Millions of Millennials Get Career Help from These Savvy Women

The Muse photo

The Muse co-founders Kathryn Minshew (CEO) and Alex Cavoulacos (COO) innately understand how to target career-minded twentysomethings because they fit that profile themselves. But they’ve also done lots of testing around who their core audience is and what problems they should be solving for.

In the five years since these two started their Millennial-focused career site, The Muse has attracted a base of 50 million users. It’s an audience that ranges from job seekers looking for gigs and advice to companies targeting digital natives. Although capturing the attention of this coveted demographic is no simple feat (18-34-year-olds are the largest generation in the US, and everyone wants a piece of them right now), The Muse’s growing fanbase is by no means capped by age.

The founders say their success comes in part from experimenting with numerous hunches, a Lean Startup approach that sometimes means building a manual MVP for a future digital offering.

We’re really excited to introduce you all to the women behind The Muse and hear their thoughts on creating an intentional culture of innovation during next week’s Startup Tours, part of our Enterprise Summit in New York City Feb. 24-25. But first, Minshew and Cavoulacos tell us a little more about shifting audience assumptions, their riskiest hypotheses, and how Millennials differ from previous generations when it comes to career searches and job expectations.

As the heads of a millennial-focused career site, how do you see this generation’s career needs versus versus older generations? And what does it mean that your audience is comprised of digital natives?

Millennials are looking for more out of their career than many previous generations, with a greater emphasis on mission or culture fit than personal income/reward. For example, a recent Deloitte survey demonstrated that Millennials believe an organization’s treatment and development of employees (and society) is paramount, alongside economic goals and motivations. More so than prior generations, Millennials are looking for a career with meaningful purpose and societal impact. Our audience relies upon a company’s digital footprint to comprehend how a company’s values align with their own, and uses a Muse profile to get a deeper look into whether this is the type of place they would want to work. It shouldn’t be rocket science to give potential candidates a photo and video “inside scoop” on an employer before they apply — but we’re the only ones who are doing it at scale.

What’s something people are using your site for that you didn’t expect?

Funnily enough, one of the most surprising elements was employers using our articles internally for their employees’ professional development. For example, one company created a “hitlist” of their favorite Muse pieces and sent it to every new manager as required reading (who doesn’t need to read “This Is How You Give Honest Feedback to Anyone, Anytime—Without Hurting Feelings” or “Here’s How You Can Be the “Cool Boss” Without Losing Your Authority”?). We’ve also seen other organizations make some of our round-ups part of their weekly internal newsletters, such as this piece on 45 free online professional development classes we recommend. It’s an upside of employers seeing us as career development, not just job search.

What was the company’s MVP when you first started, and how has that changed over time?

Any company in the career space has a bit of a chicken-and-egg problem, as you’re building a two-sided marketplace (individual users/career searchers and company customers/hiring partners). We started out with 100% of our focus on one half of the marketplace: our individual users. We became laser focused on creating the best career content on the internet, and on providing value and advice that our community would find relevant and share with others. We built this audience to 100,000 monthly active users before we launched company profiles and jobs, the other side of the marketplace. Many of our users were thrilled to have better job searching options (and the ones that weren’t job searching pretty much just used us as before), and our companies were able to access a ready-made demographic from Day 1.

What’s the riskiest hypothesis that you’ve tested about The Muse, and how did that test turn out in the end?

Recently, one of the riskiest hypotheses we tested was that our users wanted to book career coaching through The Muse. Our initial belief in the idea came from user interest via inbound emails and social, but there were still plenty of naysayers. Internally, our biggest question was whether a stated user desire for more career help would translate into actual credit card transactions — and whether it would be an additive to our business as we believed, or a potential distraction.

We did a small initial test via email, sending users to one of four landing pages for a resume review with various tiered pricing and positioning. Looking at data from the transactions and initial reviews (combined with 1:1 conversations with several of the early people who bought), we found several hypotheses confirmed and several surprises. For example, one of our early beta purchasers was a 28-year Air Force veteran looking to transition to a civilian career.

With this early data and user input as a guide, a portion of our team spent the next three months designing and building the product — a substantial investment on an as-yet-unproven part of the business — and launched in early November, the morning of a board meeting. So how did it go? Luckily, pretty well. We’ve nearly doubled revenue from that part of the business in the three months since launch, and the average user-to-coach rating is 4.9/5. Check it out for yourself at!

What have you learned about your audience that’s different than the assumptions you had about them in your early days of thinking about the company?

When we launched The Daily Muse in 2011, we were initially focused on empowering women in the first 10-15 years of their career. It wasn’t long before professionals, young and old, outside of that core demographic, found the The Muse, and identified with that key question, “What do you want to do with your life?” From professionals in their 50s or 60s who were looking to change careers, to parents seeking to re-enter the workforce, to veterans looking to transition into civilian jobs, it became clear that our content appealed to a much broader group than we initially anticipated.

