Every year, dozens of companies send teams to the Lean Startup Conference. So if you’re thinking about inviting coworkers to join you, you’re not alone.
Companies such as Siemens, Macy’s, VSP, and the United States Digital Service send cross-functional groups ranging in size from 3 to 50 people each. The benefit? Groups are here together and your undivided attention is on learning. It’s the perfect complement to our on-site coaching and training programs: our conference provides a great forum for team members to step out of their comfort zones, learn from other organizations, and share learning experiences around experimentation, faster product delivery, and collaborative work cultures.
With just three weeks out until the event, we want to make sure that you have the resources that you need to plan and get your teams in sync. Here our best tips for attending as part of a group:
Participate in our workshops and breakouts. In addition to our keynote talks, we have a number of hands-on sessions that are great for teams tackling a specific pain point or challenge. As the Lean Startup Conference approaches, be sure to check out our program page for our Tuesday and Wednesday afternoon sessions. If you’re a Platinum Pass holder, you should also check out Monday’s in-depth sessions and Thursday’s Startup Tour program. Some options to keep on your radar:
User experience consultants Laura Klein and Christina Wodtke will be hosting a workshop on using design thinking to solve product development challenges.
Growth consultant Ariana Friedlander will host a hands-on session on mastering customer discovery.
GoodData’s VP of product Gaurav Agarwal will host a session on finding your customer and provide a hands-on exercise in gaining knowledge quickly.
Divide and conquer. Simply put, there’s a lot to do at The Lean Startup Conference. Take your pick from dozens of workshops and case study based keynotes, 1:1 mentorship sessions, networking dinners, live Q&A sessions with Eric Ries, Startup Tours, and community led discussion groups. Before you come to San Francisco, take some time to review our program details, in addition to our list of speakers and mentors. Set goals for attending The Lean Startup Conference, and assign a ‘learning’ or ‘networking’ track to everyone in your group. You can match people to activities based on their job functions, learning, objectives, or organizational interests. Go through this process approximately 2-3 weeks before you leave for San Francisco.
Pre-network. This year, there will be almost 2,000 entrepreneurial leaders attending The Lean Startup Conference. As much as you’ll want to meet everyone who’s there, you simply can’t. You need to choose your relationships wisely, and take some time before the event to get them started. One resource to tap into is The Lean Startup Conference’s event community page, and exclusive to registered attendees, you can join our official Attendees & Alumni LinkedIn group. Have each team member check it out and come up with a list of fellow attendees to meet. You can also take a look at our speakers and mentors—each of whom is just as excited to meet you as you are to meet them.
Air your team laundry. You know what business challenges you’re facing as an individual. But when was the last time you brought up these issues with your team? Figure out the challenges each person is facing so that you can actively address them by the time you touch ground in San Francisco. When you’re on the same page about your problems, you can each explore solutions, from your own perspectives. Our conference is about conversation and mentorship, and you’ll meet fellow business leaders who are interested in troubleshooting and learning with you.
Compare notes. In step 2, we told you to divide and conquer. We’re also going to recommend that you regroup for coffee at the end of each day. Share notes and talk through the lessons you’re learning. There’s no need to tackle anything concrete.
Keep track of your favorite lessons and talks. Only a portion of your team will likely be able to attend The Lean Startup Conference in person. That’s okay. Take notes to share with your coworkers back home, and remember that all keynote and some breakout sessions will be available on YouTube after the event. If you need additional case studies or have a request for resources that will be helpful for your team, contact [email protected].
Consider becoming a sponsor. Is your company aiming to reach an audience of product development, engineering, marketing, and financial leaders? Consider becoming a sponsor. You can host an exhibitor table, put together a networking event, or share media. Rather than chasing audiences down, sponsorship allows you to be efficient with your time. We have options for startups of all sizes (including a $3,000 package for companies selected to be in our inaugural Startup Alley). Contact [email protected] to explore options and brainstorm opportunities.
Look for ongoing coaching and support. Four days at The Lean Startup Conference will leave you energized with ideas that you’ll want to apply immediately. You’ll probably want some help, additional insight, and guidance from our community. If you’re looking for ongoing coaching, get in touch with [email protected] and read this attendee story here.
Find micro-moments. Our conference attendees are awesome. They’re accomplished, intelligent, and excited to learn. Most importantly, they’re friendly, down-to-earth, and fun.
“One big difference between being there in person, [rather] than the livestream, is the conversations that happen outside of the talks,” says Ursula Shekufendeh, former Lean Startup Conference speaker and product manager at AppFolio. “So connecting with people that might be going through the same challenges, or have run into similar situations as you, and exchanging those ideas is invaluable.”
When you find yourself with unexpected down time, or if you want to bounce ideas off another group, just keep your ears open. You never know who your team will meet.
From now until November 16th, Lean Startup Co. will be featuring guest posts from our conference speakers on our blog. First up is Tara Reed. Check out her story below,and check out the original post on Bubble here. Be sure to check out her IGNITE talk at the Lean Startup Conference from November 16-19th. There’s still time to get your ticket, so register now. (We know how easy it is to forget!)
Abstract:Being a non-technical entrepreneur is hard. But Kollecto founder, Tara Reed is pushing the boundaries of what non-technical founders can do! Reed built her startup’s app MVP (and algorithm) without writing any code. She used that MVP to validate her idea, generate her first $30k in revenue, and get accepted to a top accelerator program (500 Startups).
Join Tara at the Lean Startup Conference as she shares her experience building functional apps without code.
Kollecto is a web app that helps people become art collectors.
As a young art collector myself, I was inspired to build Kollecto through a personal frustration. I go to Spotify when I want recommendations for music, Netflix for movies, TrunkClub for fashion, Amazon for books, etc. But when I started Kollecto, there was no place to get recommendations on cool visual artfor my walls.
I figured there must be other people like me, who were interested in collecting art, but didn’t want to comb through hundreds of galleries and exhibits. So I built an app to give people affordable access to their own personal art buyer (fancy, right?).
And I did it all without writing any code. Instead, I build on Bubble.
In the very early stages of building Kollecto, I was already stringing together various tools to build an MVP without needing to hire engineers. I had the idea for Kollecto floating around in my head, when I came across a side project bootcamp program called Orbital. At the time I was still working at Microsoft as a Product Marketing Manager, but missed the grind of startup life, having worked at Foursquare, and felt this was my chance to get something of my own off the ground.
Reasons I Decided to Build Without Code
COST: Building without code helped me operate a business at a really low cost. For the first 6 months, our operational costs were under $600/mo.
TECHNICAL DEBT: My friend Brennan speaks the truth when he says, “Hell is building fancy stuff that nobody uses.” Building without code spared us the technical debt of writing code for features that our users may not actually want.
MANAGING DEVS: As a non-technical founder of an early-stage project, I had a unique dilemma: it would be extremely hard to manage devs… like really, I would have no idea whether they’re doing a good job or not. I’ve talked to a lot of non-technical founders who have the same problem. For me, building without code was the solution.
In the beginning, I used Strikingly to build the website; Typeform to build taste profiles for users; Email to allow advisors to communicate with clients; and Plasso, Stripe, and Paypal as the payment solutions. While this was a lot of work, it was certainly less work than managing a dev team (and much less expensive). And spending 0% of my time on worrying about the code and 100% of it learning what my customers wanted and iterating on that feedback was extremely valuable.
