People building new software products tend to have a lot of similar questions. To get useful answers, we talked with Lauren Gilchrist, product manager at Pivotal Labs, a leading software development consultancy.

An edited, condensed version of our interview is below, and you can also catch Lauren in person at this year’s Lean Startup Conference, December 8 – 12 in San Francisco, where she’s leading a session on getting confident shipping products quickly so you can learn from users faster.

Ellen Sturm Niz: What do clients ask you most often?

Lauren Gilchrist: They often ask about growth problems before they’ve built anything. They have this huge vision in their head, and they just want to know how to get to that vision faster. So they ask a lot of questions like, “Should I build this feature first and then release that? Or that first and then release this?” Or, “Which of these seven different marketing strategies should I try?”

As humans, we tend to start with solutions. When we go to build a product, we don’t generally say, “What are the kind of problems that, for example, new moms in New York have?” Or: “I wonder which of the problems new moms in New York have is the most painful, and what’s the smallest thing that I can build to solve that problem?” Instead, people say, “What we need is a service that delivers diapers right to your door.” They start with that, which is the solution to a problem. They don’t start with the problem.

So a lot of questions that people come to me with look like this: They have a solution in their head, and they’re like “I’ve already got the truck lined up, and I’ve got the diaper provider, and what I really don’t know how to do is how to expand to 35 cities.” And we’re like, “But you haven’t launched anything yet.”

ESN: So what do you do?

LG: I tell them, “Before we deal with world domination, let’s back up.” I help people walk back up the ladder to get to: Who’s the user? What problem are you solving for the user? Does your proposed solution actually solve that problem—and how can you answer that? Then, how can you answer that faster?

ESN: So, if somebody came to you and they said, “Oh, I’m going to deliver diapers to moms, and I want to do it in 35 cities,” and you’re like, “Wow, you haven’t done it in one city yet.” What would you bring them in to do, and suggest that they do instead?

LG: Where I start first is this: “What’s the need? Help me understand why this is the problem that you’re devoting all of your time to solving.” That usually brings up a couple of different scenarios. One, people see a really big opportunity, whether it’s a marketplace or a need that’s not met. Or two, they’re dealing with a problem that they, themselves, are really familiar with.

There’s a woman named Allyson Downey who’s the founder of the company called WeeSpring. She has this great story about how when she was pregnant, she started asking her friends what kind of bottles they purchased, what kind of cribs they bought, what they needed, what they didn’t need, and it wound up turning into this crazy email chain of spreadsheets. She wound up launching a company a couple years later that was about getting recommendations for baby products from your friends. So, for her, that’s something where she really understood the need, and she wanted to build it. And she started very small.

Contrast that with someone who doesn’t have kids and says, “I’m going to solve diapering for every major city. I’m going to solve the problem that no one ever has enough diapers in their house.” They start with the classic business school case: here’s the market size, here’s how many people are going to have babies and diapers, and they work their way down to the three-year business plan. And nowhere along that journey have they even validated whether or not someone wants to receive a shipment of diapers within six hours. They haven’t talked to any moms, they haven’t potentially tried to make a quick MVP of like, “Hey, here’s a list of five moms, and we’ll just rent a car, go to the grocery store, pick them up, and drive over with the diapers.”

There’s this great story about Zappos when they first started, their MVP was actually that they took photos of shoes in retail stores and posted them. Then, if someone actually bought something, they would go buy the shoes in the retail store and ship them to the purchaser. That’s a great MVP. [This may be obvious, but it bears emphasis: It was a great MVP because it quickly and cheaply answered the question, “Will people buy shoes online?” Once they proved that people would, it became worth it to start building a more thorough system to do that. -Eds]

ESN: I love the story of Zappos. When I heard it, I thought, “That’s genius.”

LG: It’s so smart. It’s amazing. I worked for a startup called Yipit, and they did something similar. This was back when daily deals like Groupon and Living Social were really, really hot. They thought, “Oh hey, I bet it would be cool to see all these in one place, rather than subscribing to six different emails.” So, in three days, they built a website where you could sign up, and they kind of aggregated every single daily deal into their database. So, they would get up at like 3:00 in the morning, and put all of these things into their database, and then they’d send out the email. That was their MVP. And a year later, they actually still didn’t have a way to automate it. It was still all manual—there was a team that manually copied and pasted these daily deals into their database.

Obviously, they automated it finally. But for a year while they were still growing, and still getting their user base, they were building from the ground up and it was a cheap way of making it work without starting with, “Oh, what we really need is a web scraper that goes into a back end and can handle all these different cases.” Because they didn’t know if they actually needed to invest that money at first.

ESN: What are one or two questions you wish clients would ask you, but they never do?

LG: I wish they would ask, “How do I know I’m right?” As entrepreneurs, we start with solutions, and sometimes you don’t learn until much, much later that nobody wants it. It’s this double-edged sword, because to be an entrepreneur, you have to face down a lot of adversity, and you have to deal with people saying, “You’re wrong, and that’s crazy, and you’re never going to do it.” You have to power through that.

At the same time, left unchecked, the assumptions that you’re making that your solution is actually adding value to your users can grow and grow and grow, and it can make a failure much more expensive.

ESN: In other words: The belief you need in your product to overcome the adversities can cloud your judgement. So you don’t see when you need to pivot and do something differently?

LG: Right. It’s a tough balance. Those are the moments when it’s really helpful to come back and say, “How do I actually know that I’m adding value? How do I know that this product that I’ve built is solving a problem?” Without hard evidence, it’s really challenging. That ties back into, “How do I know that I’m right? How do I know that I’m adding value—and how I can actually validate that?” That’s something I wish people would ask more of.

What I teach people over the course of working together, usually, is that you can actually know whether something is adding value before it’s a fully baked, fully featured product. Which is really exciting. That learning and that validation that you get is so satisfying.

ESN: At The Lean Startup Conference, you’re going to talk about how releasing a product that doesn’t solve all of your customers needs at once is okay. Is that what you mean here? That you can get the information and the validation that you need with a less-than-perfect MVP?