In the early days, we were excited to see 100,000 people on The Muse in a given month; now we’re nearing 5 million monthly visitors (and almost 60 million lifetime visitors). While our core demographic continues to be female with an average age of 29, it’s exciting that The Muse has been able to help so many different types of people improve their careers and find jobs they love. We’re excited to see that continue.

How has Lean Startup methodology come into your product and/or process?

The biggest way Lean Startup methodology has become part of our process is that we test everything, and we think about the smallest thing we can test. We’ve built bandit testing methodology into our back end so that we can run numerous tests at a time, and continuously improve our product. We also aren’t afraid to launch something initially with a manual component, which we later build out and automate if the launch is successful; but which could be scrapped if it’s not a hit. This approach has made sure our engineering resources are spent in the most impactful places.

What’s next for The Muse?

Ultimately, our goal is to build The Muse into the most beloved, trusted career destination in the world. In 2016, this means reaching over 10 million individual users each month and continuing to expand nationwide (and beyond!) to more than 1,000 companies. In 5 years, this means that every single person who is thinking about the next step in their career, considering a new job, or seeking to improve their skill set in an existing job is thinking about The Muse. We’re very excited about Coach Connect, a product we launched at the end of 2015 that allows our users to connect with Muse-vetted career coaches for personalized advice. From career changers and job seekers, to executives, to new managers, coaching is something that people need in all different stages of their career, and we’re excited to continue to roll out new services to best serve our user base.
Join our Startup Tours in NYC as part of Lean Startup Labs’ Enterprise Summit Feb. 24-25. Grab a ticket here, and bring your whole team for maximum inspiration value.

How One Startup Turned Empty Spaces Into Productive Places

JulienWhen co-founder & CEO Julien Smith launched Breather two years ago, he was working on a risky assumption: the idea that businesses would be willing to pay to rent temporary spaces from strangers for meetings, brainstorms, and other team events. Since then, the “Airbnb for meeting- and work-spaces” has grown into the go-to app for everything from business pitches to marriage proposals(!), and his service helps folks with an extra 1,000 ft. on their hands in one of five Breather cities see that property as a new revenue potential.

We’re going to learn more about this office space-on-demand concept when Smith’s company leads a Startup Tour as part of our Enterprise Summit in NYC next week (Feb. 24–25).

What’s the most unusual space someone has listed through Breather?

We [recently] launched a space in New York that was actually a very large storage closet but is now a beautiful, small Breather.

When someone wants to rent their space, what are your requirements for them?

We love spaces that are about the size of a meeting room (under 1,000 square feet), with lots of great light and enough room to seat a small group of people. Couches, great tables to meet at, and lots of other things impact how well a space does.

What’s something people are using Breather for that you didn’t expect?

There have been a lot of surprising use cases. Probably the most delightful is those that have proposed to their significant others in our spaces (there have been quite a few!) and small weddings that we’ve hosted.

What was the company’s MVP when you first started, and how has that changed over time?

We hit on the service we wanted very early on and there was very little pivoting. The spaces have become more friendly to business over time (business meetings are a big use case) but we’ve been on the same track, rightly, for a long time now.

What’s the riskiest hypothesis that you’ve tested with Breather, and how did that test turn out in the end?

There was zero evidence for the demand we’ve seen. Now that we’ve run the service, we know how big our market is, but it would be VERY difficult to figure that out if you didn’t feel the need yourself. So, starting this from zero was the riskiest thing of all.

What have you learned about your audience that’s different than the assumptions you had about them in your early days of thinking about the company?

Many more business users than we intended. Lots of need for larger spaces. More technology, which we resisted (projectors, for example).

What was a big fail that turned into an excellent learning moment?

We tried to keep price stable for a very long time. This turned out to be totally wrong. Variability won out over consistency here.

How has Lean Startup methodology come into your product and/or process?

We try to look for evidence for everything we do. Iterating from a bad first draft is a part of our nature.

Why are you excited to host a Lean Startup group at Breather (or what is your team planning on focusing on when our tour comes through your office)?

Startups are hard — we have to learn from each other to succeed. Being able to see where we came from, and seeing a now successful startup scaling, can help anyone feel that they have what it takes.

Jump on the Startup Tours as part of our Feb. 24-25 NYC Enterprise Summit by registering now.

