Author Archives: Ritika

Building Products Beyond the Launch

Editor’s note: The 2015 Lean Startup Conference is just around the corner (it’s from November 16-19th in San Francisco, and there’s still time to get your ticket!) We have dozens of excellent speakers and mentors who are eager to share their product development, entrepreneurship, and innovation stories–you’ll never see these experts all in one place ever again. Learn more about them in our ‘Lean Startup Speakers’ series.

Next up is Poornima Vijayashanker, the founder of Femgineer. She’ll be giving a talk on How to Ship Your Ideas at the 2015 Lean Startup Conference. Learn more about her hereand check out the original version of her blog post here.

I’ve contributed to more than a handful of launches. Probably the most successful and public one to date has been’s launch at the original TechCrunch40 competition, where we walked away as winners of a nice $50K check! It was definitely an atypical launch.

What I’ve learned from both successful and underwhelming launches is that you get more than one chance. While launch day is important, it is not what is going to make or break your product’s success. A very successful launch can set a good tone, but you can’t become complacent. I’ve come across too many products that had awesome launch days, only to see them fizzle out shortly thereafter. I’ve also experienced launches where I heard crickets. While they felt like catastrophic failures, it was possible to rebound quickly.

So, while this post aims set you up for success, know that launch day isn’t everything unless you’re building software for SpaceX.

By now you’re probably eager to get your product out the door and into the hands of customers. Or, maybe you’re a little bit apprehensive because you’re worried that it’s just not perfect. Perhaps you’ve already launched but are only hearing crickets. Well, don’t worry. In this post I’m going to cover a number of strategies to give your product a successful launch.

Too often people get so obsessed with product features that they forget infrastructure requirements related to securing their product, scaling it, and providing customer support.

Let’s dig into these 3 areas.

Securing your product

I highly recommend taking the time to think about basic security and compliance. Here is what you absolutely need to do:

  1. Encrypt usernames and passwords. As simple as this sounds, the last thing you want is for a security breach to impact your launch day.

  2. Set up an SSL certificate for your website. This means that your site will start withhttps:// rather than http://. If you just have a public-facing website with no login, then it’s OK to not have an SSL certificate. But if you have created a login-based website, then you definitely need to have an SSL certificate. Otherwise, your users will be susceptible to various forms of snooping and attacks. You can read up on SSL certificates on Wikipedia.

  3. Set up a data backup mechanism. Depending on who is hosting your product, they might already do hourly or daily backups. But it’s always good to check.

  4. Secure log files. If you are writing things out to a log, those must also be clear of cleartext passwords and logins.

  5. Expire sessions (unless requested). I know a lot of people want to keep their sessions alive indefinitely. You can offer this service if you’d like, but keep in mind that you may want to monitor devices and IP addresses to make sure that someone’s account isn’t being hijacked.

  6. Be transparent about cookies. If you absolutely need to store cookies, ask permission to store them and make sure it’s clear to your customers why you’re doing it. Read TRUSTe’s blog post on the best practices for doing this.

  7. PCI Compliance. If you plan to take any form of payment, then I recommend integrating with a third-party vendor like Stripe or BalancedPayments.

  8. Spam Act. If your product sends out emails to customers or on behalf of customers, check out the Can Spam Act and make sure you’re compliant.

This is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to security and compliance measures, which I believe are just as important as building a product. You might decide to throw caution to the wind, but there are a lot of people trolling the internet looking to hack young products. If you’re unaware of the security measures mentioned above, then I highly recommend doing more research on them. Some companies that offer a lot of great literature and tools are TRUSTe and Verisign.

Track customer usage and growth, and set up support channels

You’ll want to test the product internally before launch. Start by giving it to a handful of trustworthy early adopters and putting some mechanisms in place to track usage and collect feedback.

The best way to track usage is to take the time to install an analytics tool like KISSmetrics or Mixpanel into your product.

These tools help identify the following:

  • Drop-off points. If you see a lot of people who sign up but then don’t actually upgrade or use the product, you’ll be able to spot the point at which they dropped off.

  • What is actually being used. Too often teams bicker about needing to refine features without knowing if customers are actually using them. Using a tool like Mixpanel makes it easy to identify usage statistics so you and your team can discuss what features need work versus ones that people haven’t even discovered yet!

We always plan for the downside, but what about the upside? Can your product handle 100 concurrent customers? What about 1,000 or 10,000? If you’re not sure whether your product can scale, then you’ll want to do some load testing. Check out orLoadImpact.

Next you’ll want to set up a few customer support and application monitoring tools:

  • A landing site. This is the public-facing site where customers are going to come and sign up to try out your product, but they are also coming here to look for things like an About page, a Contact page, FAQs, testimonials, and video tutorials. Keep in mind that this web presence will grow alongside your product.

  • A live chat client like Olark to be able to message customers as they come to your website. You’ll place this on your landing site.

  • A ticketing tool for customers to report bugs and any issues they experience, likeGetSatisfaction, HelpScout, UserVoice, or ZenDesk.