LG: Absolutely. An easy analogy is when you release a product. The time period right before you release is kind of like going grocery shopping when you’re really hungry. You’re like, “Oh my god, maybe I really need the rack of lamb with goat cheese and lavender and honey. Or maybe I need some chips. Oh my god, I need a frozen pizza too.” And you’re sort of just crazily throwing things into your cart, because you are so ravenous that you don’t necessarily know what you need. You just need something.

Right before you release a product, you’re like, “Oh my god, what if we forgot the share on Tumblr button? We forgot the “Share on Tumblr” button. We totally need that.” Or like, “Oh my god, we can’t ship to London. What if we get a user in London?” You have this moment of absolute panic, because you’re about to push this thing live, and it may not be perfect. You may have overlooked something. It’s terrifying. It’s absolutely terrifying.

But what I’ve learned over time is that you can mitigate that panic. Just like you’d say in this same analogy, “Eat an apple before you go to the grocery store.” Same analogy you’re carrying out to the product side. You can release smaller versions of your product, or pieces of functionality. It doesn’t even have to be a functional product. You can put wire frames, or sketches, or something that’s totally fake in front of people to get feedback before you have to release this product into the world. And that helps you answer some of these questions about like, “Is this actually adding value, and how, right now?”

ESN: Right, is this “Share on Tumblr” button really going to make or break the product?

LG: Right. Not only is it going to make or break it, but do I even need it? So rather than saying, “Let’s put the button in just in case and delay the launch for a week,” you say, “We’ve already figured out that none of our users use Tumblr.” Or, “Well, we put a ‘Share on Facebook’ button in, and no one used that, so we’re just going to assume that we don’t need that.” Or, “We put a ‘Share on Tumblr’ button in a prototype and no one even asked what it did, or no one tried to click on it, so we can probably do without that.”

ESN: How do you know when you should delay a product because you overlooked something really important, versus when you’re just having that, “I’m hungry at the supermarket” moment?

LG: Ideally, that overlook moment isn’t coming at the point when you’re going to ship something. It’s coming before that, because you’ve been putting your product in front of people before your ship date. You’ve been interviewing users. You’ve been doing actual user testing sessions. That tends to come up earlier and some of the red flags are that no one’s using this feature, or maybe it’s a product that’s supposed to be inherently viral and no one is inviting their friends.

To go back to the diaper example, maybe everybody signs up but no one actually orders diapers. Or, nobody signs up. Or maybe you show this product to someone, and then you ask them how they would explain it to a friend—then they explain it like, “This is a new baby registry,” when you think it is a product where you could get recommendations from your friends about baby products.

When you’re like, “Huh. Whoa. People perceive this differently than I do,” that’s where you might decide, “Huh, maybe this isn’t ready to go, because people aren’t using it and talking about it in the same way that we think they should be, in the way that communicates that they understand the value in the same way that we do.”

ESN: I would think that entrepreneurs would fear that releasing something imperfect would affect the reaction of users. Do they think, I know people won’t like this because it’s not perfect so why release it yet? I’m just setting myself up to get negative feedback?

LG: Yeah, there’s a lot of fear. When you’re an entrepreneur, you have an enormous vision. You’re trying to disrupt an industry, or disrupt patterns. You’re trying to cause people to change their habits and change their behaviors. That’s a very big vision. If what gets released doesn’t match what’s in your head, it can be really hard to accept that users aren’t using the product for a fundamental reason, not because it doesn’t contain everything in your vision.

Another thing we get a lot of, particularly for projects that are for internal customers, is, “Oh my god, it didn’t solve everything.” You get this fear that everything is going to be judged on this one big release and reveal. That’s not actually true. There’s so much work that goes into a release and so much work that happens after it. But you get caught up in the big reveal moment, and that’s another thing that trips people up.

ESN: Does releasing an imperfect MVP ever kill a project? Does it ever happen where you say, “I knew I should have put that ‘Share on Tumblr’ button on there, and that’s why they hate it, and now everything is ruined!”

LG: But there’s so many ways to fix that. You can say—and this is so much about communication—you can always say, “Thanks so much for your feedback. We incorporated that. We listened, and guess what, now there’s a ‘Share on Tumblr’ button, and we put it out three days later.” The other thing that’s important to think about is that products are never done, they’re always evolving. They’re living, breathing, evolving beings, and it’s not as if you just push it out there, and then it sits there for two years, and you don’t change anything.

ESN: You can’t just sit back and say, “Hey, look what we did! I’m done and now we can just make money.”

LG: Right, exactly. You don’t put your feet on the desk and your hands behind your head and have a beer. You’re like, “It turns out we have all these users in the Philippines, how did that happen? I don’t know how we wound up there. Huh, that’s interesting. They can’t check out. We need to fix that.” And all of a sudden you’re like, “Are we a company that caters to a Filipino audience? Do we need two different sign-up flows?” You notice these trends, and all of a sudden you’re like, “Huh, that’s not what it was a couple of months ago. That’s not what is was three days ago. What is this evolving to?”

Going back to the launch scenarios, you learn from releasing something that’s imperfect, because you learn what problems you’ve already solved for people—and you learn what problems you still have yet to solve. You also learn more about what your users think. No matter what stage you release something, whether it’s literally sitting down and putting a napkin sketch in front of someone and saying, “What do you expect to happen when you click here?” Or whether it’s functional software that you release to millions of people, you’re still going to learn. The earlier that you can get something in front of people, the faster you can launch.

ESN: Can you give an example of a company that did release something that was imperfect in the early stages, that didn’t quite solve all the problems, but was good enough, and it worked out?

LG: I want to go back to that Yipit example, where they launched with like four daily deals rolled into one email, and they launched in one city. And then a couple of months later they launched in another city, because they were getting emails saying, “Hey, can you launch in Boston?” And you couple of weeks later, they launched in 10 more cities. And a couple weeks after that, they decided to add in categories, because people were like, “I don’t want all the daily deals, I only want spa deals.” It evolved slowly but surely. Now it’s a way to search for any discount for anything. But that’s not where it started.

ESN: What’s another question that you wish entrepreneurs or enterprises would ask you, but they never do?