Cleaning Out the Old School Mindset

Managed by Q headshot Dan

Managed by Q cofounder Dan Teran once worked with companies that were “designed to reject change,” as he so eloquently phrases it. He’s witnessed firsthand the resistance executives show as they ignore, to their own peril, the real potential an intrapreneurial mindset has in a large organization. So although he runs a tech startup focused on office management-on-demand these days, Teran is the perfect host to include on the Startup Tours portion of our Enterprise Summit in NYC Feb. 24-25. He understands both the obstacles and the rewards in instituting an agile company mindset, for both early endeavors and established corporations.

What is Managed by Q (or just Q, as Teran calls it)? Well, while you’re busy running your company, you can outsource these folks to help you with cleaning, maintenance, and maintaining those office supplies, among other services, on-demand. Oh, and in case you’re wondering (we were), “Q” is just a name inspired by the characters in James Bond and Star Trek.

The company offers help on-call but is also committed to the idea that all of its workers a) should know how to clean well, no matter their position and b) deserve benefits, a 401(k) plan, and educational opportunities no matter their position with the company.

In a sea of gig-economy startups, Q’s level of commitment to its employees is commendable — but it’s just one the business’ admirable qualities. Q also places a high value on diversity with its staffing, which Teran says is a natural outgrowth of being based in New York City.

We’re excited to bring you into Q’s world as part of our Enterprise Summit Startup Tours, when you can meet Teran and team in person (and see what we assume will be their very clean and well-stocked office). In the meantime, we asked Teran about reimagining office management, learning from early failures, and the value Lean Startup methodology has played in Q’s success.

What fundamental problem were you solving by starting Managed By Q?

Running an office isn’t easy, and companies often get bogged down by the operational aspects of running their space. This includes anything from coordinating with cleaning crews, finding reliable handymen to take care of ad hoc projects such as plumbing issues or offices moves, and ensuring that their office is well-stocked with all the necessities they need to keep their team productive. The problem that Q solves is managing all of these core operational tasks to help companies focus their energy on their business. Being Managed by Q means investing in a higher functioning, more productive office.

What’s been your biggest success so far?

We’ve seen incredible growth and momentum in the four markets where we’re currently active—NYC, Chicago, San Francisco, and Los Angeles. Word of mouth about Q has traveled like wildfire, and one of our biggest successes so far is our growth fueled by personal recommendations and consistently strong ratings about our service. Our Yelp reviews can give you an idea of the great experience we’ve been able to create so far.

What was a big fail that turned into an excellent learning moment?

When we first began servicing clients, we worked with partner companies who provided janitorial service to help us staff our early accounts. This made running our operation simpler, but we sacrificed our ability to control the client’s experience, train the team properly, and provide Operators with consistency in their employment. After only a handful of weeks later we realized the importance of building a company that provided the highest quality service—not only to retain and grow our client base, but also to create meaningful jobs for our Operators. This in turn became a huge part of who we are as a company.

How has Lean Startup methodology come into your product and/or process?

Lean has been a big part of how we built our business. In fact, when we signed up our first dozen customers in February 2014 all we had built was a page to process credit card signups. Once we had enough validation that there was demand for smart office management, we went to work to build the products that our beta customers used just a few months later. Today, Q is a much bigger company but the culture of experimentation and hypothesis driven development lives on as we expand into new geographies and new business lines.

What sort of intentional culture have you created for the company?

At Q, we are all Operators, and everybody cleans. We have gone to great lengths to ensure that everyone in the company feels like they are on the same team, and have aligned incentives for long term success.  For example, our cleaners and handymen have the exact same health and retirement benefits as our executives and engineers, and everybody at Q has to go through field operator training and clean offices in their first few weeks at the company. This has created a culture that cares deeply about one another, and about the success of the company.

Generally how does the New York startup scene differ from Silicon Valley’s in your mind?

We’re really proud of having built an incredibly diverse and inclusive company, and I think New York lends itself to that. Compared to the Valley—or any city for that matter—New York is one of the most diverse cities in the world. We all live on top of each other in this super dense geographic area. Millions of people from all over the world and different socioeconomic backgrounds are jammed into subway cars with each other every day. As basic as that sounds, I think New Yorkers have a different sensibility about what real diversity looks. It has been a big part of shaping our company’s culture—and arguably a big part of how NY tech distinguishes itself.

What do you plan to discuss with the Learn Startup Enterprise Summit folks who’ll be visiting Managed by Q for a startup tour?

Prior to co-founding Q, I was a partner at a NYC-based firm called prehype. I worked with big companies like Mondelez, Castrol, Unilever, News Corp, and others to help build new digital businesses, so I know how hard it is to innovate inside of an organization that is designed to reject change. I’m excited to share what I’ve learned building Q, and hope that it can help inspire the visiting executives to act like entrepreneurs in their own businesses. We think of Q as a company of entrepreneurs, and this has been a key to our success.
Lean Startup Labs’ Enterprise Summit is Feb. 24-25 in NYC. Grab a ticket here.

