Your Brand: Innovation Asset or Albatross?

The Lean Startup Conference/Jakub Mosur and Erin Lubin

Big companies know that change is easier said than done. So what steps can leaders take to bring their big ideas to life? Cindy Alvarez recently shared her thoughts on the topic for Dun and Bradstreet’s Connectors blog. In anticipation of her upcoming webcast on August 27, at 11am Pacific with Lean Startup Company, we’ve republished it here.

As the director of user experience at Yammer (a Microsoft company) and former head of product at KISSmetricsCindy Alvarez helps organizations get closer to their customers. Her power tool is an experimentation process that helps teams learn faster. At the intersection of marketing, product and customer experience, Cindy encourages organizations to think past their brands to laser focus on the market’s needs. In this interview, she explains how.

Why are you passionate about corporate innovation?

I definitely would’ve started my career introducing myself as “a startup person.” The funny thing is, though, that in all of my startup roles, I was working with enterprise customers and providing value through helping them to experiment and respond to challenges more quickly. Through an acquisition, I now work for Microsoft.

In a big corporation, there are so many resources — intellectual, financial, and influential — that go mostly untapped. Just imagine how much they could achieve if just 5% of employees were more empowered, if just 5% of projects could move faster and backed by data!

What are the biggest challenges that marketers–and companies–face with respect to innovation? What’s holding them back? 

Corporations are burdened by what they perceive as one of their most valuable assets: their brand. “Brand” isn’t something you can monetize. Take McDonald’s: they have one of the most recognizable and beloved brands in the world. But their sales are suffering. They’re competing in a market that is rapidly shrinking.

I can’t count how many times teams at Microsoft have resisted building experiments or minimum viable products because “We’re Microsoft; we can’t release something that doesn’t meet the (extremely high) bar that customers expect from us.” Meanwhile, smaller companies can release things that are imperfect but are amazing vehicles for learning. They can use that learning to leapfrog the bigger companies.

What are the most important steps that organizations can take to become more innovative?

Organizations need to figure out a way to embrace being experimental. Having a separate “labs” brand, like Walmart or Google or Nordstrom, is one approach that I expect to see more of.

The first step is transparency. In most companies, communications are siloed; only the executives know the objectives and obstacles to any big initiative. And that’s basically telling the rest of the org, “We only trust these people to come up with solutions.” It’s wasting the brainpower of the other 95% of your employee base. We’re taking the 95% of corporations that are actually on the front lines, building products and serving customers, and telling them, “Nope, just do this clearly prescribed job and turn off the rest of your brains.” What a waste!

When corporations communicate transparently–when they share goals and objectives and setbacks–it empowers that 95% to speak up. It empowers teams to share information and build off what previous work has been done, versus reinventing the wheel each time. We’ve seen this happen in companies that have adopted Yammer wholeheartedly, but it doesn’t have to be any one specific tool. It just needs to be a widespread mindset change–away from “need to know” and towards “unless there’s a specific reason not to, I’m going to work openly and share ideas and ask for help.”

The next step is embracing an experiment-driven methodology. Many corporations consider their domain expertise to be one of their greatest assets. I believe it’s often an albatross around our necks. When you’re confident in best practices that worked for the past decade (or more), you don’t question them. When you have one employee who is “the expert” in a specific technology, you are less receptive to new ideas from other, less experienced employees.

The companies that have spoken publicly about experimentation–Facebook, Google, Amazon, Microsoft–all agree that 50% or more of the product features they test do not perform as expected. They don’t move the desired metrics. I think we can all agree that there are phenomenally smart, experienced employees at those corporations. But even the best of the best are wrong half the time. This means we need to treat every “known” as a hypothesis and test it with rigor. We have the tools now. Experimentation on new lines of business, new product features, service changes, marketing campaigns–all of these are very possible even for small teams to adopt.

What are some challenges your team has faced, and how did you overcome them? What types of data have played a role in helping you navigate this process?