  • Graceful error handling so your customers won’t get pissed off if they cannot log in. Check out Status Pages.

  • A performance monitoring tool like New Relic, because you’ll want to know if any bottlenecks emerge once you start to put some load on your product.

Priming your customers

Whenever people tell me they heard crickets on launch day, I ask them what their launch sequence was, and of course, they look bewildered.

A launch sequence is a set of marketing campaigns you send out to prime your initial set of customers. Yes, you have to prime them!

If you just send out an email the day of launch, don’t expect people to just drop everything they are doing and try out your product.

You’ll want to send out a sequence of emails to your network, early adopters, and whoever else is signed up to try out your product. And, you want to do it at least a month in advance. Ideally, you’ll send out about 4-5 reminders. You might feel like you’re being spammy, but people need constant reminders.

On launch day before you flip the switch to go live, you’ll want to send out one final reminder.

You’re not quite done once the product is live. The day after, you want to reach out to customers and ask them how things went. Following up is the key to getting feedback!

Depending on how launch day goes, you’ll want to let things simmer for a couple days—maybe even a week—because at this stage the feedback won’t be settling. It may all be really positive or negative.  After a while, sit down with the feedback and segment it. Know that you cannot fix everything at once, and not everything needs to be fixed or refined immediately! Software evolves slowly.

It’s called software for a reason

One of my favorite ice creams is Ben & Jerry’s Half Baked. I just love the gooey brownie batter and chunks of cookie dough. In fact, I love it more than when people serve a fully-baked brownie or cookie a la mode.

Software is like Ben & Jerry’s Half Baked ice cream. It’s never quite done, and that’s what makes it delicious! Unlike hardware or a physical product, you can iterate on it constantly, but the key is to pick a couple things to iterate on—not everything.

You’ll want to sit down and sift through feedback from all your channels: customer support tickets, calls, chats, and emails. Keep track of outliers, like feedback that was extremely positive and extremely negative. You’ll want to reach out to these folks to understand why they are at the extremes.

Those who were extremely positive will become great case studies and testimonials. Those who are negative may have valid concerns, depending on how constructive they are. Finally, look for the common criticisms.

It’s important to marry anecdotal feedback with data, which is why I recommended setting up an analytics tool like KISSmetrics or Mixpanel.

You should see exactly what features your customers explored and didn’t. This will help you decide where you want to focus your efforts going forward. I cannot tell you how many times I’ve heard of people refining the wrong workflows or features, only to find out later that no one was using them! If you want to use your time wisely, set up a tool that tracks customer paths and provides you with analytics so you know which ones to work on.

Two axes to think about when iterating on your product post-launch

Whatever happened during launch is over now. If it was a successful launch, then you’ll want to keep building momentum. If it wasn’t successful, then know it’s not the end of the world. At this stage, the name of the game is iterate.

Before you begin to iterate, you want to start by formulating a hypothesis on two different axes:

  • The first axis is growth. Think about what channels you can go after to attract more customers. If you already tried several channels and they were unsuccessful, what’s the reason? Was your message unclear? Was it not the channel where potential customers hang out? Or was it just a really small channel?

  • The second axis is retention. It’s not enough for people to sign up for your product. You want to make sure they are sticking around long enough for you to be able to monetize them.

Case Study: Lenda

Lenda is a company I met at 500 Startups and continue to advise. The team is focused on making it easy to refinance your home mortgage entirely online. When I met the Lenda team they had launched and had some significant traction. They were wondering what to do next and how to prioritize all the work they felt like they needed to get done in order to grow.

I sat down with them and asked what their most immediate concern was, and they said it was improving the conversion rate from initial signups to customers who successfully refinanced.

To help determine what was causing the drop-off in conversions, I had them install Mixpanel to see how people were flowing through the product. I also had their marketing person reach out to all the customers who had signed up but had not successfully refinanced.

Here’s what they discovered from their conversations with prospective customers and from looking at Mixpanel data:

  1. 50% of people of the people who made it to the signup page dropped off. The primary reason was because people thought Lenda was a lender for home purchases and home refinances. But right now, Lenda only does refinancing. People who wanted to do a home purchase loan dropped off right before signing up. I encouraged Lenda to change their messaging and to add an email capture form to notify prospective customers when they would be ready to handle home purchase loans.

  2. 50% of people who signed up dropped off at the first step inside the application.This was because they were trying to refinance in other states, but Lenda only services California homeowners. Once again, some simple messaging would solve this.

Lenda learned that their messaging was causing confusion and dropoff. By changing it to reflect their actual service offerings, they attracted more qualified refinancing signups and re-routed folks who were only interested in future service launches.

Now it’s your turn. Audit your software application and look for the following:

  • What are the biggest drop-off points?

  • Are those drop-offs due to messaging or the product being confusing? It will be hard to determine this just by looking at an analytics tool, so you’ll need to gather some anecdotal evidence by reaching out to prospective customers.

Remember, launching is just the first step, and if you want to start off on strong footing, you’ll want to focus on three key areas: security, scale, and support.