Iterate, Iterate, Iterate
I’m a firm believer in releasing MVPs and iterating quickly, before devoting a ton of resources to a direction you’re not sure will stick. I was able to find out pretty quickly that Kollecto was something that not only my customers wanted, but that art advisors and galleries wanted too.
By the time Kollecto was accepted into the 500 Startups Accelerator, we already had over 400 active users and around $30k in art sales. I continued to refine the code-free tools we leveraged, adding Zapier, Google Spreadsheets, and SurveyGizmo.
But not all of the lessons learned were rosy.
Stringing together a bunch of tools had worked well to this point, but once we hit ~1500 monthly active users things began to fall apart.
The main issue was relying on human labor. Each time a new user signed up, an Art Advisor would have to manually find art for them. Then a virtual assistant would upload hundreds of art recommendations into our survey-based app. The process moved quickly when we had several hundreds users, but it was impossible to manage for thousands at once.
At the most hectic moment, I remember starting to feel embarrassed of the product. There was a period where users had to wait 3 weeks for their first art recommendations.
We had outgrown our ‘product’ and something had to give.
Transitioning To Bubble
About mid-way through the 500 Startups program, I came across Bubble on Product Hunt [sidenote: they were recently featured again and crushed it!]. I was immediately interested and was able to build the new app, using Bubble, in just a few weeks. I was also lucky to stumble upon AirDev, an agency that builds apps for people using Bubble, and they helped me construct my art-matching algorithm.
By the time I finished with 500 startups, I had a fully functioning app on Bubble! Now, instead of managing handfuls of tools — from website builders to form generators — everything I needed to manage was on one platform. We still used Art Advisors to categorize art using our internal taxonomy. But the crux of Kollecto’s functionality and ability to scale now rested on the art-matching algorithm; something that, before Bubble, was impossible to integrate without code.
My advice to non-technical founders, or designers who are looking to quickly wireframe their ideas, or even coders who want to more quickly release an MVP before committing to a direction: try Bubble. The power you can harness and the flexibility that it offers is unmatched.
We’re all excited to hear the latest from our buddy Eric Ries, especially since he has not one, but two new books coming out soon — The Leader’s Guide and The Startup Way. But The Lean Startup Conference isn’t just a place for Eric to hear himself talk. It’s a one-of-a-kind conference and community of 2,000 thought leaders who meet annually in San Francisco to discuss the ways everyone from big government agencies, multinational conglomerates, scrappy startups, religious organizations, and mission-driven initiatives puts continuous innovation into practice, empowering employees and fostering radical success along the way. It’s a big deal that only gets bigger with every year.
We aren’t gathering together to simply talk at you, either. That would be so boring. Our interactive, multidisciplinary conference will spark new ideas, help you face your workplace challenges from fresh perspectives, and connect you with other entrepreneurs and intrapreneurs, regardless of whether you’re new on the payroll or have been running things for years. Really, there’s no better way to recharge and return to work inspired than spending a few days with Lean Startup’s global network.
Join us Nov. 16-19 at Fort Mason, where we’ll exchange stories of radical thinking from leading edge and enterprise companies alike with lightning talks, hands-on workshops, Office Hours, interactive breakout sessions, meetups, Master Classes, Startup Tours, industry dinners, and of course the big keynotes. Yes, we’re going to keep you busy — and make sure you get your bang for the buck. This is an investment in your professional development, after all. We’re not just another networking event.
Half of this year’s 100+ speakers and mentors are new to our conference. We’re talking about people who’ve led groundbreaking initiatives at influential organizations:Kickstarter’s Yancey Strickler, HotelTonight’s Amanda Richardson, Harvard Business Review’s Eric Hellwig, Strategyzer’s Alexander Osterwalder, Product Hunt’s Ryan Hoover, Adobe’s Tom Nguyen, altMBA’s Winnie J. Kao, and a triple bill from GE: culture leader Janice Semper, GM & CTO of Hybrid Fuel Cells Johanna Wellington, and Mark Little of GE Global Research.
Sessions with the Lean Startup alums you know and love
We’ll have unique insights from Lean Startup favorites Solve for Interesting’s Alistair Croll, Hunch Analytics’ Aneesh Chopra, Microsoft’s Cindy Alvarez, Dinadesa’s David Binetti, 18F’s Hillary Hartley, Pivotal Lab’s Janice Fraser, Users Know’s Laura Klein, and Techstars’ Zach Nies.
But wait — there’s more. We’ll also be hearing about leading Lean Startup strategies from folks at Google, Dropbox, Wells Fargo, American Express, and the Internal Revenue Service, among others.
Get smart, fast
Our Ignite talks are back! Leaders who’ve instigated radical changes in their fields and their organizations offer five-minute bursts of inspiration from the trenches of tech, labor organizing, sustainable agriculture, and education.
Choose your own track adventure
With nine different options during the afternoon breakout sessions (we know, we’re turbo-charging this thing with ideas), you can narrow down the selections by focusing on the tracks most useful to you and the methods by which you learn best. Are you more of a roundtable discussion kind of gal? A Lean Startup training kinda guy? Other options for cramming your brain with new ideas, depending on your price point for badge level, include motivational presentations and case studies, interviews with corporate innovators, interactive workshops, and Q&As with Eric.
Personalized training and feedback
From our Coaches Corner to one-on-one speed mentoring, we’ll equip Platinum and Gold badge holders with specific tactics for your workplace. Bring your toughest problems, and we’ll work on solutions with you. Get personal advice from the likes ofIntuit’s Eileen Fagan, Kiva’s Akash Trivedi, Twilio’s Arthur Johnson, Google’s Tanya Koshy and Jawbone’s Lou Moore.
Back by popular demand: the return of networking dinners
Because our community loves chewing on food and ideas at the same time, we’re organizing group dinners for the third year in a row. On Nov. 17 & 18, choose your socializing track based on your interests, and for $55 a pop you can continue the conversations provoked in our daytime sessions over dinner with your peers in your industry.
In order to be inclusive to all you innovators out there, we’re offering three different price points, from the scrappy to the down-for-everything.
Platinum Pass: 4 days, includes Opening Night Reception as well as all keynotes, Ignite talks, breakouts, and first dibs on purchasing dinner tickets — plus workshops, Office Hours, Live Q&A with Eric, Master Classes, Coaches Corner (sign-up required), new Startup Tours, a VIP Happy Hour, video bundle of all keynote and breakout talks, priority seating, and dedicated VIP concierge treatment. Sale price: $3,465 before 10/31, $3,850 after. Save $385 now.
Gold Pass: 3 days, includes Opening Night Reception as well as all keynotes, Ignite talks, breakouts, and option to purchase dinner tickets — plus workshops, Office Hours, Live Q&A with Eric, and Master Classes. Sale price: $2,295 before 10/31, $2,550 after. Save $255 now.
Silver Pass: 2 days, includes Opening Night Reception as well as all keynotes, Ignite talks, breakouts, and option to purchase dinner tickets. Sale price: $765 before 10/31, $850 after. Save $85 now.
The Lean Startup Conference. Nov. 16-19, 2015 in San Francisco, CA. Time is running out. Register here today.
Over the past 14 days we have shared a lot the basic principles of The Lean Startup method, and more advanced information, like innovation accounting and how to implement Lean Startup in an existing company.
If you signed up late, or haven’t had a chance to read everything–today is the perfect opportunity to catch up.
Today we are reviewing what we have covered and looking forward to what is coming up.
