This is How You Spark & Drive Change: March Roundup

22528485494_7b82391530_zIn the spirit of continually delivering fresh inspiration to your mailbox, the Lean Startup Monthly Roundup is back.

These quickie digests collect the best profiles, podcasts, webcasts, essays, success stories, and bits of advice into the month’s required reading list. Think of the roundups as our ICYMI culled from the business and tech press, expert blogs (including our own), and other motivational sources that’ve caught our attention.

Of course, if you want a full week’s worth of this type of tactical advice and practical case studies, you’ll want to join us at Lean Startup Week Oct. 31-Nov. 6 in San Francisco.

What We’re Reading

How to Get Buy-In to Drive Change (Lean Startup Co.)

Whether you’re angling for a cultural shift or rethinking the products your company produces, it’s difficult to get the ball rolling when transitions make your team anxious. Yammer’s director of user experience Cindy Alvarez imparts really great advice about what you should — and should not — do to get a wary group on board with major changes.

Millions of Millennials Get Their Career Advice from These Women (Lean Startup Co.)

If you missed our interview with founders Kathryn Minshew and Alex Cavoulacos about their Millennial career hub The Muse, it’s worth a read. These women innately understand their generation’s needs when it comes to job hunting and career development, and they’ve grown a sizeable following by testing their riskiest hypotheses in smart ways.

How the Lean Startup Methodology Has Helped the Labor Movement (Lean Startup Co.)

Creating a current database of unions organized by industry, state, and name could’ve been a daunting task. But founders Larry L. Williams Jr. and Louis Davis were adamant about pushing the labor movement out of the Analog Age. Using Lean Startup practices, the duo has been able to validate its offering and modernize solutions for the problems they’re solving for.

IBM’s Design-Centered Strategy to Set Free the Squares (The New York Times)

Design-thinking is a decades-old strategy that’s complementary in many ways to the Lean Startup. In the words of The New York Times, this esteemed practice, which is gaining traction in the business world, allows companies to “look at problems first through the prism of users’ needs, research those needs with real people and then build prototype products quickly.” Sound familiar? The Times looked at the massive changes IBM has been able to make thanks to its head of design, Phil Gilbert, a design-thinking enthusiast. If you’d like to hear more about this methodology, and learn more about the ways Phil is using it at IBM, he’ll be speaking at our Lean Startup Week in SF this Fall.

What BuzzFeed’s Dao Nguyen Knows About Data, Intuition, and the Future of Media (Fast Company)

The head data scientist from one of the top innovative companies in the world discusses BuzzFeed’s approach to data and experimentation. A fascinating read, especially in regard to Nguyen’s thoughts on the importance of combining metrics with employees’ gut instincts.

What We’re Watching

Lean Analytics with Ben Yoskovitz webcast (General Assembly)

The entrepreneur and angel investor breaks down best practices for capturing and synthesizing data, as well as practical examples of the build-measure-learn cycle.

What We’re Listening To

TheSkimm Built a Massive Email Following. Now It Wants More. podcast (Re/Code)

The founders of TheSkimm, the newsletter that preps young women with “all the news they need to know for the day” in minutes, divulge to Re/Code the initial MVP that now attracts millions of eager brand ambassadors.

The Events We’re Going To

Hustle Con: May 13 in Oakland, CA

Our team is excited to check out Hustle Con, a one-day conference where all-star(tup) founders share the specific tactics they used to launch and grow their companies. Speakers include the founders of OkCupid, GoodReads, Headspace, Casper, and more. Click here for tickets, and save 20% with the promo code “leanstartupco”.

And if you only have five minutes, check out:

5 Priceless Lessons in Collaboration, Risk Taking, and Motivation (Fast Company)

From Charles Duhigg, author of Smarter Faster Better: The Secrets of Being Productive in Life and Business.

Step Away From This Blog Post

Build on the ideas we send you this and every month by attending our Lean Startup Week in San Francisco Oct. 31 – Nov. 6. We’ve expanded our flagship event to include more speakers and workshops as well as partner activities and bootcamps. Plus you can discuss everything you’re learning, or the problems you’re trying to solve for, with the larger Lean Startup community! Click here for details, and take advantage of our Early Bird sale for Lean Startup Week now.

The Lean Startup Methodology: A Conversation with Adam Berk, Cofounder of Neighborrow, Founder of the MilValChal, and PLC at Pearson.