LG: “Should I even build this?” I wish they would ask that, because validating the idea in the first place would save time and money and frustration on their part. They’re convinced that they should build it, there’s no question in their mind. But when you ask someone, “What’s the evidence that you should build this?”, they’re very taken aback. It’s like, “Wait, why are you questioning my vision?”

ESN: Because to them it’s so obvious. They know.

LG: Right. It’s so obvious to them. But a lot of times, there’s not a lot of evidence. I’ll give you a concrete example. I was working on a project where we were building a content management system, and we interviewed all the users, and we tried to understand what they needed to accomplish. It was a live video system, and often, the users needed to cut or reorder the segments for breaking news. They also needed to be able to see what everybody else is working on, and they needed to be able to edit things quickly.

You listen to that list of requirements, and you think, “Huh, well, clearly we need drag-and-drop to be able to reorder things quickly.” Building drag-and-drop is actually pretty time-intensive: It can be a week or two of development to build that kind of interface.

What we started with was this: Let’s put a box next to each segment, and that box will have a number in it, and that number will determine the order on the page. If they want to change the order, they can change the number on the box, and then refresh the page. We built that, we put it in front of them and we said, “Build a show on this tool.” Guess what? There wasn’t a single person who said anything about it being necessary to reorder segments faster.

So we validated that we’d solved their problem, A, which was needing to reorder segments quickly, and, B, we saved two weeks of not needing to build drag-and-drop, because we solved the problem in an easier way. In other words, we built the smallest feature that we could to solve that problem, and then we put it in front of them. That let us learn whether that solution solved their problem or not.

Had we learned that it wasn’t fast enough, we would have progressed to a drag-and-drop, or maybe another solution.

ESN: One of the other things you’re going to be talking about at the conference is about how too much empathy for customers slows product managers down. It seems counterintuitive in the startup world to be less empathetic to users. Can you talk a little bit about that?

LG: Absolutely. In my job, the process of finding out who the users are and what their problems are involves interviewing people and asking them a lot of questions and asking why a lot. The project I’m on, we just interviewed eight users at this company. We asked them about everything from their day-to-day habits, to how they use certain tools, what their frustration with those tools were, how they knew when they did a good job. You’re doing this psychological digging of, “What is it that’s really bothering you about this thing?”

You then have all that information in your brain as you start building solutions, so you’ve become incredibly empathetic with these people. All of a sudden, you’re like, “Oh my god, we can’t ship that, because it doesn’t have Bob’s drag-and-drop, and Bob really wants drag-and-drop!” It becomes second nature to want to solve all of their problems and want to help them and want to be this interesting savior figure, whose software solves everyone’s problems.

That’s where I really empathize with entrepreneurs who say, “I just want to fix it all.” But you can’t. You have to realize that people have some large problems and some small problems and some things that aren’t really problems at all. If you can fix one and make people really, really happy, then they’ll start asking for other things.

ESN: So, users will forgive you if you haven’t anticipated everything, but if you solved one of their problems really well, they will be happy with that. And they’ll give you feedback about other problems you could solve that you add later.

LG: That’s exactly it. There’s a Nobel Prize-winning psychologist, Daniel Kahneman, and he has this saying, “Nothing is as important as you think it is while you’re thinking it.” Which basically translates to “Yes, this is the thing that’s keeping you up at night, but your user hasn’t logged into your tool in two weeks and doesn’t remember it.”

ESN: You think Bob is secretly stewing over the fact that there’s no drag-and-drop, but really, Bob is on vacation.

LG: Bob is really worried about the fact that he has a flat tire, or his kid is sick, or he is hungry. There are so many factors in our lives, and the way that people use software is just one of them. And interestingly enough, if you don’t solicit feedback on your product in a way that is encouraging to get both positive and negative feedback, a lot of times you only hear the negative. Because what do people post online? Angry rants.

A lot of the positive reviews will get lost, and people will only talk about their frustrations. What you miss was that experience of watching them use it for the first time. Seeing them say, “This is great.” So, a lot of what we encourage people to do is be there at the point when 10 or 15 people are interacting with your software for the first time, and observe them, and ask them questions. You can watch their faces, you can watch their movements to understand whether or this is actually solving a problem for them.

ESN: So you should get really hands-on user feedback?

LG: Yes, and testing. There are two different phases: user interviews and user testing. User interviews are how you understand who your users are, what’s their demographic information, what are their behaviors, what are their needs and goals, and what is their motivation. And you sort of do that in a sprint, five or 10 people, and you’re like, “Okay, I’ve got all the information about these people and now I understand how my product might possibly add value.” Then you put your head down and you build for a little bit, and then you pick your head back up, and you go back to those 10 people for user testing.

You say, “Hey, here’s this thing. I’d like to watch you use it for the first time. Can you try to do this, and can you try to do that?” And like, “Oh, I saw you got stuck there, why did you get stuck?” In that moment, you get these amazing reactions. You either get, “This is the greatest thing ever.” Or you get, “I don’t get it.” Or, “What goes here? I’m confused.” Or like, “This says name, does it mean customer name or my name?” Like, Bob didn’t realize that he could drag-and-drop.

That’s ideally how you learn whether or not this adds value, and, also, what the other problems are. You’re doing it first hand, so when you launch this thing, you’re confident that you actually have solved somebody’s problem, and you also have a decent understanding of what the complaints are going to be. Maybe you’ll get some surprises, but you’re much more confident.

ESN: Is there any other advice you would give to product managers who want to get their services and products to users more quickly and effectively?

LG: First, before putting your own product in front of people, practice user testing on someone else’s product. Go to a friend and say, “I’m going to show you this product called Wikipedia. I want you to use Wikipedia in front of me to do these specific tasks.” User interviewing and user testing are really sort of awkward things, because you have to be able to sit back and watch someone call your baby ugly—and then just ask, “Okay, why is my baby ugly? Why do you think that?”

If you practice doing that on things that you are not emotionally invested in, it makes the habit and the practice a lot easier when you work on something that you do care about. Even if you do it among your friends or some coworkers and pretend to demo something that isn’t yours, you get that fear out of the way. It becomes more natural for you to ask those questions and to demonstrate something that is new to someone else.