Ready for what is next? Over the next 14 days, we will share with you:
How to get Executive Buy-in (and you can use the principles to get anyone to buy into anything)
Management – How do you manage a team or company using Lean Startup
The difference between actionable metrics & vanity metrics
How to deal with failure (this is key for your team–normally founders can handle failure much easier than employees)
How to do Lean Startup in a highly regulated field (we get A LOT of questions about this)
Examples of ‘out of the box’ companies and teams using Lean Startup
and so much more…
We would love to hear your insights from the first 14 days of the 30 Days of Lean Startup AND if there is something you want to learn about that we haven’t covered yet–or that we’ve covered and you have remaining questions on–let us know about that too!
*Or, hey, if GE can dramatically shake up its internal processes, your behemoth corporate workplace can too
GE employs people in 175 countries across a half dozen industries and in more time zones than we can keep track of. So you might think modifying the culture at a company this vast from a this-is-how-we’ve-always-done-it methodology to one that rewards risk taking would take a lifetime.
But it’s taken Janice Semper, who works in GE’s HR department, less than 18 months to significantly modernize the company’s processes. And now she’s evangelizing the radical shifts her innovation team has been able to implement at GE.
Her team’s revamped methodology, which GE coined FastWorks, proves that a customer-first ethos can drastically slash the bottom line and increase the competitive edge for the Fortune 500s out there. Moving to FastWorks helped GE get one product to the market two years ahead of the competition. It’s also reduced development costs in one division by 60% while cutting the cost of earning customer validation by 80%. Not bad, right?
So how do GE’s accomplishments affect you, the non-GE worker, sitting here wishing your ultra corporate employer would test some fresh approaches? Or perhaps you, the corporate boss, whose teams are entrenched in the safety of routine?
The thing is, the Lean Startup framework that worked for Janice and GE could also work for your company, so long as you’re aware of the nuances of applying Lean concepts to a mammoth organization.
This is where Janice’s trials and errors with GE are helpful.
In a recent podcast interview with Lean Startup Co., Janice broke down her strategy for infusing GE with a system that empowers employees and puts the customer’s needs first. Of course we recommend listening to the whole thing. Janice has so many wise things to say.
But if you just want the gist, this is how GE changed everything, in a nutshell:
It started with getting the brass on board — all 5,000 of them.
Before FastWorks, GE was steeped in Six Sigma, a rigid set of techniques that the company rolled out in a heavy-handed, bureaucratic way, says Janice.
This time around, she didn’t want to slap Lean Startup teachings in a manual and call it a day. She needed employees to really own FastWorks.
So she hit the road — together with her FastWorks co-founder, GE’s Global Director of Innovation Acceleration Viv Goldstein-Wiltshire, as well as our very own Eric Ries and author David Kidder. Together they visited every GE business and discussed how FastWorks would simplify their processes, help them move faster, and make them more customer-centric.
Then Janice embedded a “community of coaches” within each GE business.
The FastWorks crew trained a community of experts in the tools, principles, and behaviors integral to the program and showed them how to implement them. And they didn’t jam these coaches into random offices, they allowed each GE business to initially decide who the coaches should be, how many coaches they’d need, and if they should be full-time or part-time, with some guidance from Janice and Viv.
Her team aligned every system at GE to work in conjunction with FastWorks.
Training people is great, but it’s also like—hey, you can teach people to speak French, but if they only have conversations in English, this stuff is never going to sink in. FastWorks needed to be part of every conversation people were having at GE.
Janice says she learned early on that GE’s leadership was struggling to put FastWorks into practice because the methodology worked against some of their other practices.
To fix this glitch, she thought more holistically about integration. Her team reconstructed the expectations for employees and leadership and retooled the performance management systems to support FastWorks.
About that performance management system … it couldn’t remain this rigid thing.
Historically GE measured its employees’ work on a rigid, goal-oriented system. This formula was out of sync with a new ethos that championed experimenting and pivoting.
So the FastWorks crew revamped the thing.
Now GE has an ongoing review process that focuses on “asking the right questions throughout the year” instead of annually feeding employees abstract benchmarks to hit.
They also stopped rewarding people for being “right.”
Working in Six Sigma for so many years created an environment where employees were terrified of being wrong, says Janice, which led to a cultural fear of failure.
So Janice’s team trashed the old perfection-focused ethos and instituted a new, five point plan in its place, which her team unveiled in discussions with GE’s business leaders:
“Our five belief statements are: customers determine our success, stay lean to go fast, learn and adapt to win, empower and inspire each other, and deliver results in an uncertain world,” says Janice.
They wanted the top brass to really understand that failures are part of the iteration process.
They created Growth Boards to quickly assess which projects should continue … and which ones get the axe.
Too many companies manufacture DOA products because, well, they’ve already invested too much time and money into them to stop. GE is halting that lifeless inertia with its Growth Boards.
These groups are similar to VC boards, where teams pitch new products, earn their seed funding, and get more funding only when they’re able to validate their assumptions. Otherwise it’s back to the drawing board.
“Stopping work, stopping anything at GE, was countercultural,” says Janice, “but this gave [employees] the forum to be able to say we actually should not pursue this because our customer has told us it will not create value for them.”
And then they can focus more resources on the stuff that does work.
So why should your team consider a similarly Lean approach? Because you want your company to stick around, right?
It’s hard to think of an industry that isn’t experiencing some form of unprecedented disruption right now. Small, agile companies are popping up to compete with legacy businesses all over the world.
Janice says this status quo shift creates a compelling urgency for corporations to immediately consider modernizing their methodology.
“If we don’t change, we run the risk of becoming an organization that is obsolete,” she says. “And we’re not talking in 100 years, we’re talking in less than a decade.”
“The first step in this process is to confirm that your leap-of-faith questions are based in reality, that the customer has a significant problem worth solving.”
~ Eric Ries, The Lean Startup
This first step can feel overwhelming–where do you find people to talk to???
This is the question we answer today, on Day 5 of the 30 Days of Lean Startup.
This post is part of our “Now What?” series, startups ask real-life questions, and we find experienced entrepreneurs to offer deep, relevant advice. This post was written by staff writer April Joyner.
Today’s lesson is very content rich. It includes paradigm shifting questions and countless actionable insights from Lean Startup expert Cindy Alvarez that you can implement today in your Customer Discovery Process.
Minute Sitter’s issue
We’re in the process of testing the market for an iPhone app that helps parents connect with local, trusted babysitters and after-school care providers. Of the parents we’ve interviewed in our target market so far, this product resonates very strongly; most have rated the problem of not being able to find a babysitter a 7 or 8 out of 10. The problem is that it’s very difficult to find more interviewees. We’ve exhausted our friend network, and when we ask parents at the end of the interview if they know of others we could speak to, they always say yes, but it doesn’t progress any further. We’ve tried connecting with parenting Facebook groups to no avail, and it seems the next option is to pay for interviews, which we don’t want to do as this taints results. How do we find more interviewees?
About the expert, Cindy Alvarez
Cindy Alvarez is the author of Lean Customer Development: Build Products Your Customers Will Buy. She runs User Experience for Yammer (a Microsoft company) and has been helping companies build better products through intensely understanding their customers for over 14 years. Her background spans psychology, interaction design, product management, customer research, and lean startup tactics. She tweets and blogs.
About the reporter
April Joyner writes on business, entrepreneurship, and technology. She was previously a senior reporter at Inc., and she has also written for FastCompany.com, NewYorker.com, and OZY. She lives in Brooklyn, New York, and enjoys playing the violin in her spare time. Follow April on Twitter.
Interview with Cindy Alvarez, September 2014. Edited and condensed here.