25086618079_e4752157fa_zBerk’s background

Adam Berk (@AdamBerk) is a lean entrepreneur, lean teacher, and Serial Entrepreneur. He is one of the more intrepid experimenters. He is currently an Implementation Coach at Pearson and Entrepreneur-In-Residence at The Entrepreneurial Science Foundation. In the past, he has founded or cofounded Neighborrow, Fotogether, and the MilValChal, which funds all startups at a $1,000,000 valuation if they conduct + submit 100 customer interviews within 50 days and use the funding to test a hypothesis (or multiple hypotheses). He holds a BA in Economics from Emory University.

Using Lean Startup Methodology to Identify the Certain “Je Ne Sais Quoi” in Entrepreneurs

Adam Berk isn’t one to shy away from admitting when endeavors don’t end up going his way. “I applied [Lean Methods] to Neighborrow, probably five years too late. I guess I could say I am the rare case that I am almost glad that I did it the wrong way and didn’t apply it earlier.”

Berk says Lean startup instantly made sense to him in terms of logic, but when his cofounder at Neighborrow first challenged him to run an experiment, he resisted the way many of my mentees and enterprise teams do now.” The struggle Berk faced made him tough and a better mentor for future mentees.

Consequentially, Berk argues entrepreneurship’s cardinal sin is failure to learn. “The je ne sais quoi that [differentiates the best entrepreneurs] is total learning– every other trait is a function of total learning.” The other variables, which are functions of total learning, include fearlessness, capacity, autonomy, and speed.

Fearlessness leads to increased total learning, whether it be the courage to ship products earlier, challenge the status quo, even bending the law (whether it is Harvard law and you hack into the database and borrow some photos or San Francisco livery cab law) (including certain laws), or leave a comfortable job to work on one’s own idea.

One of the key attributes of successful entrepreneurs is the capacity to learn. Absence of this attribute nullifies the effectiveness of the other traits.“Capacity to learn leads to autonomy for entrepreneurs, which leads to speed of learning. Part of the reason why so many entrepreneurs know how to code is not coding’s intrinsic value, but rather it’s [propensity] to increase speed of learning. The only way to saturate that capacity is by learning longer or learning faster.”

Berk also challenges the importance of two traits traditionally linked to successful entrepreneurship: coachability and work ethic. Coachability and great work ethic increase capacity but coachability in and of itself is not necessarily the characteristic of a great entrepreneur. “Coachability is one of the traits we are tracking now in our data this year. Coachability is necessary for a mentor-driven fund like ours but in my opinion it does not need to exist.”

As for work ethic, Berk argues “[an entrepreneur] is not likely to be a crazy success “without a good work ethic. However, good work ethic alone will not cause success. Instead, it will lead to more cumulative learning, if initial capacity is the same.”

In Berk’s opinion, velocity of learning is where lean startup plays the biggest role. “Lean does not change the entrepreneur’s total capacity, it does not change the work ethic, and in most cases it does not change the coachability — but it changes the velocity of learning.” This velocity of learning refers to proper implementation of the aforementioned (N) traits that are functions of total learning. If Lean is used properly, then it can accentuate the N traits to increase total learning. Conversely, if Lean isn’t used properly this velocity can actually do more harm than good, either by leading the venture in the wrong direction or producing a blind output.

“The lessons I learned the hard way made me a better mentor both in the skills [I gained] and in the legitimacy that I did struggle the same way that I see founders struggling still.” As a result, Berk is now more committed to identifying the true problem and understanding the requirements of the real world. Berk does both with his fund, the MilValChal, which seeks to invest in learning in very small amounts as opposed to investing in a market size, investing in a team, or traction.

Future Aspirations

When asked the question of what problem he would like to work on Berk quipped, “world peace is a little too lofty.” On a more serious note, Berk would like a solution “to provide warnings or security built into transportation to supplement speed and cost. Self-cleaning apartments and a dishwasher that puts dishes back in the cabinets [would be nice too].”

Berk is still trying to make Neighborrow and the sharing economy work to solve the problem of wasted goods, though he thinks 3D printing a drill may prove to be a better solution than borrowing one at this point. Fall in love with the problem, not the solution!

Notes and resources
Credit to Jonathan Bertfield and Tristian Kromer (@TriKro) for the function of learning and “One Experiment Per Week“.

How the Lean Startup Methodology Has Helped the Labor Movement is bringing the labor movement into the 21st century by creating a virtual hub where workers can find, join, and learn about unions. Founders Larry L. Williams Jr. and Louis Davis applied Lean Startup techniques to create this singular portal, which connects workers to labor organizations by industry, state, or union name.

In an Ignite Talk for the 2015 Lean Startup Conference, Williams explained how UnionBase’s success came in part from the founders using Lean Startup techniques. They tested an MVP, for example, and established metrics that place value on the connections UnionBase is creating along with the amount of revenue the site is generating.