Once you’ve launched, you have to take the feedback from customers, sift through it, and begin to refine the product further. To know what to refine, look at the drop-off points in your product’s analytics but also talk to customers. Bridging data with anecdotal evidence will give you a good sense of direction and help you focus on what is most important to helping you grow and retain your customer base.

Get more step-by-step details for how to validate your product idea and improve product adoption in my upcoming guide: How to Transform Your Ideas into Software Products.

Sign up here to hear when the guide launches.

Digital Investing – The Last Frontier

Editor’s note: The 2015 Lean Startup Conference is just around the corner (it’s from November 16-19th in San Francisco, and there’s still time to get your ticket!) We have dozens of excellent speakers and mentors who are eager to share their product development, entrepreneurship, and innovation stories–you’ll never see these experts all in one place ever again. Learn more about them in our ‘Lean Startup Speakers’ series.

Next up is Devon McConnell, Head of Digital at Wells Fargo Advisors, LLC. She’ll be giving a talk on Digital Investing at the 2015 Lean Startup Conference. Learn more about her here.

Money – more specifically investing – is deeply personal.  It’s how we live our lives, reach certain personal goals and provide for our families.

It’s not as simple as using an app to buy shoes, or hail a taxi, or even book a trip. Drones can’t deliver financial advice to our doorsteps.  This may explain why it’s taken the financial services industry a longer time to adapt in the digital age.

Our industry is at a crossroads with two major drivers of change today – customers’ digital expectations and a complex regulatory environment. It’s the perfect storm. And it’s driving us to look at the very basic operating models we work under to meet new demands.

I hear a lot about how Millennials are demanding financial services firms change the way they deliver advice. The reality from all of the research we’ve seen is that Millenials still want AND expect the human touch. When it comes to saving and investing, though, they usually expect their first experience to be in the digital realm.

Automatic investing tools are here to stay – but so are human advisors. It’s a matter of how technology for all generations can be trusted to support clients and help them reach their goals – throughout their lives.

Major money decisions involve emotions. That’s what drives the work my team and I are doing now – making sure we capture and hold on to the emotional connection when we’re building out our digital experiences.

It forces us to be nimble – and quite frankly, to be very honest with ourselves about how we manage the terrain of building trust and maintaining the emotional connection online.

A trusted brand is important.  And the digital experience can uphold that trust or give pause.  To bridge this gap we have started to incorporate emotional design – focusing not just on whether someone is able to complete a task, but if once they get there, they WANT to complete it.

After all, emotions are like a compass – directing decisions without us even realizing it.  If we feel good, we continue forward. If we don’t – we pause, or walk away.  Building a compelling and trustworthy experience is tricky business wrought with uncertainty.

Historically, traditional businesses like financial services manage uncertainty with a focus on analysis, consensus building and documentation.  That leads to a process and release cycle that takes 2 to 3 years from start to end before anything significant can be learned.

In this day and age – we don’t have that sort of time! It’s leading to an internal transformation at our firm – bringing in agile and lean practices so we can learn from our customers and respond more nimbly.

But in the rush to transform, even the most agile financial services organizations can’t forget the business we are in, and how bonds are built with technology AND people.

Hear the rest of Devon’s story at The 2015 Lean Startup Conference, where she’ll talk about building a digital strategy at Wells Fargo.

Devon McConnell is head of digital at Wells Fargo Advisors L.L.C.

The Nitty Gritty of Setting Up Customer Discovery Meetings

Editor’s note: The 2015 Lean Startup Conference is just around the corner (it’s from November 16-19th in San Francisco, and there’s still time to get your ticket!) We have dozens of excellent speakers and mentors who are eager to share their product development, entrepreneurship, and innovation stories–you’ll never see these experts all in one place ever again. Learn more about them in our ‘Lean Startup Speakers’ series.

Next up is David Telleen-Lawton, of UC Santa Barbara’s Technology Management Program . He’ll be giving a talk on Customer Discover Meetings at the 2015 Lean Startup Conference. Learn more about him here.

Through the years – and I’m talking since the early 1990s before we called it Lean Startup– I’ve found that the single most likely reason that the Customer Discovery process does not work is that the Customer Discovery meetings never get set up!  That’s right.  The book is read, the process embraced, excitement is shared, but in the end very few meetings actually take place.

Think of your own situation.  If you have no problems getting in front of prospective customers and you are quickly learning about your business model, then I award you a free pass and can attend a different talk at the same time.  However… if you are like most, your lack of setting as many meetings as you need — as timely as you need them — is preventing you from identifying a sustainable business model.  I can change that for you!

And I’m NOT talking about some gimmick or some amazing list of prospects that I have in my hip pocket.  I’m talking about molding your mindset, showing you skills and techniques, and detailing the standard of performance you can use to measure yourself.