April Joyner: What’s the first thing this startup should do?
Cindy Alvarez: The first thing would be to make sure that within their team, they’re aligned on what their hypothesis and target customers are. You need to boil things down to a sentence that is as simple as I believe this kind of person has this kind of problem, which could be solved in this way. And those have to be fairly specific—specific enough that you might think of a person that meets those criteria. A lot of times, I’ve found that teams aren’t actually in agreement on the hypothesis, even if they think they are. Once you have that, you basically have an implied audience in there. So then you start thinking about, “Who is that person, and where are they likely to be?”
Steve Blank has this great pyramid of needs. It’s basically a person who has a problem, recognizes they have a problem, has the ability to solve that problem, and has tried to put together a solution out of bit pieces. Those are the people you want to start with, because they’re the people who are the hungriest. This startup’s customer might be anyone who has a child, but that’s not necessarily your best market. That might be your eventual market, but the people you need to start with are the people who have met all those other criteria.
Finding your target customer
AJ: In this startup’s case, what might those criteria be?
CA: “Has a problem”: We define as people who have children who need care. “Who recognize they have a problem”: Something in their life is frustrating to them because they don’t have care. Maybe they’re not having date nights, maybe they’re not going to networking events, maybe they’re not seeing their family, or they’re not able to play a sport. You might have kids and not have a care problem. In that case, maybe your life would be happier if you had a babysitter and did this extra thing, but you’re not feeling it right now.
The next thing would be ability to make a change: In this case, probably someone who can pay. Your very lowest-income client is probably not the best place to start, because care is expensive in any situation. Then, beyond the ability to deal with it would be someone who has actually tried something—someone who has tried to find babysitters before, especially via some kind of online solution. If someone says, “Oh, yeah, I like to have a baby sitter,” but they have never made any attempt to acquire one, then they’re probably not the best customer for you.
Another thing that’s helpful is to do is what I call a traits continuum, which is basically to write opposing traits, one on one side, one on the other, and figure out where you think people are. For example, for anything app-related, you might have from tech-savvy to not tech-savvy. Way over on the “not” side might be someone who’s never downloaded an app to their phone—probably not a good candidate here. A little further over might be someone whose significant other or kids put apps on their phone, but they don’t know how to do it. That’s still probably not the best market. Way at the other extreme is the kind of person who will try anything and download anything.
AJ: So once you know who your target customer is, what do you do next?
CA: A lot of times, if you have this list of traits, then you can say, “Oh, this person will be a great person to talk to.” You don’t necessarily need to identify every individual person you’ll speak to. But if you can read your list and it isn’t specific enough to make you think of even one unique person, you might be starting too wide. If you actually manage to tie it back to that one example person—like, “Oh, this sounds just like Pamela”—go talk to Pamela and say, “Do you use Craigslist? Do you use Sittercity? Do you use Care? How do you get babysitters today? What parenting groups do you subscribe to? Are there mailing lists? Are there children’s activity places that you go to?” Asking someone that level of information isn’t a strict customer development interview, but it’s saying, “Okay, we’ve identified a persona. Now let’s actually find that person and ask them where we should start looking.”
From there, try and figure out how can you convince that person to talk to you. In the software world, a lot of these pitches for interviews happen online. So, it might be constructing your email pitch. I typically recommend that people test it out first. Don’t blast out your email pitch as soon as you have it written. Send it to one or two people, maybe not even people who are your target customers, and say, “Read this, how does this sound?” A lot of times, the first draft email will not have the tone that you intend. A friend of yours might say, “This sounds arrogant,” or “This sounds too informal,” or “This sounds overly formal,” or, “This sounds like I’m not sure what you’re going to ask of me.” Other people are very good at picking up on those little weird bits of language that influence response rate. So I might write a pitch, send it to someone, get their feedback, change the language to take care of any issues, and then start sending it out to other people who I think are my real target customers.
AJ: To backtrack, since you mentioned email: when you’re brainstorming where customers might be, you’re actually gathering emails?
CA: It depends. There are some places where you might be able to contact people somewhat directly through the site, like LinkedIn or Quora, for example. That’s probably a less good option for a parenting-specific site. For that, the places where you find people might be, say, Parenting Mailing List. A mailing list is a place where you’d be able to get someone’s email address fairly easily, but something like a parenting forum is not so much. Generally, posting to a forum to say, “Hey, do people want to talk to me about my business idea?” is seen as sort of a negative thing. That’s along the same lines as advertising your product, and no one really wants that. In those cases, you may need to become a contributing member of that community first, invest that time until you get to know people. At that point, you have a little more social acceptability to ask questions. Or you can make friends with individuals and get their contact information that way.
With parents, the real world is a very, very good place to find them. Let’s say you have friends who have friends who are parents. Then what you are probably going to do is ask your friend to forward them an email. But your friend isn’t necessarily going to want to do that unless you’ve made it very clear that you’re going to be a good actor. I wouldn’t ask you to introduce me to a friend, and then say, “Go ask your friend to help me move my house.” What’s typically easy is to send an email to someone saying, “Hi, I’d really like to talk to parents in order to learn blah, blah, blah. You have a friend who I’d be particularly interested in talking to. Would you be willing to forward this email to them to make the request? I promise it will be no more than a 20-minute conversation, and if they don’t respond, I won’t continue bothering them.” There, you’ve established very clear parameters of what you’re asking for.
“TO BE HONEST, WHAT THIS SMACKS OF TO ME IS NOT THAT THEY’VE RUN OUT OF PEOPLE TO TALK TO, BUT THAT THERE’S SOME OTHER PROBLEM.”
AJ: So, with this startup, it sounds like they’ve talked to some people, but they’ve exhausted their network. In that particular instance, how can they find other people?
CA: To be honest, what this smacks of to me is not that they’ve run out of people to talk to, but that there’s some other problem. Personally, as a parent, I think it would be pretty easy to get me to agree to an interview about this topic, because it’s a pretty painful thing when parents have a hard time getting care. The fact that people aren’t chomping at the bit suggests to me that either the problem isn’t being pitched in a way that’s resonating, or that the request for conversation sounds onerous in some way. Maybe it sounds like it’s going to take a really long time, or they might be trying to contact people via phone who would rather use email, or vice versa. They might be trying to call people during the dinner hour. If you try to get anything out of me between 6:30 and 8:30 pm, I am not receptive.
What’s tricky is that people usually will not tell you what the problem is, so you have to do a certain amount of troubleshooting. If someone was like, “Hey, my friend really wants to talk to you about this,” and I kept saying, “Oh, yeah, I keep meaning to talk to her,” that’s a sign that for some reason, it’s not valuable enough to me. So the founders need to take a look and make some guesses about what that problem is.
Is it that their pitch is not compelling enough?
Are they communicating with people in a way that’s somehow off-putting, but they may not realize it? Are they communicating at people at the wrong time?
Are they communicating with people in a channel that’s not common to them?
Are they coming off somehow as advertisers?
There are lots of things like this that might actually be an issue.
AJ: OK, so where should you account for these things? Is this something you need to think about right when you define who your target customers are?
CA: Whenever you’re going to interview customers, there’s a few things that you need to know about, what they value and what their limitations are. Typically, that’s what your network is for. You don’t necessarily have to be deeply embedded within your customer market, but you should at least be within arm’s reach of them. In this case, surely they have parents who are friends, or they have friends who have parents, who are friends. If they don’t actually have, say, five or six people that they can have a simple conversation with along the lines of, “What is the best way to reach you? Are there certain times that are a dead zone?” I think that’s a very difficult place from which to start a business, and I would recommend that they start making some friends who fall into that category.
