End the Year with Our Favorite Talks of 2015

We love hearing about all the different ways that people are internalizing Lean Startup principles. Eric Ries’ scientific approach continues to embolden a global community of thought leaders, many of whom we heard from at this year’s Lean Startup Conference.

Before we give 2015 a rest, we’re looking back at the powerful talks that our conference attendees told us they loved most. So regardless of whether you were able to make our big event, we have eight important and entertaining bits of workplace wisdom to share.

1. The Modest Experiments That Became Huge Companies

Know this: Successful companies start by focusing on small target communities and growing their MVP from there.

Laura Klein’s (Users Know) lightning tips talk spotlights the small-scale experiments that today’s big tech darlings crafted on their way to global domination. Examples include focusing on problems affecting a core group of users (Facebook), building an internal tool whose effectiveness could be calibrated in real time (Slack), testing assumptions locally before scaling those ideas globally (Airbnb), and creating a product manually before getting into automation (Product Hunt).

2. The 10 Keys to Building a Strong Community

Know this: Sending your users personal emails, memorable swag, and other messages that they’re important keeps them involved with your brand.

Speaking of Product Hunt, founder Ryan Hoover knows how to stoke and support a rabid fanbase, and he has great advice for growing a community of your own. Highlights include seeding that initial base and personally welcoming new users, recognizing both good behaviors and the bad actors, and sharing mockups of redesign concepts with your users. “You’re changing their home,” he says of the importance of design transparency, “so you want to make them feel like they’re part of the design process.”

3. How to Intentionally Design a Lean Startup Culture

Know this: Map out the right kind of culture for your business with this cool new tool.

Strategyzer’s Alexander Osterwalder understands that the belief systems, attitudes, and values held by employees directly affect the products a company creates. He’s part of the team behind The Culture Map, which helps organizations intentionally shape the purveying ethos in an office. He shows us how to use this tool to design a Lean Startup culture.

4. Testing the Riskiest Assumptions First

Know this: Build stronger startups by testing the assumptions that could topple your business before you tackle the easy stuff.

Gagan Biyani has been involved with renowned startups Udemy, Lyft, and Sprig, companies that maintain their singular missions while changing what they’ve created over time. He shares the specific Lean Startup practices that’ve made these organizations so successful, including strategizing creative ways to solve customer problems and untethering your ego from the products your company creates.

5. Applying Lean Startup to Storytelling

Know this: Savvy movie producers and fiction publishers alike are crafting tighter audience feedback loops that allow them to edit their way to big hits.

There’s nothing Lean Startup about the typical Hollywood blockbuster. As Telepathic’s Prerna Gupta explains, studios generally sink hundreds of millions of dollars into a production and hope they have a hit on their hands. But there are ways to use data and audience feedback to create more compelling movies — and books — while keeping the artistic process intact. Gupta explains how to fine-tune both our storytelling methods and the business models supporting them, through examples ranging from The Martian to her company’s innovative text message YA novels.

6. Spreading Intrapreneurship Across an Organization

Know this: Instigate genuine innovation in your organization by creating a model for intrepreneurship that empowers people in all levels of the company to build and test new ideas.

So you’ve become your company’s innovation evangelist — how do you go from being a singular force to incentivizing widespread change? Intuit’s Bennett Blank breaks down the steps through which Lean Startup practices moved through his company, such as allowing coworkers to make these practices their own and giving people a safe space in which to test out new ideas.

7. The Playbook for Creating Product Market Fit

Know this: Make sure the products your business creates are the ones your target customers really want by taking a page or two from the Lean Product Playbook.

Dan Olsen, author of The Lean Product Playbook, takes us through the methodology behind his book, which includes determining the underserved needs of your specific customer base and creating a strong value proposition and MVP.

8. Lean Startup, The Musical

Know this: Definitely the funniest interpretation of Lean Startup ideas that we’ve ever seen. Really, you’re just gonna have to watch this one. Especially if you’re a TLC fan.