Microsoft leadership has been pretty phenomenal in terms of leaving Yammer alone to let us continue with our lean development methodology and experiment-driven culture that has worked well for us. But in any acquisition, the new team has to learn to collaborate with “the old guard.”

One of the challenges we’ve faced has been from teams who aren’t even skeptics; they actually love the concept of being more agile, more lean, more experiment-driven. But they’re simply overwhelmed by how to translate every part of their existing process–a process that worked for three decades and made Microsoft billions of dollars, by the way–into this new world. How do you change product prioritization? How do you make data-driven decisions when the infrastructure for measuring isn’t in place yet? How do you evaluate employees when “shipping product” is no longer the goal?

We’re actually still trying to solve this. It’s not an easy problem! Finding allies within Microsoft who know the system and want to drive change has helped tremendously. So has being very mindful of which approaches work–for example, the phrase “minimum viable product” just doesn’t work within Microsoft. People hear it as “releasing crap products” and then they just stop listening. So we talk about being “hypothesis-driven,” because it’s really that mindset that matters the most. Our data analytics team does training and outreach to teams that want to be more data-driven. I’ve just started a series of workshops for program managers, engineers, designers and researchers, to give them practice in thinking in “hypothesis-driven” ways. You have to take a Bayesian approach, because different things work for different teams and people.

Any other advice that you’d like to share?

There’s a lot of magical thinking around Big Data these days. People tend to assume that if you just collect enough data on what customers are doing, you’ll magically spot patterns that lead to amazing innovations. That just doesn’t happen. Big Data is just a pile of numbers. It doesn’t yield anything unless you ask the right questions of the data. At Yammer, we have an amazing partnership of data analysts and user researchers. Those two ways of thinking, together, is what gets us great insights.

People tend to prefer quantitative data over qualitative data. I understand that; intuitively you think, “Okay, one form of data is telling me what 20 people are doing, the other form is telling me about what 20 million people are doing.” But quantitative data can never tell you why things are happening. At Yammer, we have plenty of data telling us when customers aren’t using certain features or behaving in our desired manner. But the numbers don’t suggest any ways of solving that problem. It has been through deeper, richer, and much smaller-scale user research that we’ve gotten clues towards solutions.

Join Cindy in This Week’s Webcast

Through our own customer development at Lean Startup, we found that one of the biggest struggles intrapreneurs have is getting the buy-in from decision makers. As the Director of User Experience for Yammer (a Microsoft company), this is something Cindy Alvarez is an expert on. This Thursday, August 27th at 11am PT, she is leading a Lean Startup Webcast, Get Buy-in to Drive Change: Bringing Lean Startup to Enterprise. Register free here. By registering, you will have immediate access to the recording.

Latest Round of Lean Startup Speakers Announced

Lean Startup Conference speakers are experts at telling stories. They condense years’ worth of experience into powerful talks that leave audiences with useful, applicable tips for bringing products to market faster.

This doesn’t happen on accident. It’s the byproduct of a 9-month vetting, planning, and training process: Every Lean Startup speaker goes through multiple rounds of interviews, training sessions, feedback rounds with peers, and two or more practice rounds of their final talks. This entire process is to create the best experience and learning environment for you, our attendee.

We’ve just onboarded our next batch of speakers for the 2015 Conference and want you to get to know them. We’re including their Twitter handles so you can let them know what you’d like to hear from them (they’re all ears!) or to tweet them with a high-five. Here they are, in no particular order:

1 – Harper Reed
CTO at Obama for President and Threadless

Harper Reed’s blog states that he’s “probably one of the coolest guys ever” — and, we agree. He’s done some remarkable work on the Obama for President campaign and the super hot e-commerce community organization Threadless (just to name a few things). He’ll join us at the conference to talk about what went into developing those businesses, and the importance of building a great team. You can read about his journey to becoming Obama’s CTO in this Medium post.