Second, whatever fidelity you have, put it in front of someone. I have people that come to me and they’re like, “Well, I can’t show it to anyone because it’s a sketch, or it’s a wire frame, or it doesn’t actually work.” What I tell them is that you can learn something from whatever level of fidelity you put in front of someone.

For the content management project, for example, we started with just wire frames, and we put those wire frames in front of people, and we said, “Does this have everything that you need to do your job? Is this laid out in the same manner?” They said, “We need to be able to enter data.” So, we built a tool to let them enter data. We actually built the front end of the website and hooked it all up so that it almost was working. We let them type into it, and that’s was where we realized people were missing the save button, which is really bad.

ESN: That’s super frustrating to the user.

LG: It’s super frustrating, and we were able to catch all of that before we actually had the functional software. So, on the one hand, someone could possibly say, “It’s not ready yet. It’s not actually built.” But on the other hand, we were able to learn that faster, which means that by the time that we actually released the software to these users, we were able to validate in a day whether this was a tool sufficient for their needs.

So no matter what you have, and no matter how polished/unpolished, whatever, just put it in front of somebody, because you’re going to learn something, and that’s going to help give you feedback, and it’s going to help you answer some questions, which always helps refine your product.

Third, at the lab, we have a regular user testing schedule, so we actually bring in a couple of people every Thursday from Craigslist. Staff can sign up for slots and say, “Hey, I need to test this new flow that I’m working on,” or, “I need to figure out if someone is going to understand what this app even is, and can they explain it to a friend?” They have the opportunity to have someone just in the office. If you make it a habit where you don’t even think about, you don’t have to have this existential crisis of getting all these users, and, ”Who do we interview and when do we bring them in?” It’s just routine, and it’s there, and you can do it once a week. It becomes less scary. It’s all about reducing this fear of getting things in front of people faster.

ESN: Just put it in front of a couple of people and see if they do it.

LG: Right. For a product that I’m working on right now, we have a date range. Except rather than its having two date fields, one is a date and the other shows up with a button that says, “Add end date.” I was panicking, like, “I don’t know if this is the right way to do it. Are they going to understand that to add a second date in a range, you click the button and then you get the thing?” Everybody did it without a problem.

So my advice is always whatever is keeping you up at night, you can probably figure out by putting something in front of users.

By the way, on this project, the date range worked, but we have a button to add the customer, and the users didn’t know what that did. So now I have a new problem to work on.

ESN: Are there any other articles or information on user testing that you think would be helpful for people?

LG: There is a guy named Rob Fitzpatrick, who wrote a book called The Mom Test. He also has a bunch of videos. He’s the one that taught me how to phrase your user interviews and your user testing questions in a way that is not leading, that actually gets the information out of the people that you need to get it out of. That one was really useful to me.

Ellen Sturm Niz is a freelance content strategist and writer for The Lean Startup Conference.

What’s the Role of Leaders in Continuous Innovation?

We’re very interested in the how established companies can go beyond buzzwords to sustain innovation. Brant Cooper, co-founder of Moves the Needle and author of The Lean Entrepreneur, grapples with this question, too, in his work with enterprises like Intuit, Capital One, and Hewlett-Packard. We asked Lisa Regan, writer for the conference, to interview Brant on the topic, and we’ve excerpted a great segment below.

At the conference, Brant will lead a December 9 workshop, “Introducing Lean Startup in Your Corporation.” We’re also holding a free webcast next week with Brant and Coca Cola’s Global Director of Innovation and Entrepreneurship, Carie Davis, to explore the question in the title of this post.

Lisa Regan: At enterprise corporations, what’s the role of managers in guiding teams through entrepreneurial processes?

Brant Cooper: This is a big question. How do you mentor internal innovation teams? It’s not the same thing as managing. A lot of managers have a lot of experience, and they’re very successful within large enterprises. But their skill set really is around managing known processes, versus mentoring teams to try to discover new processes. We’re finding that to be a very tough nut to crack. We do some “train the trainers” work, so that they can then do the workshops themselves and teach. But even beyond training the trainers, it’s—how do you teach leaders to mentor the teams, not just manage them?

Here’s an example: In one of the sessions that we did at Intuit, one of the senior managers was said what was interesting to them is that they actually had to teach the teams how to persevere, that teams were willing to pivot too early. It was interesting, because in the startup world, I encounter something different. In startups, people push through no matter what the evidence might state, or they’re scared to even seek the real evidence. In large enterprises, it’s exactly the opposite. They get a little bit of evidence, and then they’re ready to pivot to the next idea.

Intuit’s senior managers were like, “Actually, there are all sorts of ways that you guys can test ideas.” You need that perseverance. The real innovation is not going to come easy, so you have to teach the internal entrepreneurs that they really need to iterate as much as they can before they “give up” and go off to a different idea.

To get there, you have to come up with new ways to measure these teams, so that on a week-by-week basis they’re making significant progress. It’s, “You will go talk to 15 customers in the next week,” rather than just making these promises about, “Oh, yeah. By the end of the month, we hope to have a dozen downloads.” The mentoring is really about teaching entrepreneurial teams to push aggressively.

LR: Why do you think it is that in the established companies, everybody gives up and goes, “Okay, let’s just pivot”?

BC: It’s a good question. Here’s another example at a client that we’re working with, a large consumer website. The President and CEO were urging the teams to move faster. So you had these teams running experiments, then they’d go, “Oh, I don’t know if we can do this.” And it was this senior leader that was going, “No, no. You have to do this. Push faster. Move faster.”

So it could just be that growing up inside larger, well-established organizations, you’ve been mentally trained to sort of resist failure. Or if you fail too quickly, you’d better do something else where you might be able to succeed. Maybe there’s even a fear of persevering, because how far do I want to push on an idea that might not succeed? Is that going to come back and ding my career? So a lot people inside these large enterprises are still trying to figure out, “Is senior leadership really on board with this whole idea of failing fast?”