We’d yet to get serenaded by stories of innovation until we met designer William McDonnell.

What’s Next in 2016

On that (ahem) note, there’s more cool stuff on the horizon for 2016: we’ll host our annual flagship conference in San Francisco, of course. Save the date for the Lean Startup Conference Week on November 1 – 7. It’s the one week in the year where you’ll strengthen your foundation of the Lean Startup methodology, learn advanced strategies and tactics for implementing Lean within your organization, and meet experts from your industry who are facing similar challenges. Early bird registration opens in January.

And if you can’t wait til Fall to see us, there’s our inaugural Lean Startup Labs series, which are industry-focused summits around the country. We’re starting with an enterprise lab in New York City in February; later in the year we’ll have summits in Detroit and New Orleans on startups and social good, respectively.

Revolutionizing Publishing with Lean Startup

Photo by The Lean Startup Conference/Jakub Mosur and Erin Lubin
Photo by The Lean Startup Conference/Jakub Mosur and Erin Lubin


For 94 years, the Harvard Business Review (HBR) has stayed true to its mission to bring the best ideas in leadership and management to their audience of successful business people. That mission is still at the core of what they do, but as the publishing industry has shifted in the wake of the digital revolution, HBR has faced the same choice as many other notable publications: Evolve or Die.

Eric Hellweg, managing director of product management and strategy for HBR, came on board with the goal to help drive that evolution by expanding HBR’s product into one that meets the needs of modern audiences. Following the methodology of some of Lean Startup’s intellectual forebears, he and others at HBR began the process of shifting the mindset at an established, century-old organization.

He spoke about this experience – and the team’s ultimate success – at The Lean Startup Conference 2015. Implementing some of the concepts of Lean methodology at a well-established company is quite different than doing it at a new startup, but it is equally integral to product and brand development.

There are advantages to starting with the foundation of a successful company, such as a loyal audience, willingness to pay for products and thus the opportunity to test new ones. However, there are some setbacks that you certainly wouldn’t find at a startup. For example, Eric shared an anecdote from early on in his time at HBR, when a colleague rather emphatically said, “We will be blogged about, but we will never blog.” He also noted that it’s harder to sell people on the idea of “failing fast” when there’s an established reputation to uphold. Perhaps most interestingly, employees at HBR had very little experience talking to users and implementing feedback.

That said, he found that Lean Startup and other related frameworks are a strong foundation for developing a product-focused discipline within HBR. At The Lean Startup Conference, he shared a framework that proved invaluable to the team in building a successful digital business inside an established organization.

1. Be something

In order to be something, you need to evaluate the current organization to determine what you’ll forget, what you’ll borrow and what you’ll learn. You’ll need to forget legacy approaches that aren’t adaptable. In HBR’s case, they need to “forget” the print editorial process and adapt one that was more suitable for the digital platform. At the same time, you also want to borrow elements of the core company that can give you an advantage, i.e. a strong user base. Along the way, you learn what’s appropriate as you grow your innovation and identity within the larger company.

2. Be patient

Eric noted that at the outset (and even along the way), transformation can seem daunting. Especially if you’re used to the way things work in the startup world, you may have to temper your expectations when working inside established organizations. HBR started its digital transformation eight years ago, which is a testament to how much can be accomplished with measured, consistent work.

3. Be obsessed with the user

User feedback is a key pillar of Lean Startup, but for HBR, that required a shift in how they thought about their audience. Previously, they had subscribers: people who made a purchase at the beginning of the year and consumed the content determined by editorial. As they made the move to digital, they had to think of their audience as members of a community, which was centered online, nurtured with content and measured in continuous engagement both online and off.

Of course, one of the biggest changes came from realizing that HBR was no longer just an editorial publication, but a company with a real product that was independent from editorial. The UX and editorial are equally important elements, but they don’t need to be run by the same people. To that, taking the leap towards innovation and establishing the product function with HBR has enabled writers and editors to focus on what they do best. The ability to think of these disciplines as independent ultimately supports the growth and overall excellence of the brand.