Going The Distance; We’re All in This Together

Photo credit: Anthony Quintano

Lean Startup Co. was started to ensure that anyone, anywhere, would have access to the methodology, no matter your budget, location, or industry. We’re shooting for the moon, helping everyone who needs us develop the modern management and rapid product development skills necessary to survive not just for today, but for all the curve balls tomorrow’s gonna throw your way.

We also practice what we preach. We hear you saying that you want affordable, in-person training, access to more case studies, and virtual education. You want to learn specific practices that will immediately impact your work. Our team is going out into the world and building great stuff based on these needs through our Lean Startup Labs. We’re committed to testing new ways to directly support you.

The Summit Series is a perfect example of Lean Startup Labs at work. It’s Lean Startup on the road, aimed at helping you resolve some of your biggest business challenges alongside your community and peers. At a Summit event, you’ll hear short, powerful talks on relevant business issues, interact with a community of local innovators, and emerge with the insight you need to create profound change in your workplace. It’s an intimate experience, only 200 or so attend; giving you unique access to some of the smartest minds and most effective solutions around.

The Summit Series kicks off in New York City Feb. 24-25 focusing on the needs of enterprise and corporate organizations. We’re homing in on the challenges that large organizations face when trying to implement a new method like Lean Startup — building the right culture, getting buy-in, how to create an MVP, innovation accounting, regulatory issues and customer development (when you already have customers), and more.

From there, the Summit Series moves to New Orleans to host thought leaders in startup, education, and social good sectors. Then we’ll head to Detroit to take a close look at the folks driving growth and innovation in the Motor City’s burgeoning startup scene.

When we say we’ll meet you where you are, we mean it. The Summit Series is also a tiered event. In other words, we’ll provide scholarships and realistic pricing for you bootstrappers out there.

You can learn more about our Summit Series here. And if you haven’t already, sign up for our newsletter to stay up on all the new ways we’re working on meeting you — and meeting your needs.

Meet Our Supergroup of Corporate Innovators

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

One is the loneliest number. You get all fired up about modernizing the way your company does things, only to find that momentum stalled by any number of downers. Rigid managers. Employees who are terrified of change. Communication breakdowns between folks in different time zones. Teams for whom the idea of sharing info just. does. not. compute.

Our Lean Startup Labs Enterprise Summit (Feb. 24-25) is the catalyst you need to go from being the only innovator in your organization to creating a domino effect across an office or around the globe.

Workshop Lean Startup Principles

Even if you’ve read the Lean Startup book, making the jump from paper learning to active practice can be a challenge. So we’re doing a day-long deep dive into the methodology and discussing advanced topics such as innovation accounting in an intensive workshop. You’ll come away with an understanding of all the important terminology as well as key Lean Startup components such as leadership behavior and organizational culture, product development, and portfolio governance. We’ll get into the nitty gritty of introducing Lean Startup to a corporate workplace and scaling it across large organizations.

Do While You’re Listening

We’re not going to spend two days talking at you. The Lean Startup Labs Summit Series is a hands-on bootcamp that includes exercises throughout — including a live challenge where you’ll be testing a hypothesis in real time with our expert coaches. With the help of Alpha X, that hypothesis will go out into the real world, so you’ll get actionable feedback on your idea. From there we’ll teach you how to best use data and metrics to drive all your hypotheses.

In another workshop, Frank Rimalovski, Executive Director of the Entrepreneurial Institute at NYU, takes us through the nuts and bolts of designing an effective MVP experiment, with industry experts Ryan Jacoby (founder, Machine) and Giff Constable (acting CEO, Neo).

Learn About Their Incubators … and From Their Mistakes

Our Enterprise Summit speakers hail from the top names in healthcare, energy, finance, media, government, and education. They’re bringing you their wins and, well, their “we aren’t gonna talk about this on record”s alike. You’ll hear the stories that you won’t get anywhere else. Through their case studies, you’ll understand how lone wolves at industry giants infused their teams with Lean Startup practices and pick up new tactics for your organization.

  • Learn the specifics of how education giant Pearson found great success in fine-tuning its product cycle using Lean Startup from Sonja Kresojevic, SVP of Product Life Cycle.
  • Get the scoop on the steps GE used to implement its FastWorks innovation program around the world — a system based on improved communication, accountability, and understanding the customer — with Viv Goldstein, Global Director of Innovation Acceleration.
  • American Express’ VP of product delivery Andrew Breen didn’t let a regulated, conservative environment stop him from pushing through Lean iterative processes. He’ll divulge the secrets to overcoming cultural and organizational roadblocks so you don’t get bogged down at the starting line.
  • The Garage is a Lean Startup-style incubator inside Optum, the health services arm of Fortune 14’s United Healthcare. The VP of innovation and R&D at Optum, Kunjorn Chambundabongse, proves that you really can create a successful new startup within an older enterprise landscape.
  • Dun & Bradstreet CMO Rishi Dave will show how an international, 175-year-old company remains an aggressive player in the credit industry thanks to a marketing strategy that uses Lean thinking to target only the most valuable customer relationships.
  • And because we value failure as highly as we do success, Ken Durand, Head of Innovation at the Atlanta Ideas Factory (Ericsson) will give a brutally honest talk about what didn’t work when he tried to implement Lean Startup techniques in an enterprise setting. Spoiler alert: he’s made it work in the long-run, but now you won’t have to remake his mistakes.