[email protected] – Can’t wait to hear about building Lean Startup teams at @Threadless and Obama for President at #LeanStartup Conf” – Click to Tweet

2 – Poornima Vijayashanker
Founder at Femgineer and Venture Partner at 500 Startups

poornimavijayashankerPoornima’s passion for what she does is incredibly contagious, and that’s just one of the reasons we can’t wait for her to be in the front of the room at the conference. Through her education startup Femgineer, Poornima empowers engineers, founders, and product leads to transform their ideas into tangible, high-impact products. In November, she’ll share that expertise with the Lean Startup audience.

[email protected] – your idea-to-prototype workshop at the 2015 #LeanStartup Conf is going to rock!” – Click to Tweet

3 –  Aditya Agarwal
VP of Engineering at Dropbox

For many startups, growth is a Bermuda Triangle, presenting fatal but hard-to-spot challenges on the path from traction to success. That’s why we invited Aditya Agarwal to speak at the conference. Aditya has led teams at Facebook and Dropbox through critical growth phases, and will talk about how to prepare for success while building for the reality of the present.

“@adityaag – Excited for your talk on @dropbox’s growth at the 2015 #LeanStartup Conf” – Click to Tweet

4 – Tomer Sharon
Sr. User Experience Researcher at Google

Tomer SharonTomer has authored multiple books about the topic of user research and is a known leader in the space. He established The Israeli Chapter of the User Experience Professionals’ Association and is a mentor at Google’s LaunchPad program, a bootcamp for early-stage startups around the world. At the conference, Tomer will run a live experiment that demonstrates how Google gets critical customer information. It will be a can’t miss session.

[email protected] – Can’t wait to see your live experiment at the 2015 #LeanStartup Conference” – Click to Tweet

5 – Christina Wodtke
Principal at Wodtke Consulting

christinawodtkeWith deep roots in Silicon Valley, Christina has helped grow companies like LinkedIn, Yahoo, Zynga, The New York Times—and a ton of startups. She speaks worldwide and shares her thoughts at On Monday, November 16, Christina will run a workshop for platinum and gold badge holders on customer development and how to adapt for product-market fit.

[email protected] – Look forward to your customer development workshop at the 2015 #LeanStartup Conference” – Click to Tweet

6 – Devon McConnell
Managing Director, Head of Digital at Wells Fargo Advisors, LLC

devonmcconnellWe’re excited to have Devon share her story about building a digital presence in a highly regulated industry. With just one year under her belt at Wells Fargo, she’s been able to successfully implement Lean Startup with her team, to improve Wells Fargo’s digital strategy and enhance customer experiences.

[email protected] – Excited to learn about @WellsFargo‘s digital transformation at the 2015 #LeanStartup Conference” – Click to Tweet

7 – Chris Dixon
General Partner at Andreessen Horowitz

Chris Dixon has a rich history with building businesses. He was co-founder and former CEO of Hunch, which was acquired by eBay in 2011 and SiteAdvisor, which was acquired by McAfee in 2007. He is currently a partner at Andreessen-Horowitz, and he has invested in companies like Kickstarter, Warby Parker, Foursquare, and more.

At our conference, Chris will join Eric Ries on stage to discuss building a modern Lean Startup company, attaining operational excellence, and how the Lean Startup community of entrepreneurs and executives can create a roadmap that moves them in the right direction.

[email protected] – Excited to see your conversation with @ericries at the 2015 #LeanStartup Conference” – Click to Tweet

Have a question, or want to recommend a talk idea? Give us a shout @LeanStartup. We want to hear your thoughts!

Interested in hearing these talks? You’ll make a great addition to the 2015 Lean Startup Conference community. Join us on November 16-19 at Fort Mason. Come away with new Lean Startup contacts and actionable takeaways that you can immediately apply at your company. Click here for all the details and to register now.

Monthly Roundup: 8 Resources to Check Out This August

In the spirit of back to school, our team is catching up on our summer reading (seriously, we have a monthly book club). We’ve learned through customer convos that you’re looking for new resources, too. Below are 8 to check out and share with your team.