RARELY is the problem of not getting meetings a result of prospective customers of your product or service not being interested.  Instead, it’s mostly because you, the entrepreneur, are very clever about finding ways to delay putting in the effort to set up the meetings!  You’re rational (most of the time).  There’s reason behind your stalling.  We’ll discuss that dark side and vanquish it so you can discover your business model and create your version 1 offering more quickly.

In my talk, I’m going to address this single weak link that I’ve observed across the decades, across industries, across product types.  I will explain the nitty, the gritty, the details on how to set up Customer Discovery Meetings … the proper mindset, the proper skills and techniques, and the standard of performance that will turn you into a meeting-set-up machine.

I’ll help you get over the procrastination speed bump by surprising you with how simple your task becomes once you know the standard of performance and a few skills and techniques that I have identified from over one thousand calls into the highest level of target organizations (oops, I let one key techniques slip out there…more when you join me Wednesday afternoon!).

I’ll also make sure we have time to discuss four Customer Discovery Truths that are so often misinterpreted that they actually slow down your learning process.  And there will be time for Q&A about your particular unique situation.

I look forward to having you join me and get you on the fastest path to revenue.


How Lean Startup Is Changing High School Education

Editor’s note: The 2015 Lean Startup Conference is just around the corner (it’s from November 16-19th in San Francisco, and there’s still time to get your ticket!) We have dozens of excellent speakers and mentors who are eager to share their product development, entrepreneurship, and innovation stories–you’ll never see these experts all in one place ever again. Learn more about them in our ‘Lean Startup Speakers’ series.

Next up is Erica Swallow, VP of Product at education non-profit Noble Impact. She’ll be giving a talk on Lean Startup in the High School Setting at the 2015 Lean Startup Conference. Learn more about her here.

Noble Impact facilitator Chad Williamson sketches a Lean Canvas at the first-ever High School Startup Weekend in Little Rock, Arkansas.

All across the world, educators are seeking ways to better engage students and prepare them for life after high school. In poll after poll, students tell us that their education doesn’t seem relevant; they don’t see a purpose behind the daily grind, the homework, the standardized tests.

For some, Lean Startup is a part of the solution.

The Problem

So, what is it about high school that disengages students? Take a look at most high school classrooms across America, and you’ll find the answer. Students sit chair behind chair, desk behind desk, in a seemingly endless matrix, wall to wall, while at the front of the room, a teacher commands the class and delivers content, only stopping to answer the occasional question.

Teamwork is practically unheard of, and students are asked to memorize formulas and historical dates to regurgitate on tests that will rank them within their class, school, and the entire national education system.

Students aren’t ignorant, though – they see the difference between the education system and what the “real world” looks like. They want an education that will set them up for success in life after high school, not one that will deflate their creativity year-by-year, until their only hope is to graduate and go to college or get a job.

We must give students a better system, one that is deserving of their time, efforts, and talents.

Coach Up the Classroom

Noble Impact scholars choose words that resonate with them about the entrepreneurial journey.

What would it look like if we flipped the classroom equation and put students at the center of their education? What if we challenged students to determine the course of their own educational journeys, to customize it based on their interests and the problems they ultimately want to solve in the world? Instead of teachers, we’d act more as coaches, facilitators of learning.

Students at Noble Impact take a purposed-based approach to their work, and they frequently ask, “Why?” We train students to dig deep – whether they are in the classroom, at one of our out-of-school events, or at home – to question the purpose behind what they’re doing. When students see the purpose in their work, they find relevance, and they’re excited to contribute.

The Lean Canvas and Lean Startup methodology have been invaluable tools for those exercises.

Applying Lean Startup to the High School Setting

Noble Impact scholars Greta Kresse and Olivia Fitzgibbon white board at an event about challenging the existing opportunity gap in education.
Noble Impact scholars Greta Kresse and Olivia Fitzgibbon white board at an event about challenging the existing opportunity gap in education.

Lean Startup as a business development philosophy prioritizes speed and learning over perfection – it asks the entrepreneur to define success in terms of “learning how to solve the customer’s problem,” as Eric Ries, author of “The Lean Startup,” puts it.

Lean Startup, then, is a natural fit in a project-based learning environment, where students are challenged to work on projects in line with their interests and the problems they want to solve. Lean Startup teaches students to focus on people, to understand what a customer is and how to solve his or her problems.

Instead of sitting in chairs all day long, students are asked to “get out of the building” to do customer research, define a problem, build MVPs (minimum viable products), and validate the assumptions their business models rely upon. Students aren’t used to adults handing over the reigns, but with the right facilitation, students can and do shine when they’re asked to build, measure, and learn.

Building Noble Impact Initiatives

At Noble Impact, students work in many different environments with Lean Startup methodology, both in the classroom and beyond.

Last year, in partnership with the Clinton School of Public Service, for example, we launched the country’s first-ever High School Startup Weekend, devoted solely to high school entrepreneurs. With 80 student participants in grades 9-12, the event saw ideas that included an online homework management tool, a portable storage locker company for outdoor events, a nail polish pen, and a “don’t forget your cell phone” smartwatch app, among others.