You’re obviously never going to predict all of these things. But what you can do is constantly iterate on the process. People who aren’t willing to talk to you may still be willing to answer a single question via email. If you say, “I’d love to talk to you about this solution,” and someone doesn’t respond, instead of continuing to try, you might say something like, “I’m just curious. We don’t have to have this conversation, but did I ask in a way that was inconvenient to you?” Or “Is there a way I could have phrased this better?” Or “Is there something I could have done to make this seem more appealing?”
That allows someone to give you a little bit of honesty without having to commit to a 20-minute phone conversation. You’re not going to get a whole lot out of one question that will stand in for a customer development interview. What you want to do is make sure that the next time you contact a parent, she actually says, “Yes, I want to talk to you.”
YOU’VE JUST SPENT A PARAGRAPH TELLING ME ALL ABOUT YOU. I KNOW PEOPLE DO THIS TO GAIN CREDIBILITY. IT SEEMS LIKE A VERY LOGICAL STRATEGY, AND YET IT FALLS FLAT ON ITS FACE.
AJ: So this goes back to what you said earlier about developing a strategy to convince people to talk to you. Are there certain things that make people more or less likely to want to talk?
CA: Sure. You want people to talk to you; you want to recognize them as experts.
There are a few things that I can list that are turnoffs. One is when people feel like you’re trying to sell them something. You want to be really clear that you’re not doing that. At Yammer, I sometimes will start conversations with prospective customers by saying, “I’m not a salesperson. I couldn’t sell you this product even if I tried.” Eventually, of course, you’re going to ask people for their money, but when you’re doing the customer development interview, you want to remove that from the conversation. In fact, I don’t even like using the word customer with prospective customers, because I don’t want them in that buying mindset. So I’ll use words like you or your personal experience or in your life. I won’t say, “You seem like a prospective customer,” or “You might be a future customer,” because then I think they’re in that mindset of “At some point this person’s going to ask me for money.”
The second one is ego. People will say, “I’m a marketer with 20 years experience and blah, blah, blah.” If that’s the start of your pitch, then your email is basically saying, “Here’s a bunch of stuff about me.” So I’m not really convinced that you want my opinion because you’ve just spent a paragraph telling me all about you. I know people do this to gain credibility. It seems like a very logical strategy, and yet it falls flat on its face. I’ve gotten unsolicited customer development interviews where people go on and on about their credentials. I’m just like, “Ugh.” I barely read on.
I’d say the third one is an unclear ask for your commitment of time. Sometimes I will get a pitch and someone clearly wants to learn something from me about a product, but I don’t know what they want from me. Someone reading your email pitch or hearing your verbal pitch should have a very clear sense of what you’re asking for. I think people try to be polite—we think, “I won’t come right out and ask for things because that seems rude.” But giving multiple options is actually more of a burden because now I have different decision points to consider. The best pitches are very straightforward: “Can I talk to you for 15 minutes on the phone?” That is incredibly clear. I know exactly what I’m committing to, I know the medium, and I know it’s not going to take that long. I’m very likely to say yes to a pitch like that.
I think it’s generally best for you to pick a modality that you like, and offer another one as a fallback. Someone might say, “Look, I’d love to talk to you but it’s really hard to get me on the phone.” Then, you can say, “Can we converse via email or via chat instead?” At the last couple of companies I’ve worked at, I’ve had a large number of international customers. Between bad phone connections and accents on either side, either me not understanding them or vice versa, sometimes people will say, “Let’s just do Gchat.”
I’LL SEND IT TO MYSELF AND OPEN IT ON MY PHONE. AND I’LL BE LIKE, “OH, THE ASK IS WAY BELOW THE FOLD. THIS IS TERRIBLE.”
AJ: When you’re asking people to do customer interviews, has there ever been anything that’s surprised you about the process?
CA: Well, I don’t know if it’s surprising, but I think something that catches me off guard is mobile. At this point, more than 60% of emails are opened first on a mobile device. That is an incredibly short amount of space in which to make your point. If I’m looking at something on my iPhone screen, I’m seeing maybe two sentences. Somewhere in that two sentences, you have to hook me, and it has to be really clear how with one thumb I can hit reply and say yes. If not, it goes into the read-but-not-replied-to depths of my inbox. That’s purgatory. So I’ll write what I think is a really good succinct pitch, and I’ll send it to myself and open it on my phone. And I’ll be like, “Oh, the ask is way below the fold. This is terrible.” So I have to go back and cut more words.
The other thing is that people who are less tech-savvy have a very itchy spam filter. In talking to a lot of Yammer’s customers about exploring new features, a lot of the folks who are outside of technology are very suspicious that things might be some kind of spam or phishing. A lot of times, we’ll send one email to someone and see if it gets picked up on, and then send a few more, versus trying to blast people all at once. I’ve been very surprised sometimes by people who write back saying, “Are you a real person?” And I’ll read the email, and I’m like, “I don’t know what they’re responding to.” It seems completely legitimate—it’s from a real person, I’ve written it in a very human tone of voice, but something tripped someone’s “Maybe this is a phishing attack” filter.
I think one big thing is sending an email from an account that’s not a real name. People are suspicious of things that don’t come from humans. If you send from “MinuteSitter Support,” that’s not a human. If the email says it was sent from “Cindy, MinuteSitter,” that’s slightly better, but that might be someone selling me something. Another thing is, if you’re using a service like MailChimp or CampaignMonitor, sometimes the way the “sent from” line is rendered looks suspicious, like if it says, “From X on behalf of Y.” I’ve found that when things seem like they’ve been emailed through an additional domain, non-tech-savvy people don’t understand what that means—they just think it’s probably bad. At the startup level, I would just send emails from my personal account.
AJ: How can you tell whether you’re not asking people for interviews the right way, or if your product just doesn’t resonate with people in your target market?
CA: The easiest thing is to find some other person, even outside the target market, pitch them, and ask for feedback. So if the startup has an email drafted, forward that email to someone completely outside of their organization and say, “What do you think about this email? Would you be likely to say yes? What do you think about the people who wrote it?” It’s so valuable to have a friend outside the building for things like this. I just have a couple of friends, or people I’ve worked with in the past—at any given time I might send them an email and then follow up via chat, and be like, “Did you get that email? Was there anything weird about it?” Just the ability to do that saves so much time. If you don’t have that person, find that person in the startup community.
This is also something you could do with a quick survey. We’ve done this for feature work at Yammer, when we’re trying to ascertain whether the tone of our copy is positive for people. We might show a screenshot that has a bunch of copy on it, and then on the next page of the survey just ask a couple of questions like, “What did you think this was asking for? What did you think was happening in this step?” and see how people respond. We’ve definitely had cases where certain words had a certain connotation that people were picking up on. So we might show a screenshot, and then on the next page people would say, “Oh, I thought this was going on because this term seemed very negative to me,” and it’s often very surprising.
If they actually got people to respond to their pitch, and no one identified any issues with it, then I would move on to the next easiest thing to validate, which is, “Does this solution make any sense to their target audience?”
AJ: How do you validate that?