Before co-founding UnionBase, Williams was a college student working multiple part-time and temp jobs in Washington, DC. In 2007, he worked as a temp for the International Brotherhood of Teamsters. Joining the organization granted him benefits he’d never received before — things like vision, medical, and dental insurance. The experience sparked in Williams a sense of purpose moving forward: he wanted to help labor unions foster economic justice for marginalized groups.

Williams came up with the idea for UnionBase after spending hours sifting through the books that keep track of local unions. He realized that there wasn’t an efficient way for, say, a worker to just hop online to find a union in his or her area.

He began work on the country’s most comprehensive labor union database with a simple MVP —which was basically the UnionBase logo and a search field for local Teamster organizations by state. Once Williams built the prototype, he approached several people with his new business idea before connecting with Louis Davis, a buddy from school. Davis agreed to listen to the pitch, but Williams said he asked for two tasks to be completed first. Williams would need to learn web development (through General Assembly in New York) and he’d have to read The Lean Startup.

Williams completed these tasks and the co-founders applied Lean Startup methods from the onset. They created an imperfect MVP, enabling them to be first to market. They also used validated learning with early adopters to project what the demand would be for each feature they created, such as a basic search with nearly every union in the country listed.

Williams and Davis also held regular “pivot or persevere” meetings.

“We would stop ourselves after a few weeks of working on a feature and say, ‘Is this something we need to keep working on, or do we need to move on to another project?’” Williams said.

These meetings also doubled as landmarks for the co-founders to stay on track.

“If we didn’t meet a launch that we expected to make, we’d ask, ‘Why didn’t we make this? Did we set goals that were too lofty? How do we improve so we meet the next launch?’” Williams said.

Williams confessed that working with a co-founder who is a pragmatist isn’t easy when you’re the visionary in the company.

“[I’m] in danger of dreaming forever without actually accomplishing much if I don’t set specific benchmarks. [Davis] is more realistic,” Williams said. “The biggest challenge was to set aside time from our lives and our priorities to do something that started as my dream but didn’t become [Davis’] dream until later.”

Now that the founders have a shared vision for UnionBase, they’re able to focus on markets that would be well-served by their product. Williams said he sees a real opportunity in reaching the people who are contracted by the big “sharing economy” companies such as Lyft and Taskrabbit, for example.

“People are being turned into independent contractors as opposed to employees, which comes with a whole set of disadvantages: there are fewer benefits, you can be let go at any moment, etc.,” he said. People like the freedom but the downsides usually don’t hit them until they need healthcare, vacation time, or sick time for a child, he added.

Williams sees the potential for labor and management to collaborate with the new, human-capital-intensive companies. Work is already being done to bridge this divide, including a recent deal between Lyft and the Service Employees International Union (SEIU).

UnionBase is also exploring the idea of hosting educational content for its community.

“[We want] to create videos that are educational and explain to people what unions are, why they should join them, how to join them, and encourage progressive conversation,” Williams said.

He’s particularly interested in reaching web developers and media workers—people in industries that aren’t typically organized, but have the potential to be because they employ high concentrations of Millennials. According to Williams, unionized Millennials make an average of $10,000 more per year annually than their non-union counterparts.

In the end, Williams said, the labor movement needs to be more progressive in reaching new audiences.

“There needs to be a new strategy centered on technology, inclusiveness, diversity, equity, and education,” he said. “People need to know their rights and they need to know the benefits of being a union member. Hopefully will be at the leading edge of that movement.”

Want more? Learn about the Lean Startup methodology on

How to Get Buy-In to Drive Change

22473533354_6a69ae6d50_zGetting people—much less companies—to change can be a complex task. But it doesn’t have to be so challenging, as Cindy Alvarez knows. Alvarez drives entrepreneurial change at Microsoft, and before that, she spent more than a decade leading design, product management, user research, and customer development for startups.

“I’ve always been interested in how people think and how they work,” Alvarez said during a live webcast with Lean Startup Co last fall. She studied psychology at Harvard, and thought she’d become a professor. But when she bought her first computer, she dove into trying to understand it—and then trying to understand other people’s tech-related problems and needs.

Alvarez, who wrote Lean Customer Development: Build Products Your Customers Will Buy and is the director of user experience for the Microsoft company Yammer, offered practical advice during her webcast with us, for those looking to lead change within their organizations.  


Understanding the current company culture is crucial if you want to effect change within it. You need to know how people behave in the organization, what they’re afraid of, what their bosses reward them for, how they’ve reacted to previous changes, and whether they get punished for trying new things, says Alvarez. If you understand the constraints that people are working under, you can start providing them with solutions.