That said, I’ve always been impressed that, when bringing these ideas to large enterprises, they have entrepreneurial people there. They have people that like chaos, that like wearing many hats and are problem solvers. And actually inside these large enterprises are pockets of agile programmers and design thinkers. So they already have these skill-sets at the grassroots. Those are the people that we can help identify, and teach them a little bit more about Lean Startup and how they can start running experiments. And then how they can teach it, how they can become mentors.

Real cultural transformation is going to take a while, and it’s going to be difficult. It’s not a linear journey. It’s not from here to there. It’s not short. Because you’re going to have ups and down and you’re going to come across these obstacles, and you have to go out and find mentors and you have to go and find allies, in order to overcome the obstacles.

But I think the rewards at the end are pretty big, especially if you’re the one that’s driving it, right? You’re sort of an internal hero. Hopefully what it does is help your organization create real value for their customers and you discover new business opportunities that result in real revenue. I think there’s a lot of upside. And the bottom line, my hope is that employees feel empowered to create new value for customers. I think it’s necessary for these big companies to survive, but it’s probably also necessary for these big companies to keep their best employees, as they feel empowered to not just follow the process inside their known market but to go out and discover new value.

This interview was edited and condensed. Catch Brant at The Lean Startup Conference and on next week’s webcast.

Your Guide to the Complete Lean Startup Conference Program

Guest post by Lisa Regan, writer for The Lean Startup Conference

Eleven months in the making, the full schedule for The Lean Startup Conference is at last complete, and we can’t wait to show you around! OK, sure, we’re still nailing down a couple more speakers and sessions, which we’ll announce as we finalize them. But other than that, it’s all there. Talk descriptions, speakers, workshops, evening events, Ignite, Office Hours…but we’re getting a little ahead of ourselves. Let’s slow down and go over just what we have and for whom.

We took the feedback we gathered in previous years to expand on and improve the program. We’ve got more in-depth how-to talks than ever and even better opportunities for you to meet other relevant attendees. That means there’s never been a better year to attend than this one. For first-time attendees, this conference offers a complete introduction to Lean Startup. Returning participants will find new speakers, fresh ideas, more options to meet other entrepreneurs, and special sessions for advanced practitioners.

Here’s an overview of it all, and of course, you can find more detail on our site. (If you need additional ammo to convince your boss, we’ve written up detailed benefits for employees of established organizations.)

— The Conference Core: Two Days and Three Nights
of Intense Education and Connection —

We don’t fix what’s already awesome. So as per usual, we kick off the main conference on December 9 with Ignite–a high-energy, entertaining series of lightning talks.

On December 10 and 11, the two main conference days are packed with mainstage talks to inspire and breakout sessions to teach you the how-to of implementing Lean Startup methods. At your request, we’ve brought in speakers from all kinds of organizations–including young companies, Fortune 500s, mission-driven orgs, and government, and they create websites, apps, games, hardware, consumer goods, social services, media products and more. We’ve tagged the talks by topic, so you can zero in on what interests you most.

If you’ve scanned the list of speakers before, take a second look. We’ve recently added talks from: Former US CTO and current tech advisor to the White House, Todd Park; former Facebook engineering director Joceyln Goldfein; Dropbox engineering VP Aditya Agarwal; and KISSMetrics founder Hiten Shah.

Take a third look, too, because there are a lot of people there you haven’t heard of but who have in-the-trenches information to share. That’s no accident. We actively sought out great stories, not just big names, and we found people who had compelling experiences to present. These are people you won’t hear at any other conference. It’s what keeps the Lean Startup Conference on point: No stale talks.

We’re also going beyond traditional sessions. To help experienced Lean Startup practitioners share knowledge with each other, we’re dedicating several breakout sessions each day for advanced attendees to hold focused conversations with each other. And after dinner on December 10 and 11, we’ve added hands-on sessions for you to learn video-editing techniques from one of our favorite speakers last year or to catch a jazz set with a discussion of improv as an analog for business collaboration.

We know that meeting other people at conferences can be rewarding–but surprisingly hard to pull off. So On December 10 and 11, we’ve booked tables for Lean Startup group dinners at popular San Francisco restaurants. These were such a hit last year that we’ve expanded on them, and we’ll designate groups for each venue–startup founders and early employees, entrepreneurs within the enterprise, or mission-driven and non-profit innovators–so that you can connect with the attendees most relevant to you.

You probably don’t come to this conference for the food–but that wouldn’t be a crazy idea. For lunches, we’ve contracted with local food trucks to park outside the conference and offer a taste of San Francisco entrepreneurship (literally) just for conference participants.

— Go Deeper: Up to Five Days of Incredible Events —

We designed our Platinum and Gold Passes specifically for people looking to do a deep dive into Lean Startup. They include training and are an amazing deal; they also offer exclusive networking opportunities. You can buy these passes now or upgrade an existing Silver Pass. Platinum Passes include everything above, plus:

  • Site visits. Who doesn’t love a field trip? Platinum Passholders will spend December 8 visiting four successful San Francisco businesses. See for yourself what innovation environments look like and connect with the people making them work.
  • Workshops. December 9 is devoted to full-day, hands-on sessions led by our community’s most accomplished Lean Startup trainers. This year’s workshops cover Lean Startup 101; Introducing Lean Startup in Your Corporation; Lean Impact; Innovation Accounting; and Metrics: The Data That Will Make or Break Your Business.
  • Office Hours. On the evenings of December 10 and 11, you can sign up for 15-minute, one-on-one conversations with select conference presenters and expert mentors. This was an experiment we tried last year, and we were frankly overwhelmed by the positive response. So this year we’re expanding Office Hours not only with more speakers, but also with more mentors from a range of fields–giving you an unusual chance to talk with people like O’Reilly Media CEO Tim O’Reilly, Reverb Technologies founder Erin McKean, and entrepreneurship expert Nathalie Molina Niño.
  • Live Q&A with Eric Ries. On December 12, Eric will answer attendees’ questions live. He’s going to take all kinds of startup questions–on designing experiments, understanding metrics, deciding when to pivot–whatever comes. You not only get to ask, but you also get to hear details of the challenges other entrepreneurs are facing.
  • Perks include:
    • Reserved front-row seating in every conference room
    • Platinum line at Registration to save you time
    • Platinum line for our food trucks on Tuesday and Friday
    • First dibs to sign-up for our Office Hours
    • First dibs to sign-up for our group dinners

Our Gold Pass covers three days–including December 10 and 11, plus your choice of Workshop on December 9 or Live Q&A with Eric Ries on December 12. Gold Passholders also get access to Ignite, Office Hours, and designated ballroom seating for December 10 and 11 mainstage talks.