CA: Once people have agreed to talk to you, you want to know what they’re doing today. One trap startups tend to fall into is to ask aspirational questions. It’s typical to say something like, “Would you be interested in a service that does X?” That’s an almost useless question. The odds are that you’re going to get a “yes” answer, because frankly, it’s free to say yes. There’s no commitment involved. If you say, “Would you like a service that delivers chocolate to your house every night?” I’d say, “Sure.” Never mind that I’d have to pay for it, or that my health might suffer. The other thing is that most people have things that they wish they would do. If you’re asking about future behavior—”If you had this service, would you do X?”—people are just terrible predictors. It’s not just that they’re likely to say yes; they’re likely to be wrong.
Instead of asking, “Would you like to use a service like this?” you want to take it a step back and say, “Tell me about how you have found care for your children in the past.” Then you’re going to get answers like, “I’ve used this online service,” or “I’ve never used an online service,” or “I asked the person who lives next door because I know them, because I’ve lived next door to them for ten years,” or “I asked my friend who already has a babysitter how she found hers.” These are going to be useful bits of information, and you’re going to use them as a jumping-off point to figure out how, from that past behavior, you can shunt people into a new behavior.
A lot of times, by talking to people about what they’re currently doing, you can uncover their frustrations with what they’re currently doing. For example, someone might say, “Oh, I don’t have a problem getting a babysitter. I just ask my friend Joyce, who has a babysitter that she really trusts, and I just ask Joyce for that babysitter’s number.” The frustration might be that sometimes the babysitter’s already committed to Joyce, or frankly, Joyce is getting annoyed that you’re poaching her babysitter, and you don’t want to lose a friend over it, or that this babysitter’s great, but she doesn’t drive. Those little bits of frustration are where you can identify opportunities for providing a better solution.
IF YOU’RE TALKING TO PEOPLE, AND THEY’RE VERY POLITE AND MILD-MANNERED THE WHOLE TIME, THAT’S A SIGN THAT YOU’RE NOT REALLY SOLVING A BIG PROBLEM.
AJ: How do you know you’re moving in the right direction, once you’ve tweaked your pitch and started talking to people?
CA: If you can get people to talk to you, you’re moving in the right direction. And once people have started talking to you, you should be listening for emotion. If you’re talking to people, and they’re very polite and mild-mannered the whole time, that’s a sign that you’re not really solving a big problem. I’ve never seen an interview case where people who were enthusiastic customers did not express some sort of frustration or excitement. Another big one is shame—people who feel like they ought to be doing something but they aren’t.
If you don’t hear the variation, if you’re not putting exclamation points in your notes anywhere, then you’ve got a bunch of polite people who probably won’t buy your product. I’d say if you talk to five people and none of them seem particularly enthused, then try talking to a different type of five people. It’s very unlikely that you’re going to strike out five times in a row, if you’ve really got a good market pitch.
How to tell if you’re meeting a real need for customers
AJ: Is there a certain number of interviews you need in order to figure out whether your product is resonating with people?
CA: The number of interviews people do is going to vary. A lot of times, I’ve said anywhere from 30 to 50 for this kind of scenario, where someone is just getting started. That person may be on the brink of making a big decision like, “I’m going to quit my day job,” or “We’re going to hire a full-time engineer,” or “We’re going to raise money.” Those are giant decisions. So 30 to 50 interviews are a lot, but if you’re deciding to quit your cushy day job and jump full feet into something, a lot of people want to have a sense of comfort. If you’ve already started a company and made those big decisions, then to some degree, you’ve already taken on that risk, so you might do fewer.
If you are able to very rapidly put out a minimum viable product and get people using it, then again, you might do fewer interviews because you’re going to be actually building the solution.Certainly, I’ve known people who’ve done five to ten interviews, but within the next week, they were able to put out a minimum viable product and get real customers using it. So they say,“Well, we are going to do a few interviews because now we’re actually watching people use the product, and people are giving us money,” which of course is the strongest possible signal.
Ready to find even more customers? (Who isn’t?)
At The Lean Startup Conference coming up in November, we have some great sessions for you. You will go beyond theory and see what works. You will walk away with specific strategies to find customers, and have a well crafted line of inquiry so you will be more effective. Find out about the specific sessions to take your customer discovery to the next level.
Do you struggle connecting with your customers? Having a hard time getting valuable insights from your customers? Tired of running experiments that don’t give accurate pass/fail indicators? In this hands-on interactive session, Ariana will help you move past those limitations by sharing her unique co-creational approach. At the end, you will walk away with a well crafted line of inquiry so that you may conduct more effective experiments while building your community of supporters.
Using LinkedIn for Customer Discovery, Brandy Nagel
During this “laptop open” session you’ll learn tips and tricks for finding the right people to interview. We’ll talk about how to identify and approach people to set up customer discovery interviews, making the best use of LinkedIn’s free services. Find early-vangelists, influencers, users and buyers — using connections and groups to start conversations.
The Nitty Gritty of Setting Up Customer Discovery Meetings, David Teleen-Lawton
This talk will focus on the the down and dirty details of the hard work of setting up meetings for Customer Discovery. The mindset, the specific tactics including scripts, and the standard of performance are all discussed in detail as well as knowing when it’s going well and when to fold’em. The talk will concluded by covering some popular slogans that actually slow down Customer Discovery: “I only need 15 minutes of your time.”, “I’m not trying to sell you anything.”, “Set up 50 meetings.”, and “Call on the Early Adopters.”
Having set hundreds of B2B and B2C discovery meetings over the years, Telleen-Lawton personally has employed every stall tactic and excuse to delay reaching out and setting these meetings. He’ll show you how to avoid them and get on the fast track to a bull’s-eye product and a sustainable business model…or the realization that time would be better spent on a different idea.
Over the past few days, we have defined what a Lean Startup is and learned the 5 basics of The Lean Startup. Today, we are sharing 5 tips on how to quickly test your idea.
“But despite a promising idea, we were nonetheless doomed from day one, because we did not know the process we would need to use to turn our product insights into a great company.” ~ Eric Ries, The Lean Startup
Because social media and analytics software have given entrepreneurs a wealth of options to find and connect with customers, running a marketing experiment is one of the fastest ways to test an idea. But where do you start, and, with all the options out there, how do you get clear answers from a wealth of data? Marketing experts Cindy Alvarez, Alistair Croll and Anita Newton gave us five tips for running successful tests, and a few pitfalls to avoid.
Author of, Lean Customer Development: How to Build Products Your Customers Will Buy, Cindy Alvarez has been using customer development techniques for well over a decade, and today heads up product design and user research for Yammer, a Microsoft company. Speaker and author of several books on technology and business, including Lean Analytics, Alistair Croll has launched several companies, run the Year One Labs accelerator in Montreal, and today works on research and strategy at CloudOps. The VP of marketing at Adknowledge, a global ad tech company, Anita Newton also runs marketing at the startup Mighty Green Solutions and teaches marketing through the Kauffman Foundation’s Founders School and FastTrac’s Venture Program.
Tip 1:Before you run a test, get some initial information from your customers. Because you’re going to want to test your biggest risk.
Cindy Alvarez: You want to de-risk your idea. In general, the biggest risk is that no one cares, so you want to just put something in front of people, and see if you can get evidence that they care about it. Putting up a test marketing site, putting a prototype in front of someone, doing a Kickstarter, sending an email and seeing if anyone responds — these things are great ways of experimenting.
Another approach that doesn’t involve creating anything — and so it’s cheap and easy — is to look for analogs to what you’re doing. They don’t necessarily have to look a lot like what you’re doing, but think about the concerns you have and how you could extrapolate those concerns from someone else. For example, the experiment that we’re doing right now with Yammer is trying to get people to participate more. The other day, I read an article on Massive Open Online Courses, MOOCs, about how online participation in those courses doesn’t come naturally to most people, and the organizers were trying to figure out how to encourage online participation.