Innovation isn’t just an after-hours affair, though. Students also work on business ideas in class using Lean. At eStem Public Charter Schools in Little Rock, Arkansas, for example, Noble Impact scholars work with local businesses and on their own ideas, interviewing customers, mocking up MVP ideas, and actually building their own businesses. In fact, we currently expose Lean Startup to students in grades 5-12 and will soon expand all the way to kindergarten.

Bolstering High School Entrepreneurs


High school entrepreneur Sydney Brazil founded her own “donut holery” called The Hole Thing through her Noble Impact coursework.
High school entrepreneur Sydney Brazil founded her own “donut holery” called The Hole Thing through her Noble Impact coursework.

High school entrepreneurs are treated as rare creatures in our society, probably because we crush the creativity out of them in their day-to-day schoolwork. I get to work with a lot of fresh minds through Noble Impact, though, and we teach them that anyone can contribute to society or solve a problem, as long as they’re willing to put in the work and research.

I’ve had particular glee watching one entrepreneur, Sydney Brazil, flourish in our entrepreneurial environment. She used Lean Canvas to turn her idea for a donut hole business into a reality by founding The Hole Thing, Little Rock, Arkansas’s first “donut holery.” She makes the most delicious donut holes to ever grace the earth, from lemon lavender to chocolate chip cookie.

She started her journey much like any other entrepreneur twice her age (she was 15 when she got started) – she built a business plan, pitched at some local startup pitch competitions, caught the eye of potential partners, and launched a minimum viable product. Instead of buying a store location and setting up shop, Sydney went lean. Her MVP came in the form of a partnership with local restaurant Copper Grill, in which her company’s donut holes appeared on the restaurant’s dessert menu, alongside their house ice cream. Copper Grill also let Sydney use their professional grade kitchen to prepare the holes. The partnership enabled her to test her concept for donut holes, see if there was actually demand, and collect sales data about which donut holes were selling better. Build, measure, learn.

In Sydney’s words, the “grown up business community” has completely embraced her, Copper Grill and beyond. That’s what excites me as an education reformer. We need more connectivity between students and their communities, because business leaders and mentors are the ones who open up opportunities for students to learn and get experience. When a student has an idea for an MVP through a Lean Canvas exercise, it is local community that can help make that plan a reality.

Lean Startup Around the Country

Entrepreneur and educator Jeanine Esposito presents a Business Model Canvas at Hawken School’s summer entrepreneurship educators workshop.
Entrepreneur and educator Jeanine Esposito presents a Business Model Canvas at Hawken School’s summer entrepreneurship educators workshop.

Entrepreneur and educator Jeanine Esposito presents a Business Model Canvas at Hawken School’s summer entrepreneurship educators workshop.

Noble Impact isn’t the only organization teaching Lean Startup in the K-12 education system.

DECA, one of the largest co-curricular student club organizations, rolled out the Lean Canvas this school year for all of its state and national competitions related to entrepreneurship. Students used to write full 20+ page business plans, and now they’re going lean.

Likewise, educators at Hawken School, a private PS-12 school in Gates Mills, Ohio, is one of the first organizations I’ve worked with that not only teaches students about Lean Startup, but also trains teachers from across the country how to use and teach Lean Startup in their own schools. This summer, Hawken educators Doris Korda and Tim Desmond held the first-ever Hawken School Educators Workship for Entrepreneurial Studies at Babson College and made sure that each educator left having built at least one Lean Business Model Canvas.

Preparing Students For Their Futures

I strongly believe that it is our duty as world citizens to make sure that our children have the best education possible, so that they are prepared to thrive in an ever-changing society after they leave the halls of their hometown high schools.

From what I’ve witnessed, there are educators all across this country, focused on changing the education system, so that our students are prepared to not only thrive in, but also change the world.

Lean Startup, for many students, is the catalyst that gets them engaged and on that path. I encourage all educators to give it a try and to consider what it means when we ask students to take the reigns of their own educational journey. To build, to measure, to learn, and to rise to their fullest potential.

Erica Swallow is a 2015 Education Pioneers Fellow and a status quo wrecker, currently helping reimagine America’s education system as VP of Product at Noble Impact, an Arkansas-based social enterprise that aims to provide every student with a relevant and purpose-driven education. She is a first generation college student, alumna of MIT and NYU, and has written for Forbes, Fortune, and The Wall Street Journal, among other publications. Find her on Twitter and Instagram.

Internal Customer Development: Get Back in the Building!

Editor’s note: The 2015 Lean Startup Conference is just around the corner (it’s from November 16-19th in San Francisco, and there’s still time to get your ticket!) We have dozens of excellent speakers and mentors who are eager to share their product development, entrepreneurship, and innovation stories–you’ll never see these experts all in one place ever again. Learn more about them in our ‘Lean Startup Speakers’ series.

Next up is Andrea Hill, who is a Product Strategist at ReadyTalk. She’ll be giving a talk on Internal Customer Development at the 2015 Lean Startup Conference. Learn more about her here.


Get Back in the Building

Yes, you read that right.