To better understand your organization’s culture, Alvarez suggests asking employees about something that went well and something that went badly. You can say, “Walk me through the last project that your team worked on. How did it go from beginning to end? Who came up with ideas? Who approved them? Who worked on them?”

Another useful prompt could be, “Tell me about when someone tried to introduce a change and it didn’t go well.” Follow up with, “Why do you think that was?” The answers will give you a real sense of your company’s tolerance for risk and what mistakes have already been made.


Leaders can do a lot to promote change so that it sticks. It’s useful if a CEO backs something new, but it’s not sufficient to support a sustainable culture shift. The biggest predictor of how employees behave is how their direct boss acts. So if you’re a manager, lead by example. And communicate clearly about changes and experiments, including following up with your employees and admitting mistakes. Start small and build—changing products might be too big a jump at first, but changing processes (shortening meetings, for example) can happen faster.

If you’re someone whose employees bring suggestions to you, Alvarez suggests that you avoid being a “seagull manager” who “swoops and poops” on ideas. If a manager does that to you, neutrally respond to the quick criticism by clearly presenting the problem you were trying to solve. You could also ask for specific feedback about why your idea isn’t resonating.


When trying to make lasting changes in an organization, it’s natural to want to skip to solutions before focusing on the problem. But your first step should be talking to people about what they need. Alvarez suggests asking, “What would you be able to do if things were different?”

Most often, Alvarez says, you’ll hear from an employee, “You need to build this.” Your response to that answer should be, “OK, but why? What would that allow you to do?” If their answer is just, “Well, it would be nice to have,” then don’t build it. But if they’re saying, “I want X because I can’t do Y,” then a good, worthwhile solution might exist, unless Y is something very obscure.

This method of investigating your employees’ stumbling blocks involves a lot of repetition. Train people to ask why when they hear someone say, “I want this.” The answer could identify the problem, which needs to be fully understood before attempting a fix.  


Fear can be a powerful deterrent—it can hold your company back and cause dysfunction. So Alvarez recommends that when someone says, “We can’t do that because bad things will happen,” responding with: “What bad things will happen? What’s the worst-case scenario?” People shy away from this type of thinking but it’s really quite freeing. Often, the potential fallout (e.g., “Customers will get mad”) isn’t actually a consequence. Decide beforehand—and without fear—on an acceptable level of risk for your organization.

Also, when conducting experiments, Alvarez suggests asking the people above you: “How much can I spend without you coming in?” Managers don’t want to be approving a lot, so most will respond with something like, “Use your judgment and tell me the results.” Pushing boundaries slowly works well.

Alvarez says that case studies are also important factors in getting manager buy-in. Because everyone’s afraid of screwing up, being able to point to similar scenarios that ended up successful can help. But Alvarez warns that case studies should be deployed with caution—make sure the ones you’re using are appropriate and relevant.  


Don’t try to be prescriptive, says Alvarez. It’s a mistake everyone makes, but don’t tell someone how they should change. Instead, listen to what they have to say. And avoid asking leading questions, such as “Wouldn’t you like…” and “Don’t you think it’d be easier if…” People’s responses to those questions won’t reflect how they really feel. You’ll get misleading feedback and miss out on big opportunities as a result—this is what sinks a lot of startups during their research phase.

Another counterproductive approach: trying too hard to enforce change. Alvarez warns that you shouldn’t  come in with solutions already in mind. In other words, don’t push instead of trying to create pull. People resist change for reasons that seem small but aren’t. “Supposedly irrelevant factors”—or SIFs, as behavioral economists call them—drive most of the reasons people don’t evolve, even when they should.

Is there anything you shouldn’t say when advocating for change? Yes. Alvarez says “minimum viable product” is a phrase to which people only respond negatively. Same thing with “Fail fast,” since it sounds like “Give up right away.” And instead of “You’re doing it wrong,” say, “Tell me what’s not working.”


So what can you put into practice immediately to change things within your organization? Alvarez says to think about the things your team grumbles about but that no one has tried to fix. Is it meetings? To make them better, propose an experiment: Instead of having the usual prolonged status update, your team could try posting updates on Yammer. Or give everyone a one-minute talking limit. Try it, then at the end of the week, discuss whether it went well.

You can also shift people’s environment, since physical changes are a good way to inspire change. Alvarez says that visual reminders are helpful. Put up a sign, for example, that says, “What’s the problem?” Or write down the problem and focus on it.

And the next time someone complains, ask that person what should be done about the situation. Then say: “Why should we do that? What’s the problem we need to solve?” You’ll get interesting information that you can move forward with.

Want more? Learn about the Lean Startup methodology on