When I saw that, I thought, “What a great analog to what we’re trying to do.” So now I have a researcher who is talking to people who are enrolled in MOOCs, and asking about the experience.
Alistair Croll: When you’re too early in the business to have hard data, you need to base your assumptions on competitive analysis, industry baselines, and customer feedback from interviews. You’re after the riskiest assumption in the business model, because that’s the one you need to prove you can overcome.
Usually, the metric for that is tied to attention. We all think our products are unique, special snowflakes, but the hard truth is that nobody really cares about our products. So I’d begin with metrics around engagement and stickiness first.
Anita Newton: When I’m just starting, I’m not that structured — because you just don’t know what you don’t know. But start getting information with one-on-one conversations, and also through some sort of anonymous approach. For a B2B product, talk to salespeople: If I’m developing a content marketing plan, or a set of campaigns, whether it’s a webinar or a gift, I will walk them through my ideas, and they will rip two thirds of them.
Tip 2:With some info from your customers, come up with a constrained hypothesis.
Alvarez: If you can make a tight hypothesis (through observation and customer interviews), it’s easier to get clear results. If you say something like, “I think these people would benefit from better software.” That’s very vague. Are you making it better in the right way? It could be that you’ve improved something about their experience but it’s not the most important thing. It’s very hard to get clear results out of that sort of thing. Also, don’t try to test three things at once.
Croll: You should always have a hypothesis that you’re either proving or disproving. We say in Lean Analytics that if a metric doesn’t change your behavior, it’s a bad metric. Know what you’ll do based on the results before you collect the data. People hate this. They want to just start — start building, start collecting, start measuring. But understanding why you’re doing something and how it will affect you is crucial.
Newton: Make sure you really understand what you’re testing and what you’re trying to learn. That sounds so obvious, but most people don’t do it. For instance, if you have two landing pages you’re testing, ask: What do I want to accomplish? Is it traffic, is it engagement, is it conversion? Maybe you could say, I want to change this landing page so I can see if that improves my conversion rate.
Tip 3:Other constraints, like time or money, will save you some headaches.
Croll: You should always focus. Remember high school math, when you solved an equation by getting one variable on the left and everything else on the right? You need to isolate one variable so you can change it.
We wrote a long post about scoring customer interviews [tool alert] on our blog. Usually the qualitative information gives you the “unknown unknowns,” exploratory insight you want to investigate. Then you need to find a way to quantify it. Let’s say that customer interviews give you five possible marketing angles. So set up five Google, Facebook, or LinkedIn campaigns and try out the five angles, and see which one works best. You don’t have to be selling a product — just ask people to fill out a survey, and see which angle or tagline gets the best results. As a bonus, you’ll have survey responses (which you can use for content marketing) and respondents (with whom you can set up more interviews).
Newton: You need to have a budget. It doesn’t need to be a lot of money, but be clear on what that is. When I do a lot of testing on Facebook, we don’t spend a lot of money, but we did quantify that money, even if it was just $25 or $50.
Tip 4:You’re going to get murky results. So, run your test again, take a harder look at your metrics, and sometimes, go with your gut.
Croll: The first results are always murky. You learn that you’re asking the wrong questions, of the wrong audience. Let’s say, for example, that you run an online survey and get answers that are all over the map. Then you slice and dice the data — by geography, by gender, by browser — and you notice that all the respondents who seemed positive used a recent version of MacOS. This immediately tells you something about their comfort with technology, socio-economic status, and so on. You could then use this to more tightly narrow your research, or to ask different questions, or to decide whether your user interface is too advanced or too simple, or to invest in customer support earlier, or to prioritize iOS versus Android. All from one piece of data you didn’t even know you were looking for.
Newton: With murky information, you have to go with your gut. Or when things are murky, a lot of times we’ll just do it again. Run an experiment a couple different times, a couple different ways. Setting up an experiment again is not as hard as setting it up from scratch.
Tip 5:Talking through tests with your team is where you will learn the most.
Alvarez: The greatest tool that we use is not a software tool, but is just the practice of storytelling. It’s just figuring out: When we learn something interesting, how do we make it memorable? How do we fit it together with the things we felt in the past? How do we update the oral tradition of what things people know within the company? It’s not very high-tech, but it’s incredibly effective, and it’s a way to scale up what, in our org, is a fairly small team to take advantage of lots and lots of smart people we have.
Newton: Once you get that initial view of your data set — survey or conversation or whatever — the real value initially is coming back to your team and talking through it. And if you don’t have a team, just bring in another person. You’ll get smarter.
It would be a mistake to not sit down to do a post-mortem. It’s very uncomfortable to do it, but you have to check your ego at the door and have the hard conversations, or else it’s not going to get better. When we sit down and talk about why we failed, it’s really great. And with that, if you’re bigger, marketing automation really works, but don’t hire an agency. Do it yourself: you’ll learn more and save so much money.
As a bonus, here’s Stephanie Hay with three techniques for testing marketing content, including checks on the language you use, what specific things to ask users, and how to get found by potential customers [5:08]:
From Inspiration to Innovation – Using Design Thinking to Build Creative New Products, Laura Klein and Christina Wodtke
In this hands on workshop, Christina Wodtke and Laura Klein will teach you useful Design Thinking techniques like Storyboarding, Empathy Mapping, and Generative Research that will help you better understand your users and build more innovative products.
How to Experiment Your Way To Good Ideas, Theresa Torres
We rarely have a shortage of ideas. Everyone from the receptionist to the CEO has an idea for how to improve the business. How do you know which ideas are worth pursuing? We can’t possibly run an experiment for every idea that anyone generates. In this session, you’ll learn a framework for evaluating each idea and determining when it warrants an experiment. Break the cycle of over-testing and identify good ideas faster.
There is more…
We will also feature a workshop From Ideas to Products, facilitated by Poornima Vijayashanker the founder of Femgineer. This year’s conference is the perfect place to create a plan and make movement on testing your ideas.
Cindy Alvarez, who is featured in this article will be speaking on how to drive change in enterprises–including approaches that have worked (and not worked) to get teams across Microsoft being more Lean and experimental.
One of the most important lean startup techniques is called the minimum viable product. Its power is matched only by the amount of confusion that it causes, because it’s actually quite hard to do. It certainly took me many years to make sense of it.
I was delighted to be asked to give a brief talk about the MVP at the inaugural meetup of the lean startup circle here in San Francisco. Below you’ll find the video of my remarks. But I wanted to say a few words first.
First, a definition: the minimum viable product is that version of a new product which allows a team to collect the maximum amount of validated learning about customers with the least effort.
Some caveats right off the bat. MVP, despite the name, is not about creating minimal products. If your goal is simply to scratch a clear itch or build something for a quick flip, you really don’t need the MVP. In fact, MVP is quite annoying, because it imposes extra overhead. We have to manage to learn something from our first product iteration. In a lot of cases, this requires a lot of energy invested in talking to customers or metrics and analytics.
Second, the definition’s use of the words maximum and minimum means it is decidedly not formulaic. It requires judgment to figure out, for any given context, what MVP makes sense. As I talked about in a previous interview, IMVU’s original MVP took us six months to bring to market. That was a pretty big improvement over a previous company, where we spent almost five years before launching. Yet in another situation we spent two weeks building a particular feature that absolutely nobody wanted. In retrospect, two weeks was way too long. We could have found out that nobody wanted the product a lot sooner. At a minimum, a simple AdWords smoke test would have revealed how utterly bad the concept was.
