Author Archives: Ari Nazir

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