If I learned one thing from launching the first internal startup at my company ReadyTalk, it’s that you have to focus on your most important relationships first: those who are going to support your venture until you’re up and running.

Out in the “real world” of startups, you’d be working on getting support from venture capitalists (and if you’re bootstrapped, your family and friends). In the enterprise, that support needs to come from management of various levels, and may not solely be in the form of financial support.

Consider securing internal support as your first biggest risk, and approach it as such. Who are your customers? What are their biggest pain points and concerns, and how can you address those problems in a way they will invest in?

At ReadyTalk, our management team had varying levels of exposure to the lean startup methodology. I talked with each of the key stakeholders to understand what a successful pilot meant for them, and what concerns and fears they had.

That deeper understanding about each of our key customers allowed us to engage with them and share our progress in a way that resonated with them.

We had two stakeholders who were excited about the prospect of new product development, but were unfamiliar with, and a bit skeptical about, the lean process. We engaged with them frequently so they could fully understand the approach and feel actively involved in the initiative.

We had two others who bought into the approach, and trusted the team, they just didn’t understand how this approach would impact our core business. In this case, frequent communication allayed their fears and kept them satisfied.

We were able to personalize the introduction of lean to each stakeholder to address his specific concerns, to garner the support we needed to move forward. With the big risk of funding and support out of the way, we could turn our focus to our specific project.

I look forward to sharing my experiences – including how the introduction of a Project Sponsor dramatically altered our relationship with our internal stakeholders – at the Lean Startup Conference 2015.

Andrea Hill is a Product Strategist at ReadyTalk, an audio and web conferencing provider out of Denver, CO. There she she serves as the General Manager of UbiMeet, the first company-sponsored internal startup. She is a jill-of-all-trades, able to craft falsifiable hypotheses, design functional wireframes, write customer discovery scripts, chat it up with customers, and analyze and interpret the findings to drive product decisions. She tweets at @afhill and embraces hashtags as an alternative to stringing full sentences together. #left-handed #Canadian #INTJ #marathoner

Large & Lean: Enterprise Marketing Transformation the Lean Startup Way

Editor’s note: The 2015 Lean Startup Conference is just around the corner (it’s from November 16-19th in San Francisco, and there’s still time to get your ticket!) We have dozens of excellent speakers and mentors who are eager to share their product development, entrepreneurship, and innovation stories–you’ll never see these experts all in one place ever again. Learn more about them in our ‘Lean Startup Speakers’ series.

Next up is Rishi Dave, who is Chief Marketing Officer at Dun & Bradstreet. He’ll be giving a talk at the 2015 Lean Startup Conference. Learn more about him here.

Dun & Bradstreet does not exactly qualify as a startup in the traditional sense. After all, we have thousands of employees in offices around the world and will be celebrating our 175th anniversary in 2016.

But at the same time, we are rapidly modernizing, and many of our employees feel like they are working at a large startup. As part of this, I have been leading the marketing transformation, and in many places we are leveraging Lean Startup principles to drive our strategy.

Our CEO, Bob Carrigan, had joined the company five months before me and had begun aligning the organization around an aggressive growth mandate. Marketing would need to transform to be a key spark for that growth.

We would first focus on culture, working with our People team to develop a modernized brand purpose and values that rallied employees around a simplified approach to our business: It wasn’t about the intricacy of “big data”; it was about the relationships that data enables. It focused a complex business and a complex organization on what we truly did to make a difference for our customers.

But that was merely the beginning. The other two parts of our marketing transformation would build on that foundation. We had to refine our go-to-market strategy to be about people not products, so we developed a persona-based approach that let us elevate the conversation to the needs and opportunities of our customers and prospects instead of what we wanted them to buy from us.

And most importantly, we had to be relentless about focusing on the customer and prospect relationships that were most valuable for our business. That’s where we have most leveraged Lean.

Our Version of MVP

Minimum viable product is a key Lean principle, and for us, MVP became a guiding approach for how we identified and engaged a customer, learned from the customer, and began to apply those learnings to other, similarly important accounts. In this way, MVP for us could be also seen as most valuable prospect. Not valuable simply from the sense of return on relationship but also from the standpoint of what we could learn to improve our business.

We started with a small set of accounts – using our analytics to prioritize which accounts we focused on – and then rolled out a series of tactics to create a meaningful experience. Content, in-person workshops, events, and so on would be generated for that account. Based on the results we optimized how we approached the next set of accounts.

Lessons Learned

One of the main things we have learned during this process is that you can be nimble, you can experiment – be Lean –in a large, global company.

Four things we learned through this work:

  1. It’s not about scale at first. Take the time to prove strategies and ideas on a smaller level before scaling. Don’t feel pressure to get too big too fast.
  2. Technology isn’t a substitute for culture. Invest time and resources in people before other things to lay the groundwork for change. But realize that where technology can help is in keeping everybody’s attention on the most important activities. And it can help cut through bureaucracy
  3. Measure, measure, measure. To understand what to scale, when and how, you must measure every aspect of your operation – and not be afraid to act on what the analysis tells you.
  4. Communication is critical. You must actively communicate with your key internal colleagues on what’s working in the smaller-scale experiments, gaining their advocacy as you roll out the successful tactics more broadly.