Break Down The Silos

Teams that don’t understand how to share information can bring the whole organization down. Our Summit experts busted down the silos between their departments and lived to talk about it.

  • Benjamin Kumpf, policy specialist at UNDP, will discuss how he’s turned his division of the United Nations into an innovation lab, working with teams in very different cultures and countries. His case study will also focus on deprogramming the rigid multi-year planning mentality that can tank experimentation.
  • Kimberly Hicks, VP of product management-user platform at Viacom, will discuss how she was able to get the company’s multiple brands to work together and to become more adaptive to their audience’s rapidly evolving media consumption habits.
  • Amee Mungo, Digital Transformation at Capital One, will lead a discussion on how to best get UX, design, and development to play nice. She’ll be joined by experts who know the importance of interdependent teams: John Whalen (founder, Brilliant Experience), Scott Childs (experience design lead, Capital One), and Greg Whalin (product, Facebook).

Build Teams For Ingenuity

What traits inspire ingenuity in an office? We’re hosting open discussions with these corporate rock stars about what’s worked for them, from rewiring the way your current teams operate to bringing in outside hires to facilitate change. Each speaker and workshop leader has taken a unique approach in this arena. Learn how the innovation experts, academics, and doers out in the field suggest you design teams to best meet your customers’ needs for the long haul.

Small Fries Think Big

Even if all your employees could currently fit in a single subway car, there will (hopefully) be a time when scaling is an issue. Our Enterprise Summit is also geared for the smaller startups who want to get a head start on scaling intrapreneurship.

The Lean Startup Labs’ Enterprise Summit has it all. Specific case studies that discuss the how. Small workshops where you can get your problems solved with a team. Experts across industries who collectively comprise an unparalleled supergroup of corporate innovation. Startup tours of NYC’s Silicon Alley.

Get in on this corporate community-focused summit by grabbing tickets for yourself/your team before they’re gone. Because it’s so much less fun trying to figure all this stuff out by yourself.

Our Two-Day Bootcamp in Corporate Innovation

The Lean Startup Conference, a five day gathering of entrepreneurs, is held at the Fairmont Hotel in San Francisco from December 8th through December 12th 2014. (© 2013 Photo by The Lean Startup Conference/Jakub Mosur and Erin Lubin)
Photo by The Lean Startup Conference/Jakub Mosur and Erin Lubin

You want to create serious, lasting change in your corporation’s processes and products — and it’s causing you some serious migraines? We get it. But luckily we also happen to know some amazing corporate trailblazers who can help you with the specifics of your mission.

Lean Startup instigators at government agencies, industrial corporations, educational organizations, and media companies alike learned how to transform and modernize their workplaces in impressive ways. You can exchange ideas with these enterprise leaders, in person, together with just 200 other corporate decision makers and influencers as part of our intimate new learning labs series.

Learn the nuances of enterprise innovation from these industry rock stars during our Lean Startup Labs two-day crash-course Feb. 24-25 in New York City. (Space is very limited, so sign up for yourself or your team now)

Our Enterprise Summit is an experiment in focusing first and foremost on our corporate community. This two-day bootcamp is structured to sharpen your Lean Startup skills and expand your network of corporate leaders modernizing their workplaces. During our hands-on workshops, keynote talks, startup tours, Q&A sessions, and optional VIP dinner, you’ll meet the folks making lasting headway in corporate innovation. Even better, you’ll be able to pull these mentors aside and hear their suggestions for issues you’re grappling with, or get further clarification about exactly how they’ve managed to make something work with their teams.

The Enterprise Lab is designed for both the Lean Startup newbie seeking an applicable entry point to the methodology and the OG intrapreneur hungry to transform multiple teams at once.

So what exactly are you getting with the price of admission to the Enterprise Lab?