— A Pass for Every Income —

We’ve talked a lot here about the Gold and Platinum Passes, because they offer incredible value. But we also want The Lean Startup Conference to be accessible to everyone. So we’re pleased to offer passes at a complete range of levels:

  • Our Silver Passes are a great deal: Two full days of the conference, a seat at Ignite, sign-ups for dinners, food truck tickets for purchase.
  • Our Scholarship Pass offers the same benefits as the Silver Pass, but brings the cost of the conference down to $200 for people who otherwise wouldn’t be able to attend (think: fledgling solopreneurs, employees at very young startups and small non-profits). Apply for a Scholarship Pass here.
  • Livestream the conference. For the first time, we’re making the conference available via livestream to individuals. You get all the mainstage talks and the most popular breakouts, along with access to live Q&A, moderated chat, and a conference social network. You pay per screen, so sit down with a couple of friends and split the cost.
  • If you’re a student, you can apply to volunteer. Pitch in for a shift, and we’ll give you a Silver Pass. Apply to volunteer here.

All passes are on sale now, and you can compare them here. And, again, you can now see the whole program on our site. Register today to join us for our best Lean Startup Conference yet!

PS. While you wait for December, check out our webcast on November 25 with Brant Cooper–one of our most popular workshop leaders–and Coca Cola’s Carie Davis. It explores a topic we haven’t seen discussed elsewhere yet.

PPS. When you register for the conference, you can also choose to add on-site childcare options. Here’s the deal.


By Lisa Regan    @mybldanube

The Lean Startup Conference, a three day gathering of entrepreneurs, is held at the Nob Hill Masonic Center and the Fairmont Hotel in San Francisco on December 8-11, 2013. (© 2013 Photo by Jakub Mosur)
The Lean Startup Conference, a three day gathering of entrepreneurs, is held at the Nob Hill Masonic Center and the Fairmont Hotel in San Francisco on December 8-11, 2013. (© 2013 Photo by Jakub Mosur)

Every time user experience expert Laura Klein gives a talk, she’s asked, “How do I get my coworkers to understand that what I do is important?”

Her insightful answer is below, excerpted from a recent interview with Lisa Regan for Eric Ries’s blog; you can read the full interview here. Laura is the author of UX for Lean Startups, creator of the design blog Users Know, and Head of Product at Hint Health, a software company working on healthcare affordability.

Lisa is a writer for both The How and The Lean Startup Conference.

Lisa Regan: So what are some of the questions people most often ask you, and what advice do you give?

Laura Klein: Here’s one question that I’m going to share with you not because it’s the most important one, but because it is the one that I get asked, I think, in every single talk I ever give that has anything to do with research. The question is, “How do I get people at my company to understand that what I do is important? How do I get them to see the value of User Experience research or design?”

The answer that I used to give, which I think was not very helpful but was how I felt, was, “Quit and join someplace that actually understands what you do, because they’re going to win in the end anyway.” But I think the right answer—assuming that first answer is not an option or that you just enjoy tilting at windmills—is to find a way to treat the other people at your company as themselves being users of your research. Just as you would with a customer, you need to understand their needs better.

First, you need to find a way to have them experience what their customers are actually going through. Often, a good way to do this is with video. So you would just go ahead and do that user research yourself, figuring out a fast way that you, on your own, can capture that information and then share those little snippets with the people that you need to convince. Nothing is more impactful than actually seeing what you are putting your customers through. Because it’s very easy to ignore that or not fully accept that there are problems with your product, but seeing person after person after person struggle with the same thing is incredibly impactful. So that’s an excellent way of doing it.

But I think that another thing to do is to understand why they don’t care about this. Is it because they don’t understand the value of it? In which case something like showing a video of people struggling with the product, and then showing video of people not struggling with it after it’s been fixed, can be incredibly helpful. Is it because they’ve had a bad experience in the past with research? I think then the answer is to help them understand ways to do research or design that aren’t what they’ve experienced in the past. Maybe they worked with a really big agency that charged them a huge amount of money and gave them really crappy results. I’ve run into this. Maybe they’re just like, “We don’t have time for this.” I hear this all the time, “We don’t have time for research.” At that point, you really have to explain to them that they don’t have time to not do research—because it takes a lot longer to fix it later than it does to fix it before it’s built.

LR: Do you think people just don’t want to hear what they already know to be true?

LK: There’s also that, and I think this happens a lot, honestly. This happens whenever people are rushing to get new features out, and they’re ignoring the old product. There’s, “We already know about the product problem. We already know about that. We’ve heard about that.” At that point, you really actually need to show them the impact that the bug is having on their bottom line. In that case, metrics and analytics are really important. “Hey, look, look at the funnel. You’re spending all this money to get people into the product, and they’re all dropping out here, and we’ve identified why they’re all dropping out here. This problem that you’ve been ignoring for a year, that I know you are totally used to, is costing you X amount of money or X number of users. This is a quantifiable problem.” If they’re real numbers-driven people, then that’s a good way of getting to them.

But again, I think the way to figure out how to change people’s minds within your organization is to understand them better. User experience people, we are trained to have empathy, or at least try to fake it, but we can understand. That is always our goal. We need to understand our users, and we need to understand our own problems. Apply that within your company, apply that to your engineers. I’m a big advocate for having empathy for your engineers. Understand what their needs are in terms of what you’re delivering to them, and they will be much better about implementing the things that you’re asking for. Understand and have empathy for your managers. Understand what they’re getting judged on and what their role in the organization is, and understand how to make them better at their jobs, and they will be much better about helping you do what you need to do.