Continue learning with Lean Startup Co. in 2016. We have a new series called Lean Startup Labs, in addition to our flagship Lean Startup Conference in the Fall.

Written by Rachel Balik, contributor for Lean Startup Co.

Saving Storytelling with Lean Startup

Photo by The Lean Startup Conference/Jakub Mosur and Erin Lubin

Long before we had apps, metrics, user experience or testing tools, storytellers would travel from village to village, perfecting their craft by observing how live audiences responded to their stories.

That’s why Prerna Gupta, founder of the storytelling app, Hooked, says that in some ways, the idea of using data to tell stories isn’t actually that revolutionary. But it is highly valuable, to authors, publishers and studios alike, if you look at some the evidence from the past few years.

In her presentation at the Lean Startup Conference 2015, Prerna gave the example of The Martian, one of this past summer’s highest grossing blockbusters. The Martian started as a blog, then became a book and was eventually made into a movie. Its success was no accident, but rather, it was the result of ongoing market validation and customer feedback. Essentially, the blog (and each blog post) was the MVP, and by building out his “product” based on input from his audience, author Andy Weir was able to launch something the market loved.

Prerna, a writer herself, recognized that this kind of customer validation could be applied to storytelling, which is how she got the idea to build her app, Hooked. She realized that by bringing the idea of scientific experimentation to storytelling, she could improve the experience for both the author and the reader.

When she and her team were building out the product initially, they used data to determine the best UX for the app. Noticing that there was significant drop off around 35% of the way through a session, they set about innovating the format. Adding images or changing fonts didn’t seem to make a difference. What they landed on was an app that tells stories via text messages. To continue reading, the user has to click “next.”

Completion rates went dramatically up. They had discovered a way to reformat fiction to suit reduced attention spans of the modern reader. Hooked put out a call for stories to MFA programs, offering to pay for creative writing.  With UX now in place, they used data again, this time to evaluate the quality of the stories.

Prerna shared one example in which a story they thought would do well was failing to engage users. She reread the beginning, realized it had some confusing elements, and edited it. As she hoped, the story began performing significantly better.  Essentially, what Hooked is doing is giving authors the ability to create “lean fiction.” Not only does this format help authors refine their craft and their storytelling abilities, it also ensures that users consume the product, even ones that aren’t likely to sit down and read a hundred – or even a dozen – pages.

Prerna herself is a huge believer both in the power of fiction and the power of the Lean Startup methodology. She says that following a data-driven and customer-driven approach to product management was one of things that helped her to gain traction for Hooked in Silicon Valley, where fiction is not exactly the flavor-du-jour. Being able to prove the concept, take things one step at time, and consistently back up assumptions with metrics was critical.

By merging the creative and technical, Prerna has been able to create an app that serves both creators and consumers, without compromising on the core values of storytelling. Hooked stories have characters, plots and complex ideas: everything that makes fiction so valuable to read. But it does it in a way that truly takes into account the experience of the user, rather than an unfounded whim of the author or a publishing house.

Continue learning with Lean Startup Co. in 2016. We have a new series of smaller, subject-specific Lean Startup Labs, starting with an enterprise summit in February in New York City, in addition to our flagship Lean Startup Conference in the Fall in San Francisco.

Written by Rachel Balik, contributor for Lean Startup Co.

How to Intentionally Design a Lean Startup Culture

Editor’s Note: It’s two weeks after our annual Lean Startup Conference, and we’ll be digging deeper into some of our favorite talks. For a full re-cap, check out our Lean Startup Conference 2015 playlist. The first set of videos is up, and in true Lean Startup fashion, we’ll be uploading them in small batches as they are edited. We hope you enjoy the videos! – Melissa Moore

Photo by The Lean Startup Conference/Jakub Mosur and Erin Lubin

Long before everyone was taking selfies, people strove to have a “Kodak moment,” a perfect experience captured on film. But today, Kodak has lost its aspirational glow and became a warning tale of what happens when an industry leader fails to innovate.