  • The global perspective on enacting change from inside a division of the United Nations (which should be a source of inspiration for anyone tackling an international brand)
  • A live case study from Pearson, which was awarded the 2015 prizes for Best Innovation Culture and Best Innovation Product in the Corporate Entrepreneur Awards
  • Practical advice on how to scale innovation in the corporate world from experts who’ve made it happen in their workplaces
  • A refresher in all the terms and concepts you’ll need to be an effective corporate leader, from innovation accounting to the major developments in organizational culture
  • A hands-on workshop on complementary methodologies to Lean Startup, such as Design Thinking
  • A Lean Startup bootcamp where you’ll generate and test a hypothesis using an experiment of your own design, with step-by-step help from our trained coaches
  • The chance to work through specific obstacles with your team while you have the ear of leaders who’ve modernized incredible organizations
  • Time behind the scenes at new and emerging New York institutions, during our Startup Tours (at Uber, Artivest, Breather, Managed by Q, PCMag Labs, The Muse) and at our VIP dinner for speakers and attendees at Norwood Club, a members-only hub for the city’s creative community.
  • Experience New York with leading edge-spaces on the brain: from our Enterprise Labs HQ, Civic Hall, a community center for civic tech startups, to the 21st century take on cafe-meets-retail space on the ground floor of the Hall, to Capital One’s innovation lab across the street.
  • The unique summit-only combo of specialized best practices for corporate leaders, learning by doing, and tips and suggestions from other attendees who also work in the enterprise sphere
  • Intimate Q&A sessions where your questions will get answered
  • Afternoon roundtables where teams work together to tackle the big issues

Check out the full schedule of activities and opportunities here.

Whether you’re looking to scale intrapreneurship or you just want to get some MVP experiments off the ground, the Enterprise Lab caters to your corporate innovation needs. Space is limited to 200 attendees, though, and this is our only corporate summit of the year, so grab your tickets now if you want a guaranteed spot.

Lean Startup Labs Summit Series isn’t just another business conference. Inspired by feedback from you, Lean Startup community, we’ve created a series of regional events intended to host a smaller audience and meet you where you live.

How One FinTech Company Used Lean Startup in a Regulated Industry

ARTIVEST james-waldinger-headshot

Before he founded Artivest, CEO James Waldinger was frustrated with the dinosaur pace of the investment world. He watched as bigwigs in other sectors figured out how to make that crucial shift from analog to a digital. But as he told CEO CFO Magazine, “investing in a private alternative is still back in the stone age.” Not to mention that there wasn’t a great way to analyze investor behavior.

Waldinger worked as an advisor and investor in the startup world, and sensed it was time to leverage his background at Clarium Capital to resolve this digital divide. With New York as his backdrop, he also had access to the best minds in the financial industry close by, so he built Artivest, a tech-driven platform that expands access to leading private equity and hedge funds, right there in Silicon Alley.

Artivest is one of the exciting New York City-based startups we’ll be visiting as part of our Lean Startup Labs Enterprise Summit Feb. 24-25. It’s also an example of a company working in a highly regulated industry that’s busted free from the old stone age mentality (a little inspiration for those of you wanting to get the hell away from all that analog paperwork too) and tightened the customer feedback loops along the way.

Before we meet his team in person, here’s a little more about Artivest, and how Waldinger was able to implement Lean Startup into his company.

What fundamental problem were you solving for by starting Artivest?

We enable individuals and their financial advisors to access leading private funds. Traditionally, only large institutions like pensions and endowments were able to invest in top private equity and hedge funds. The process was cumbersome and inefficient, e.g., paper-based documentation flows, which kept investment minimums high. Artivest streamlines operations and distribution — the entire process is now digital and consistent across all funds on our platform. Our behavioral analytics capability also greatly improves the understanding of market needs in real-time, helping to efficiently match funds to investors and investors to funds. With these innovations, Artivest is able to offer qualified individuals and their advisors access to premier private funds at lower minimums, while keeping fees competitive.

What have you learned about your audience that’s different than the assumptions you had about them in your early days of thinking about the company?

We knew that financial advisors and asset managers would find value in our platform since it expands their access to a larger selection of premier funds and a larger capital base. What we didn’t know is how excited they would be about the technology itself. We now have a business line that provides a white-labeled, customized version of our technology and operational solution to asset managers, private banks, and advisory networks that need to manage their own processing of alternatives. We’ve realized that part of what is so innovative and appealing about our technology is the amount of data we can potentially collect. Because alternative investing was previously an “offline” process, there was no data to understand advisor and investor behavior — with Artivest, because we can track and analyze how advisors and investors behave over time, we can better match product need with availability and make the sales process more efficient.

What’s been your biggest success so far?

Our biggest success has been the amount of traction we’ve gained in such a short period of time. Even though we were only in “beta” launch until early 2015, we have amassed an engaged user base that includes some of the largest independent advisors, broker dealers, funds, and asset managers in the world.

What was a big fail that turned into an excellent learning moment?