There’s a lot more detail behind this. That’s why I look forward to my talk at the Lean Startup conference later this month. See you there!

Talking to Humans: Success Starts with Understanding Your Customers

Editor’s note: The 2015 Lean Startup Conference is just around the corner (it’s from November 16-19th in San Francisco, and there’s still time to get your ticket!). We have dozens of excellent speakers and mentors who are eager to share their product development, entrepreneurship, and innovation stories–you’ll never see these experts in one place ever again. Learn more about them in our ‘Lean Startup Speakers’ series.

Next up is Frank Rimalovski, who is managing director of the NYU Innovation Venture Fund at New York University. He’ll be giving a talk called “Talking to Humans: Success Starts with Understanding your Customers” at the 2015 Lean Startup Conference. Learn more about him here.


In my 16 years as a venture capitalist, I have observed countless teams draft a business plan, build their product, and only after they built it, seek customer feedback. Unfortunately, this “if you build it, they will come” approach almost never works. By the time you have built your product, you have fallen in love with it and likely become deaf to (negative) customer feedback, or you have sunk all your precious time and resources into something few people care about.

The Lean Startup turned this decades-old formula on its head. By securing customer feedback before building your product, entrepreneurs can dramatically increase the likelihood that you build products that customers actually want, and do it more quickly and cheaply.

Since Steve Blank first penned The Four Steps to the Epiphany in 2003, thousands of startup teams have been “getting out of the building” with the intention of testing their minimum viable products (MVPs) in search of product/market fit. While many entrepreneurs have achieved a level of lean startup buzzword compliance, most do not know how to effectively conduct the kinds of interviews and experiments that will lead to the insights they seek (and need). It is amazing to watch even the most introverted engineers, scientists and MBAs all become shameless salespeople as they misinterpret “getting out of the building” with asking customers if they like, or worse, would buy their product. This rarely yields useful insights. In the early stages of customer development the goal is not to validate if someone wants your product, but rather to search for who your initial target customer is, and to gain a deeper understanding of the problems you are solving for these customers.

When I taught lean startup classes and programs to students and faculty at NYU or to NSF I-Corps teams, I saw teams struggle with this time and again, and felt that we needed a way to more explicitly guide entrepreneurs through the process of securing, conducting and synthesizing early customer discovery interviews. I tested this hypothesis the need with my colleagues at the NYU Entrepreneurial Institute, as well as with my fellow I-Corps instructors…and it was clear I had identified a pain point.

Last year, I approached Neo CEO Giff Constable with the idea to turn his blog posts about customer discovery into a short book. He loved the idea, and from there, Talking to Humans: Success Starts with Understanding Your Customers was born.

FR2While not a text in the academic sense, Talking to Humans was written to complement the other seminal writings on customer development and lean startups: Blank & Dorf’s The Startup Owner’s Manual, and Osterwalder & Pigneur’s Business Model Generation and of course Eric Ries’ The Lean Startup, among others.

I wrote the outline. Giff did the heavy lifting and actually wrote the book (thank you Giff!). I recruited Tom Fishburne to draw these awesome cartoons and Steve Blank to write the foreword. Lindsey Gray and Jerry Hao of the NYU Entrepreneurial Institute provided extensive, invaluable early feedback. We tested our rough draft MVP with 10 student teams in our 2014 Summer Launchpad accelerator, and subsequent draft with another 11 teams in the 5-day Lean Launchpad class I taught that August. We shared early drafts with my fellow I-Corps instructors and other practitioners and educators across the country, and incorporated their feedback and suggestions. It has earned praise from early stage VCs at Flybridge Capital, True Ventures and First Round Capital, as well as from our colleagues at UC Berkeley, University of Maryland, MIT, and of course NYU, among many others. We knew we were on to something when educators and accelerators across the globe were asking to use Talking to Humans in their classes and programs before the book was finished. I am confident we have achieved product-market-fit and found our earlyvangelists!

Giff and I thought long and hard about whether to charge for the book or not, and how that might impact how Talking to Humans was perceived. In the end, we decided to put it out into the world for free, which was consistent with our original goal of giving back to the community. You can get Talking to Humans in PDF or ePub (iBook) for free, on Kindle for 99¢ (Amazon insists we charge something), and in print (at our cost). Order or download it, along with other useful materials, at

During my talk on Tuesday afternoon at the 2015 Lean Startup Conference I’ll share actionable advice from the book, and lead some useful exercises we’ll do together. Whether you’re an entrepreneur or an educator seeking to share this with other students or startups you work, you’ll leave with a new set of tools to put immediately into practice and/or more effectively share with others.


Why Teams Attend The Lean Startup Conference

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

Every year, dozens of companies send teams to the Lean Startup Conference. So if you’re thinking about inviting coworkers to join you, you’re not alone.

