, most companies do too much development and spend too much money too early (usually to hit some pre-defined plan that is nothing more than a fantasy and / or is not where they need to go to succeed) and find themselves with an impossible task of raising money at uprounds around Series B. So founders get screwed and everyone ends up with a bad taste in their mouth. That’s fundamentally why early stage capital efficiency should matter to you, and why you should at least understand lean concepts.”
Let me finish with a recent interview given by Steve Blank in Finland: I have devoted the last decade of my life and my “fourth career” to trying to prove that methods for improving entrepreneurial success can be taught. Entrepreneurship itself is more of a genetic phenomenon. Either you have the passion and drive to start something, or you don’t. I believe entrepreneurs are artists, and I’d like to quote George Bernard Shaw to illustrate:
“Some men see things as they are and ask why.
Others dream things that never were and ask why not.”
Over the last decade we assumed that once we found repeatable methodologies (Agile and Customer Development, Business Model Design) to build early stage ventures, entrepreneurship would become a “science,” and anyone could do it. I’m beginning to suspect this assumption may be wrong. It’s not that the tools are wrong. Where I think we have gone wrong is the belief that anyone can use these tools equally well.
When page-layout programs came out with the Macintosh in 1984, everyone thought it was going to be the end of graphic artists and designers. “Now everyone can do design,” was the mantra. Users quickly learned how hard it was do design well and again hired professionals. The same thing happened with the first bit-mapped word processors. We didn’t get more or better authors. Instead we ended up with poorly written documents that looked like ransom notes. Today’s equivalent is Apple’s “Garageband”. Not everyone who uses composition tools can actually write music that anyone wants to listen to.
It may be we can increase the number of founders and entrepreneurial employees, with better tools, more money, and greater education. But it’s more likely that until we truly understand how to teach creativity, their numbers are limited. Not everyone is an artist, after all.”