As a startup, we’re constantly failing, learning, iterating, and improving. Some early “rejections” actually came back to us with great interest after a few months, and we realized that the adoption cycle varies greatly for different types of customers depending on their needs. For example, those who are newer to private investments may be hesitant to pull the trigger after finding interesting funds on our platform, simply because they’ve never gone through the process before. Seeing the technology used at larger institutions can help them become familiar with the process and our product. We’re now able to quickly segment customers according to where they are in the investment cycle.

How has Lean Startup methodology come into your product and/or process?

Getting customer feedback during the product development phase has been critical for us. Very early on, we established an “Early Access” program which allowed us to test our software with financial advisors and quickly come up with a minimum viable product, then iterate to perfect it. Developing consultative relationships with our clients has enabled us to spend our time and effort on the features and functionality with the highest value-add for our audience.

How do you see the financial market differently since working on Artivest?

I don’t know that we see the market differently, but in the last year, market conditions have certainly highlighted the need for increased access to a wider selection of private funds. As investors have struggled to chase returns in public markets, it has become clear that there is inadequate access to alternatives, an asset class that has the ability to dampen volatility, improve diversification, and generate alpha through top managers.

Generally how does the New York startup scene differ from Silicon Valley’s in your mind?

Financial services has many additional compliance, regulatory, and operational constraints when compared to other industries. The density of financial services firms in New York means the knowledge base around this area is not only deep and wide but also extremely current. As a fintech startup, having access to and being a part of this extensive financial services community is incredibly advantageous in terms of building robust, reliable, and compliant infrastructure. We rely heavily on this community in terms of finding new team members, customers, partners, advisors, and backers and learning from their great wealth of knowledge and experience. Here in New York, we’ve been able to assemble an amazing team with wide expertise, from organizations ranging from Merrill Lynch and Goldman Sachs to Second Market. We’ve also attracted a very diverse set of backers, including KKR, Peter Thiel, RRE Ventures, and Nyca Partners.

Learn more about Artivest at the Lean Startup Labs Enterprise Summit startup tours in NYC Feb. 24-25th. The summit is limited to 200 people, so grab a ticket for yourself or your team before we sell out.

Running A Lean Startup within GE

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

As the oldest company on the stock exchange, GE might not seem like a candidate for most innovation, but to Johanna Wellington, CEO of GE Fuels, it makes perfect sense. “You don’t survive that long if you don’t continually reinvent yourself,” she explained.

Johanna, who has worked at GE for years, says Lean Startup principles are truly embraced at GE, by leadership and employees alike. That’s one reason why her unique career path was possible: she started managing GE’s standard business divisions, but a new position within their Global Research Center meant her role became essentially that of an internal VC angel, focusing on projects to support within the company.

Because of GE’s Lean culture, every department and employee is encouraged to have big ideas, which have the potential to then gain support and funding from the research team.  One of those big ideas Johanna eventually supported zeroes in on the potential of fuel cell technology. GE’s plan is now to build industrial-size, highly efficient oxide fuel cells that may positively impact the environment.  Ultimately, the concept was good enough merit its own startup structure within the company, and Johanna stepped forward to lead it.

In her talk at the Lean Startup Conference 2015, “Running a Lean Startup Inside a Big Corporation”,  Johanna shared her experience as the CEO of GE Fuel Cells, providing insight not only on running lean within a giant corporation, but also at a giant manufacturing company.

Although GE embraces Lean culture across the organization, there were some notable differences when it came to running a true startup within the corporation.

The Known Unknown  

At big corporations, forecasting and accurate predictions are an integral part of business operations. Working on a completely new technology meant that Johanna frequently had to accept and admit, both to her team and her superiors, that she simply didn’t know certain things – whether it was how long a project would take or whether a method would work at all. It also meant that she prioritized figuring how to do things right over just getting it done. Sometimes, that means missing milestones rather than moving forward with a flawed process. At the same time, Johanna notes the lack of a rigid roadmap makes the day-to-day more exciting; in her leadership role, she is making big decisions every day with the help of her team.

Planning for Failure

At a company like GE, most business units are expected to be hitting goals and benchmarks. In contrast, in the startup environment, you actually have to plan for failure. At a minimum, that means building time for failure into any project plan. It also must be factored in when having conversations with execs, specifically when it comes to managing expectations. Instead of making promises, Johanna is more likely to let her bosses know ahead of time that, somewhere along the road, things are probably going to break. Finally, it changes how she interacts with her team. Creating an environment where honesty and problem-solving are more valued than “quick wins” is critical to a startup’s success.