This seems a little bit off the topic, but it’s around this concept of, how do I convince people that what I’m doing is important? I think the answer is that you give them not more deliverables or not more exact deliverables, but you understand what they need to see from you, and you deliver that. That’s a very user experience way of looking at things.

LR: What’s something that the product team would need to see? What’s an example of what that would look like?

LK: I just joined the team I’m working with as Head of Product a couple of months ago, and I’ve been working very closely with the engineering team. In fact, I have to tell them what to build, because part of the Head of Product’s job is to be sure that they’re building the right things. So the first thing that I did when I came in and sat down with them was I looked at how they’re currently working and I basically asked them, “What do you need from me to be successful?”

To get an answer to that, I would show them different levels of deliverables. For example, I would show them various works in progress. The last thing that I’m ever going to deliver to an engineering department is a pixel-perfect set of Photoshop mock-ups and just be like, “Here, implement this exactly.” That’s pretty much never the right thing. So I was like, “What level do you guys want to work at?” I would show them, “Here’s a task flow of when something happens. Then here’s some human-readable user stories that document everything that could possibly happen in this situation, and here’s a sketch with some notes on the side. Which of these–or is it some combination of these–will help you when you’re sitting down and writing the code? Also, by the way, I’m standing right here. I’m not away at a desk. I’m right here, a foot away. Literally turn around, tap me on the shoulder, and ask me a question.”

What we ended up with is that we use some combination of all of these kinds of things, including interactive prototypes sometimes, sometimes sketches with annotations, and sometimes test flows, and sometimes user stories, and sometimes sitting down and working through an error case together. We use a combination of all of these things to produce the different features. Depending on the feature, they get something different. Because it depends on if it’s a little thing, or a big thing, or a very complicated human interaction. They don’t just get the deliverable that I want to give them. It’s never that. They get the thing that they need in order to move forward and be successful on the first try.

The funny thing is that, with my team, I haven’t had to resort to showing them videos of the users. I probably won’t have to do that, because they are incredibly empathetic, and they see all the customer service emails that come in. They care deeply about the users already. So, I don’t have to convince them that users are important. But I think in a lot of engineering teams—not mine, luckily—but in a lot of engineering teams, especially at big companies, they can feel very removed from what the customer actually wants. So the design deliverables that you give them have to be quite explicit, because they are not necessarily going to have the framework for making good decisions about the user on their own. The right approach to that is to help them get closer to the user, because if they understand the user’s needs they will make better decisions on their own, because they will make them by thinking about the user. So I figure out what deliverables I can give them that will be the most useful will help them to make the right decisions.

Three Reasons Your Boss Should Send You to The Lean Startup Conference

We’ve heard your requests for information to help convince your bosses to send you to The Lean Startup Conference, December 8 – 12 in San Francisco. We know you have to justify not only the budget, but also the time away. This conference has an advantage to offer you: The time and money you spend attending will more than pay off when you’re immediately able to help your company build products more quickly and profitably.

Below are just a few benefits for employees of established companies in attending the Lean Startup Conference. Feel free to share with your boss–and once she or he says yes, register here.

1. Learn the key Lean Startup methods from experts

Lean Startup is a proven method for invigorating and sustaining innovation in established companies and in young startups alike. Recognizing that reality, this year’s conference includes a workshop, “Introducing Lean Startup in Your Corporation.” Led by Brant Cooper, author of The Lean Entrepreneur: How Visionaries Create Products, Innovate with New Ventures, and Disrupt Markets and an accomplished corporate coach, the session includes guest speakers from enterprise corporations, case studies from corporate entrepreneurs, and a real-world, hands-on exercise to help you truly learn and connect the ideas with your everyday work. This session is highly relevant for executive leadership teams, innovation groups and incubators, product managers and product teams, and functional teams such as HR and Finance.

If you’re brand new to Lean Startup, you’ll gain highly useful lessons from “Lean Startup 101,” a workshop lead by Janice Fraser, author of The Lean Product Book and expert entrepreneurship trainer. The session teaches you the key concepts–like MVPs, pivots, customer development, validated learning, product/market fit, innovation accounting and cross-functional teams–when to use these approaches in your company, and the mechanics of learning from customers and testing ideas.

2. Find out how to apply Lean Startup in your company through case studies and how-to sessions

Fostering innovation and a culture of entrepreneurship inside your corporation is key to success in today’s fast-moving markets. Corporations need managers and employees to work more quickly and effectively, and the conference has plenty of examples you can learn from. For instance, when employees at Telefonica—one of the largest mobile network providers in the world—wanted to experiment with a new handset idea, something very interesting happened. In their talk, “Lean Product Development in a Very Big Organization,” Susana Jurado and Mario Olano, Innovation Managers at Telefonica, tell a detailed and instructive story about their company’s experience.

In “How HP Shipped Faster–Much Faster,” Kathryn Kuhn discusses how her innovation team overcame slow release cycles and rigid team processes with calculated tradeoffs in order to speed up its product development cycle–bringing a complex product to market in a matter of months. In “Launch a New Product that Doesn’t Hurt Your Existing Brand,” Andrew Homeyer explains how his team at Rally Software launched a new product under a fresh brand and reached an entirely new customer segment. And, in “The Diesel Engine MVP,” Cory Nelson, Sr. Executive Product Manager at GE Distributed Power, talks with Eric Ries about how GE has used Lean Startup methods to reduce the risk of developing a new diesel engine—and did it more quickly than it had for similar products in the past.

Many corporate innovators find it challenging to convince leaders and/or coworkers to use entrepreneurial methods, especially in buttoned-up departments like accounting or legal. But Lean Startup principles can work in those areas, too, and the conference has sessions to show you how. For instance, in “Innovation Accounting,” David Binetti teaches product managers at established companies how to create an effective framework for getting corporate buy-in and measuring success against learning milestones, rather than inappropriate (and near-universally used) execution milestones. In “Turn Lawyers into Allies,” Sean Butler, Senior Corporate Counsel at Cisco, explains how you can actively reframe the roles of lawyers to transform the legal function into an asset rather than a innovation-blocking liability.