Ryan Hoover of Product Hunt, one of the hottest startups will be sharing how Product Hunt started as an email list (he created the MVP in 20 minutes).
Hugh Molotsi and Ben Blank will conduct an Intuit MVP Spring workshop and show you exactly how Intuit, who has implemented Lean Startup methods into just about every aspect of their business, conducts an MVP sprint. Through this workshop, you will be able to adapt and tweak Intuit’s workshop to work for your own entity.
If your company provides services, Lauren Braun of Gravity Tank will share how expertise on developing an MVP for a service based business.
Join over 2,000 diverse thinkers and Lean Startup practitioners from all over the world to share ideas and projects that are shaping the future of business. The Lean Startup Conference, a gathering for entrepreneurs, innovators, and thought leaders from across sectors and structures, is a fast paced, highly curated program featuring the best of the Lean Startup community. Held on November 16-19 in San Francisco.
The Lean Startup provides a scientific approach to creating and managing startups and get a desired product to customers’ hands faster. The Lean Startup method teaches you how to drive a startup–how to steer, when to turn, and when to persevere–and grow a business with maximum acceleration. It is a principled approach to new product development.
Too many startups begin with an idea for a product that they think people want. They then spend months, sometimes years, perfecting that product without ever showing the product, even in a very rudimentary form, to the prospective customer. When they fail to reach broad uptake from customers, it is often because they never spoke to prospective customers and determined whether or not the product was interesting. When customers ultimately communicate, through their indifference, that they don’t care about the idea, the startup fails.
The 5 Principles of The Lean Startup Methodology are:
1. Entrepreneurs are everywhere
Like we learned yesterday, you don’t have to be in a garage to be a startup (but you can be). Entrepreneurs are at GE, in the IRS, in Hollywood. They are in Intuit, in healthcare and revolutionizing the government.
Want to learn even more about core principles of The Lean Startup?
At this year’s conference, we have some great ways to dive deeper. Including a workshop available to Gold and Platinum tickets that dives into Lean Startup 101, 201, and 301. There is another session with Frank Rimalovski, Director of NYU Entrepreneurial Institute, on the Lean Startup Basics.
Over three days at the conference, you and your team will be able to learn the basics of Lean Startup and dive deeper into specific topics that will help your organization meet your goals. If you are interested in bringing your team to the conference, for groups of 8 or more you will get a 20% discount as well as have The Lean Startup team customize your itinerary, so you can maximize your results when you get home.
The word “startup” often brings to mind an image of two people working in a garage in Silicon Valley. But there’s a more useful definition laid out by Eric Ries, who coined the term Lean Startup: “A startup is a human institution designed to create a new product or service under conditions of extreme uncertainty.”
In other words, in Lean Startup terms, a startup is a group of people working on a risky new product, even if that group of people works for Exxon or the US Marine Corps.
With that definition in mind, there are three areas in which a startup typically faces a very high degree of uncertainty—or risk:
Technical risk, also known as product risk. You could think of this as the question: Can we build this thing at all? For example, if you’re seeking a cure for cancer, there’s a big risk that you’ll fail to find it. If you do find it, you’ll certainly have customers, so there’s no market risk.
Customer risk, also known as market risk. This is the question: If we build this thing, will people use or buy it? Put another way: Should we build this thing? The story of Webvan illustrates this risk: At the turn of the millennium, the company spent $1 billion to build a series of high-performance warehouses and trucking fleets on the assumption that people would buy groceries online. Although it was technically possible to offer groceries online and deliver them to homes, customers weren’t interested in the service at the time, and Webvan folded after a couple of years and a lot of investor dollars down the drain.
Business model risk. This amounts to the question: Can we create a way for this thing to make us money? Strong business models aren’t always obvious. For example, you know Google as a company that makes a lot of money selling search-related ads. But when the Google website launched, it wasn’t obvious that ad sales would become the killer business model, and it took a number of years before they hit on that approach.
If you’re wondering which kind of risk you face, let me help you out: It’s customer risk. Nearly always, it’s the biggest question, because you simply don’t know the value, if any, your new product has for potential customers. When I say, “Nearly always,” I mean: this is so often the case, you should assume it’s true every time.
The tricky part is that commonly, product risk looks more urgent. After all, if you’ve hit on an exciting new idea that you’re pursuing, you’re doing so because you believe other people will be interested in it, too. And if you assume the demand will exist, you’ll be tempted to make sure you can build the product before you offer it to people. But that’s a very big assumption, and many, many startups have failed after building cool stuff, because they relied on a framework of inaccurate assumptions about how customers would behave. Good news: There’s no reason you should put time and money toward a belief you haven’t proven. Below, I’ll talk more about assumptions and how you can avoid repeating a doomed history like Webvan’s.
Note that when you think in terms of risk, rather than company history, it becomes clear that lots of existing organizations have startups within them. For instance, if you’re Gillette and you add a 5th blade to your iconic razor, you have no risks: the product, the market, and the business model are all known. But Gillette’s parent company, Proctor & Gamble, has R&D teams looking at new methods for hair removal. For those new ideas, everything is unknown. Which means the teams working on them are startups.
If you want to learn more about The Lean Startup methodology and how it applies to enterprise, small business, government, healthcare, and education–this year’s Lean Startup Conference is for you.
Specifically: Here are some talks at this year’s conference that you might be interested in:
GE–Fuel Cells: Running a Lean Start-up inside a big corporation
In this talk, Johanna Wellington who runs an internal startup, GE-Fuel Cells, will share how GE is applying Lean Startup principles in a long cycle, equipment-based business in order to dramatically accelerate their path to commercialization and reduce risk. You’ll also learn howGE has pushed the envelope with out-of-the-box opportunities to apply Lean Startup methodologies including a “Manufacturing MVP”.
Minimum Viable Taxes: Lessons learned building an MVP inside the IRS
The IRS isn’t known for quick internal change; it still uses many applications from the Kennedy administration. But it has now partnered with Pivotal Labs to build an MVP to revolutionize your access to basic tax information. The product will launch early in next year’s filing season and will allow taxpayers to access basic tax information online, including their balance, tax records, and payment histories, as well as make a payment. Andrea Schneider, Senior Manager of Product Management in Online Services and Lauren Gilchrist, Product Manager at Pivotal Labs, will discuss their biggest challenges along the way and share advice for experimenting and iterating inside large bureaucracies.
How Data Can Save Hollywood
Remember when companies would launch massive software projects without A/B testing? It sucked! Believe it or not, there is a multi-billion dollar industry that still produces products like that today. That industry is Hollywood. Join Prerna andexplore the final frontier of analytics: creativity. Creative geniuses often have an aversion to incorporating data into the creative process. Creativity is driven by intuition, they argue, and cannot be analyzed. Data kills creativity! But this is a fundamental misunderstanding of analytics, which is costing Hollywood billions of dollars a year. In this talk, Prerna discusses some of Hollywood’s greatest big-budget flops, and how analytics could have saved them. She’ll also provide examples of how innovative storytellers are breaking with tradition and using Lean principles to create modern blockbusters for tremendous gain. Join her in discovering the role Lean Startup can play in revolutionizing Hollywood.
Interested in joining Andrea, Joanna, and Prerna and over 60 other speakers in San Francisco at The Lean Startup Conference? Get all the details here.