Re-Thinking the MVP

There are all sort of creative ways to approach the MVP, and not all of them have to resemble the final product. For GE Fuel Cells, producing even a prototype was a massive undertaking, due to its demand for complex hardware and technology. So when Joanna first approached customers to get feedback, her MVP was simply a data sheet. She used it to validate the need and consider basic requirements before she went about building the product itself. The next iteration of her MVP was also unique, consisting of the process for building the fuel cells. Testing and validating whether they could make the fuel cells at scale was the biggest priority for the startup, and so the MVP had to be process rather than product.

Leveraging Internal Resources

Despite the challenges, there are some big advantages to having the support of a big company behind your startup, and one of them is access to internal resources. Johanna’s familiarity with many teams at GE and the GE catalogue enable her to execute more efficiently and effectively. Plus, GE’s lean, innovative culture means she’s not afraid to ask a favor from someone in another GE business unit, even when the project or favor might not be specifically tied to their own goals. That level of corporate support empowers her to move quickly once a concept is validated and is ready to go.

Overall, GE has created an environment where each of its divisions can work the way it needs to in order to reach its set targets. As Johanna explains, the bigger company is like an ocean liner. It shouldn’t move quickly or turn too fast because it might capsize. On the other hand, she says, illustrating her startup’s need for flexibility, “I’m a motorboat. I have to hit a bunch of points, and if I can’t move fast, I’m going to run out of gas before I get there.”

Learn more about GE Fastworks at Lean Startup Labs: Enterprise Summit in New York City on Feb 25. Or immerse yourself in a full week of Lean Startup methodology and entrepreneurship at Lean Startup Week in San Francisco, Oct 31 – Nov 6.

Bringing the Lean Process to Big Finance Corporations

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

The Lean Startup methodology is often associated with innovative, small companies, but Andrew Breen, VP of Product Delivery at American Express, says he actually considers it a somewhat conservative approach. Not because it doesn’t enable change, but because its data-driven, customer-driven framework and systematic approach to product development actually make it an ideal way to bring innovation to big, established companies.

Previously, product management was somewhat of a “dark art,” explained Andrew in his presentation at The Lean Startup Conference 2015. While it’s imperative that big corporations change from predictable environments to responsive ones, such evolution can present a huge challenge, especially without a framework for innovation. Building transparency and communication into product development is essential at organizations that aren’t used to being nimble.

When AmEx recognized the need to make a shift in order to stay current in the fast-growing payments world, they brought in Andrew to implement a Lean process right in the heart of the company’s customer service department. AmEx made the important decision to innovate within their existing framework, rather than create a separate labs division. This critical and strategic choice ensures new product development is woven into the fabric of the organization, leading to a more responsive culture overall.

Placed right in the thick of daily operations, Andrew set to work shifting the company’s mindset by implementing processes to facilitate change.

De-risking innovation

At big companies, there’s no shortage of new ideas, but there can be little incentive or opportunity to execute on them. What results is lots of conversation, and very little change. Lean Startup provides a framework for evaluating and mitigating the risk of new ideas. That means a focus on customer validation and understanding the requirements of the MVP. Once those are completed, it’s easy to grasp both the impact and the risk of a project.

Re-thinking the role of the customer

Many big companies have a process for testing a concept that isn’t likely to yield the most valuable information. For example, using employees to test products is fine for QA, but not if you’re truly seeking to build products that will increase customer engagement and satisfaction. Similarly, vetting a new concept with the customer advisory board or a group of most valued customers might make them feel good, but it won’t necessarily tell you what you need to know. Innovation requires validating new ideas with a large group of users (think thousands) and picking customers who aren’t already your biggest fans. That’s where you’ll find the insight that drives growth.

Breaking Down Departmental Silos

Part of the reason product development happens slowly at big companies is because teams are set up to function as an assembly line rather than a collaborative group. They suffer from what Andrew calls the “throw it over the wall mentality.” Product tosses it to design, who tosses it to engineering. A better way to approach development is with Lean Squads, where one member of each functional team joins a project/product team and collaborates with the other stakeholders from the get-go. Not only does this help you work smarter, with better ideas and efficient troubleshooting, it can also help you work faster, as each member of the team fully understands the project and their specific role.

Above all, there is shift in culture and mentality that needs to take place in order for an organization to make the transition to Lean. It’s a shift that must happen at the managerial level, so that employees understand they need to do more than just deliver. Across the organization, everyone must be measured on the actual performance of products. That doesn’t mean they can’t fail, it means that experimentation and learning are smaller, valuable goals on the path of production. Creating smaller projects where testing and learning are not only supported but mandated is the best way for big companies to make significant transformations.

Hear Andrew Breen speak about changing the corporate culture for innovation at Lean Startup Labs: Enterprise Summit in New York City on Feb 25. Or immerse yourself in a full week of Lean Startup methodology and entrepreneurship at Lean Startup Week in San Francisco, Oct 31 – Nov 6.