But first, a shoutout to our friends at General Assembly, a business education powerhouse, who are giving away a pair of tickets to The Lean Startup Conference, and covering the trip to San Francisco to boot. Enter for a chance to win (and tell your friends!).

1 – Product Hunt’s Secret Weapons (Podcast)

Source: Lean Startup Co.

Ryan Hoover, founder of Product Hunt, is interviewed by Heather McGough of Lean Startup Co. In this podcast, Hoover discusses the Product Hunt journey, how to scale an invite-only community, and his plans for expanding into new verticals.

2 – 731 Slack Users Reveal Why It’s So Addictive (Blog Post)

Source: Hiten Shah, co-founder at CrazyEgg and KISSmetrics

What makes Slack so popular? In the spirit of Lean Startup, Shah answers this question by talking to Slack’s users. While the results are interesting, the real story comes from his customer development and research process. We love how transparent he is about his research methods and encourage you to adapt them into your own.

3 – Speeding up JavaScript Test Time 1000X (Blog Post)

Source: Shyp

This post is for the engineers in our community. Learn how Shyp’s technical team cut down core API tests from 100 seconds to 100 milliseconds.

4 – Lean Startup Tools (Curated List)

Source: Product Hunt & Femgineer

Looking for Lean Startup tools to bring back to your team? Check out this list from Femgineer founder Poornima Vijayashanker who will be teaching a session on transforming ideas into software products at the November Lean Startup Conference.

5 – How to Calculate the Value of a Pivot (Blog Post)

Source: Chris DeNoia, consultant and startup advisor

Lean Startup practitioners know the value of learning milestones but are often unsure of how to measure success. This article breaks down a few different options, for different types of organizations.

6 – Places Make Us (Video)

Source: Christina Wodtke, consultant and startup advisor

We make places, and places make us back. In this keynote from Midwest UX, Lean Startup Conference speaker and mentor Christina Wodtke shares her best tips for designing in the ‘new’ digital world.

7 – Is Perfection the Enemy of the CMO’s Growth? (Blog Post)

Source: Dun and Bradstreet

An experienced startup founder, product leader and intrapreneur at Pivotal Labs, Janice Fraser has committed her entire career to helping companies innovate faster and get closer to their customers. In this interview, she shares entrepreneurial insights most relevant to enterprise CMOs as they strive to perfect their marketing.

8 – Practicing Lean When You’re Not a Startup  (Podcast)

Source: Lean Startup Co.

Often there is a perception that Lean Startup methods are only for the inception phase of a product. The ‘startup’ part is a bit of a misnomer, it’s not meant to be literal. Companies of all sizes can benefit from the principles by adopting a more customer-centric approach and engendering a culture supporting build-measure-learn. In this podcast, the Lean Startup team speaks with Rahim Adatia, consultant and former director of mobile and presentation platforms at PayPal, who will share some of his experiences working with both startups and larger organizations to ship products using Lean methodologies.

Want to talk about what you’ve just read? You’ll make a great addition to the 2015 Lean Startup Conference community. Join us on November 16-19 at Fort Mason. Come away with new Lean Startup contacts and actionable takeaways that you can immediately apply at your company. Click here for all the details and to register now. 

The Startup’s Guide to The Lean Startup Conference

Photo credit: The Lean Startup Conference/Jakub Moser & Erin Lubin

The Lean Startup Conference teaches companies of all sizes how to build iteratively, bring new ideas to market quickly, and outsmart their own perfection to create successful products. As part of our program-building process, we conduct hundreds of customer development interviews. One thing we’ve learned is that our startup attendees want to see the unique benefits offered to them.

So here we go: from programming to networking opportunities, here are 6 opportunities that we want on every startup attendee’s radar. (If you’re working for an established company, we’d love for you to pass this note along to your startup friends!)