Oh, and we have talks on working within regulated industries. For example, Joanne Molesky of Thoughtworks explores balancing compliance and experimentation. And Balaji Srinivasan of Andreessen Horowitz talks about reinventing regulated industries.

3. Connect with peers and mentors at companies facing challenges similar to yours

It’s probably clear by now that The Lean Startup Conference isn’t for startup founders alone. Not only will speakers from corporations like Microsoft, Google and Disney share how Lean Startup principles work at their companies, but in addition, our Office Hours sessions–available to Platinum and Gold Passholders–give you a chance to sit down with speakers and select mentors for one-on-one conversations where you can discuss your most pressing challenges.

We also take extra care to make sure that you meet relevant attendees during breakout sessions, receptions, and dedicated dinners for corporate entrepreneurs at local restaurants. Attendees already registered hail from organizations like AARP, Adobe Systems, Andreessen Horowitz, AOL, BabyCenter, Capital One, Cisco, Constant Contact, Disney, Fidelity Investments, Gannett, GE, Genentech, GFK, GoDaddy, Google, Hewlett Packard, Intuit, LexisNexis, Macy’s, Microsoft, NASDAQ Private Market, O’Reilly Media, United Health Group, Pearson, Rackspace, Riot Games, SAP, Siemens, State Farm, Steelcase, Target, Twitter, and Viacom.

Conference attendees run the gamut of job titles, too. You’ll be surrounded by CEOs, CMOs, CIOs, CTOs, CFOs, engineers, HR, accountants, analysts, designers, strategists, marketers, business developers, product managers, IT, managers, operations, health care providers, UX designers, innovation & R&D leads, sales managers, coaches and professors. And not only are they coming from all over the country, but also from all over the world: Australia, Brazil, Canada, China, England, Germany, Hungary, Ireland, Mexico, Norway, Poland, Scotland, Singapore, South Africa, Spain, Sweden, and Turkey.

Don’t miss the chance to learn about Lean Startup methods from the experts and bring its methods to your corporation. Register for the conference today.

PS. Here are just a few of our favorite talks on bringing Lean Startup principles to corporations from last year’s conference:

An Experiment with Livestream Tickets

This year, for the first time, we’re selling livestream tickets for The Lean Startup Conference, December 10 – 11. In the past, we’ve offered the livestream free to community groups. But over the years, based on attendee feedback, we’ve fine-tuned the livestream and are now confident we can provide you not only with a great live experience but with a very useful bundle of recordings, too. Selling livestream tickets means we can offer them to individuals, not just to groups, and we can guarantee better quality video, too.

But, of course, there’s more. We’ve spent years refining the way we shoot the video, the software we use, the tech-support we provide viewers, the onscreen chat we moderate during the event, and the Q&A participation we offer. All of that means that livestreamers enjoy a lot benefits. You will:

  • Catch all the main-stage talks and our most popular breakouts live on December 10 and 11. You get high-quality video of every talk in the Grand Ballroom. That includes all keynotes in the mornings, and our most popular breakouts in the afternoons.
  • Get a downloadable video recording of all conference sessions, including all breakouts that take place outside the Grand Ballroom. The recorded video is a special perk for livestreamers, and we’ll send it out shortly after the conference. (For in-person attendees, the recorded video is available only as part of our our top-tier tickets.)
  • Participate fully in Q&As. We field questions via an online form, even for attendees in the room, and you share equal opportunity to ask questions. Livestreamers are not second-class citizens for Q&A.
  • Connect with other livestream attendees in our special moderated chat. Our terrific livestream coordinator, Michele Kimble, moderates a dedicated chat session with all the livestreamers. You not only meet other remote attendees, but you also have Michele on hand to answer questions, make sure you have all the key info and troubleshoot any technical problems.
  • Meet other attendees via our conference social network. We have a dedicated social network for the event, which livestreamers and in-person attendees alike can use to connect with any conference participant.

The pricing is simple: A livestream ticket is $300, and you can register today. It covers both December 10 and 11, our main conference days. Plus, we’ve set it up so that you pay per screen, not per seat; if you have several people watching together, you pay for just one livestream ticket.

In addition, because we like helping build community, we’ll give you a $100 discount if you choose to be an official livestream host. Official hosts allow anyone local to attend your screening, and when you register for a livestream ticket, you must share your event URL with us so that we can list it on our site (here’s what that listing looked like last year; hosts mostly used EventBrite to let people reserve seats, though you can set up any web page you’d like). This year for the first time, we don’t require that official hosts guarantee a minimum number of attendees. Of course, you’re welcome to charge people for your local event.

(One caveat: We intend the livestream for people who can’t attend in person. If you’re based in the Bay Area, we ask you to join us at The San Francisco Fairmont, and we aren’t offering livestream tickets for local groups.)

Selling livestream tickets is an experiment for us, building on our previous test at Office Optional, where livestream tickets were far more popular than we expected. It also takes into account the fact that our international audience has grown considerably, and the logistics and cost of wrangling a free worldwide livestream have likewise increased; as a startup ourselves, those factors require us to adapt. Our hypothesis is that we can offer you really good value for a great livestream experience (plus video bundle), and we believe the per-screen pricing and group discount will make the livestream accessible to almost everyone. We’ll measure our success in ticket sales and attendee feedback. If you have questions or ideas for how we can make the livestream experience even better, don’t hesitate to email Michele Kimble, our livestream coordinator.

Not to put too fine a point on it, but while our livestream ticket sales are new, we have a great track record of delivering an amazing experience. Here are just a few of the many great comments our virtual attendees shared last year:

“Our simulcast was really well received. Even inside a big company, participants took away a lot of valuable ideas. Looking forward to next year! –Microsoft

“We had wonderful attendance. This event helped to build our community and provide substantive content and topics for future Startup Evanston events.” — Startup Evanston

“Our community of entrepreneurs loved participating.” –Spain Lean Startup

Whether you’re new to Lean Startup or a veteran, whether you work in a brand-new startup or in an established organization, our conference is designed to improve your success and speed building new products and services. We hope you’ll join us in person or via livestream in December. Register today!