Kodak went from a being an industry leader to declaring bankruptcy in 2012. One might consider their downfall an inevitable sign of the times. But according to Alex Osterwalder, author and founder at Strategyzer.com, big companies can avoid their “Kodak moment” if they’re ready, willing and most importantly – able – to go from being a company that maintains the status quo to one that enables innovation.

The key to making that leap is a fundamental shift in organization culture, Alex explained in his talk at The Lean Startup Conference 2015. Kodak had an R&D program just like most big companies, but it wasn’t enough to keep them relevant when faced with competition from smaller, more nimble technology companies. That’s because their innovation was only on the periphery. In order to stay relevant, a Lean Startup culture needs to be built and integrated into the whole company.

Big companies focus on improving, executing and forecasting. Innovative companies focus on inventing, searching and experimenting. This is for good reason; big companies often have business plans they need to present to stakeholders or board members. For them, failure is not an option. That’s why Alex advocates for putting certain people in charge of innovation, and others in charge of execution.

Just like when basketball star Michael Jordan had a harder time transitioning to baseball, the people who are in charge of keeping the company moving forward on an even keel might not be the same people who will excel at innovation. Innovation can’t happen on command, it can only happen when it’s nurtured and supported in the context of the right business culture.

That culture of innovation also has to be supported by the people who are tasked with execution. Alex spoke about a tendency to see innovators as “pirates.” Not only does this make it harder for innovators to get their ideas into play, it also de-incentivizes the role of innovator at a big company. In fact, at most big companies, there’s not a lot of prestige for innovators; in some situations, it’s even “career suicide,” says Alex. If you’re relegated to a small team or a labs division, you’re not working on things that are mission-critical to the organization.

Ironically, as we can see from examples of companies like Kodak or Nokia, innovation is indeed mission-critical, and must be treated as such. This may require a shift in organizational culture. In his talk, Alex provided a simple, but critical overview for how companies can approach and execute this shift, and begin consciously designing a Lean Startup Culture.

1) Map it out. In phase one, the whole team should begin to think about which elements of their process and operations support an innovative culture, and which ones don’t. Label them as either “enablers” or “blockers.”

2) Gather your team. Once the team has started to think about enablers and blockers, the whole group should gather to map out and discuss the as-is culture. Aim for ultimate transparency and realism so everyone shares the same concept of the current business culture.

3) Design a workshop. Once the team has agreed on enablers and blockers and mapped out the current culture, it’s time for a workshop (at least half a day long) where a plan is put in place to shift the culture from what it is to what the team wants it to be.

Not everyone will go through all three phases right away. In fact, it might be helpful for teams to identify just one blocker and start to chip away at the problem. If you truly want to design an intentional culture, though, you have to go all the way. In some respects, the process may seem simple, but it’s essential for helping teams to see the big picture.

So often, people try to make culture changes at the tactical level (new HR software, a ping pong table, happy hours after work.) However, if those tactical changes don’t ladder up to a higher goal, the culture of the business will never change.

It’s important to make the distinction that culture is not about being friendly with coworkers or having fun after work. It’s about getting people engaged in the actual work they are doing. Alex notes that on average, seven out of 10 employees are disengaged, which is not only bad for employees but truly limits a company’s potential for success. Culture needs to be “explicit,” and start with day-to-day management and operations.

As Alex says, “the ping pong table is not going to cut it.”

Written by Rachel Balik, contributor for Lean Startup Co.

Continue learning with Lean Startup Co. in 2016. We have a new series of smaller, subject-specific Lean Startup Labs, starting with an enterprise summit in February in New York City, in addition to our flagship Lean Startup Conference in the Fall in San Francisco.