1 – You’ll learn how to tackle your biggest challenges. The Lean Startup Conference creates a culture that helps startup founders and employees learn from one another. This year, we’ll be featuring talks with founders like Ryan Hoover of Product Hunt, Prerna Gupta of Telepathic, and Gagan Biyani of Sprig, who will be sharing ‘in-the-trenches’ lessons learned that you can apply back to your business. We’ll also be hosting attendee-led small group discussions, startup-focused dinners, and a q&a with Eric Ries: all forums where you can share your own story and get great advice to apply to your business.

One of our community members, Emmanuel Eleyae, founder at consumer products company Satin Lined Caps told us that the 2014 Lean Startup Conference helped him grow his monthly revenue by more than 20 times in less than six months. Emmanuel implemented new customer development techniques in his family-run business—like conducting feedback sessions and tailoring his product to his target market—all decisions driven by attendee-led discussions and a group Q&A session with Eric Ries. And now, Emmanuel’s coming back in 2015 to learn new techniques for scaling his team.

2 – You can demo your product in our Startup Alley. We get that startups need exposure but don’t have the same event marketing budget as more established companies, so this year, we’re launching a new program. It’s called Startup Alley, and it’s a demo space for our startup attendees

If you take part, you and a team member can demo your company and product to our audience of enterprise companies, growing startups, nonprofits, and government organizations. We’ve made pricing startup-friendly, too, but sign up soon: space is limited to 20 companies. For instance, Advanced-HR, a tool for compensation surveys and consulting service, will be demoing its product to reach its target customer base of startups and VC firms.

3 – You’ll meet collaborators, customers, and potential employees. We provide a unique atmosphere where introductions and conversations happen with ease. Throughout the four days of the conference, you’ll mix with our cross-functional community of corporate innovators, senior leadership team members, marketers, product development leaders, engineers, and other decision-makers who are all eager to learn about your organization. These are all connections that will last beyond your conference. A couple of examples:

  • At the 2014 Conference, former U.S. CTO Todd Park recruited at least three attendees to the United States Digital Service (side note: you can read about Obama’s stealth startup here
  • We constantly hear about attendees consulting for one another and becoming each others’ customers after meeting. In 2015, we’re carving out opportunities to help attendees do more of this.

4 – You’ll meet potential mentors and advisors. At some conferences, speakers and expert attendees like to hide behind the scenes. Not here. In fact, it’s the opposite: we constantly hear stories about attendees syncing up with speakers and becoming one another’s customers, coaches, and collaborators. These experienced founders and corporate innovation leaders make it a point to be available and accessible, and you can sign up to meet with them one-on-one during our speed-mentoring and office-hour sessions.

5 – If you’re a Platinum Pass holder, you can join our Startup Tours. This is a popular option, especially among our non-San Francisco community. For a full morning and afternoon, we give you the opportunity to tour your choice of eight companies that utilize Lean Startup in their everyday operations. You’ll get to see Lean Startup stories in action—full of anecdotes and perspectives to bring back to your team back home.

We typically finalize our Startup Tours itinerary in October. You can see last year’s list here.

6 – If you can demonstrate need, you can apply for one of our $250 bootstrapper passes. We know that early-stage (or never-been-funded) ventures are often strapped for cash, and we want to make sure that any revenue you’ve generated—or funding that you’ve raised—stays tied to your core business. No matter your financial standing, we want you alongside us in November.

A bootstrapper pass is the exact same as a silver pass, except you get your ticket for $250. Learn more and apply for these passes on this page.

While we don’t have a hard deadline to apply, we’re only offering 200 bootstrapper slots, and we expect them to fill up quickly.

If you’re part of a larger organization or VC firm that would like to fund a set of passes, please email [email protected].

Want to get involved sooner?

You don’t need to wait until November to get involved with The Lean Startup Conference. We’ve got lots of resources for startups and other organization types, too. You can follow what we’re up to here

Interested in continuing the discussion from what you’ve just read? You’ll make a great addition to the 2015 Lean Startup Conference community. Join us on November 16-19 at Fort Mason. Come away with new Lean Startup contacts and actionable takeaways that you can immediately apply at your company. Click here for all the details and to register now.