Companies such as Siemens, Macy’s, VSP, and the United States Digital Service send cross-functional groups ranging in size from 3 to 50 people each. The benefit? Groups are here together and your undivided attention is on learning. It’s the perfect complement to our on-site coaching and training programs: our conference provides a great forum for team members to step out of their comfort zones, learn from other organizations, and share learning experiences around experimentation, faster product delivery, and collaborative work cultures.

We’ve seen product leaders attend with their CFOs and legal teams attend with engineers and marketers. And every experience is a unique one—some groups join us with the specific goal of solving a business challenge or bringing a new product to market, while others join us as an opportunity to discover actionable advice and case studies.  

With just three weeks out until the event, we want to make sure that you have the resources that you need to plan and get your teams in sync. Here our best tips for attending as part of a group:

  1. Participate in our workshops and breakouts. In addition to our keynote talks, we have a number of hands-on sessions that are great for teams tackling a specific pain point or challenge. As the Lean Startup Conference approaches, be sure to check out our program page for our Tuesday and Wednesday afternoon sessions. If you’re a Platinum Pass holder, you should also check out Monday’s in-depth sessions and Thursday’s Startup Tour program. Some options to keep on your radar:
  • User experience consultants Laura Klein and Christina Wodtke will be hosting a workshop on using design thinking to solve product development challenges.
  • Growth consultant Ariana Friedlander will host a hands-on session on mastering customer discovery.
  • GoodData’s VP of product Gaurav Agarwal will host a session on finding your customer and provide a hands-on exercise in gaining knowledge quickly.
  1. Divide and conquer. Simply put, there’s a lot to do at The Lean Startup Conference. Take your pick from dozens of workshops and case study based keynotes, 1:1 mentorship sessions, networking dinners, live Q&A sessions with Eric Ries, Startup Tours, and community led discussion groups. Before you come to San Francisco, take some time to review our program details, in addition to our list of speakers and mentors. Set goals for attending The Lean Startup Conference, and assign a ‘learning’ or ‘networking’ track to everyone in your group. You can match people to activities based on their job functions, learning, objectives, or organizational interests. Go through this process approximately 2-3 weeks before you leave for San Francisco.
  1. Pre-network. This year, there will be almost 2,000 entrepreneurial leaders attending The Lean Startup Conference. As much as you’ll want to meet everyone who’s there, you simply can’t. You need to choose your relationships wisely, and take some time before the event to get them started. One resource to tap into is The Lean Startup Conference’s event community page, and exclusive to registered attendees, you can join our official Attendees & Alumni LinkedIn group. Have each team member check it out and come up with a list of fellow attendees to meet. You can also take a look at our speakers and mentors—each of whom is just as excited to meet you as you are to meet them.
  1. Air your team laundry. You know what business challenges you’re facing as an individual. But when was the last time you brought up these issues with your team? Figure out the challenges each person is facing so that you can actively address them by the time you touch ground in San Francisco. When you’re on the same page about your problems, you can each explore solutions, from your own perspectives. Our conference is about conversation and mentorship, and you’ll meet fellow business leaders who are interested in troubleshooting and learning with you.
  1. Compare notes. In step 2, we told you to divide and conquer. We’re also going to recommend that you regroup for coffee at the end of each day. Share notes and talk through the lessons you’re learning. There’s no need to tackle anything concrete.
  1. Keep track of your favorite lessons and talks. Only a portion of your team will likely be able to attend The Lean Startup Conference in person. That’s okay. Take notes to share with your coworkers back home, and remember that all keynote and some breakout sessions will be available on YouTube after the event. If you need additional case studies or have a request for resources that will be helpful for your team, contact [email protected].
  1. Consider becoming a sponsor. Is your company aiming to reach an audience of product development, engineering, marketing, and financial leaders? Consider becoming a sponsor. You can host an exhibitor table, put together a networking event, or share media. Rather than chasing audiences down, sponsorship allows you to be efficient with your time. We have options for startups of all sizes (including a $3,000 package for companies selected to be in our inaugural Startup Alley). Contact [email protected] to explore options and brainstorm opportunities.
  1. Look for ongoing coaching and support. Four days at The Lean Startup Conference will leave you energized with ideas that you’ll want to apply immediately. You’ll probably want some help, additional insight, and guidance from our community. If you’re looking for ongoing coaching, get in touch with [email protected] and read this attendee story here.
  1. Find micro-moments. Our conference attendees are awesome. They’re accomplished, intelligent, and excited to learn. Most importantly, they’re friendly, down-to-earth, and fun.

“One big difference between being there in person, [rather] than the livestream, is the conversations that happen outside of the talks,” says Ursula Shekufendeh, former Lean Startup Conference speaker and product manager at AppFolio. “So connecting with people that might be going through the same challenges, or have run into similar situations as you, and exchanging those ideas is invaluable.”

When you find yourself with unexpected down time, or if you want to bounce ideas off another group, just keep your ears open. You never know who your team will meet.

Ready to bring your team to The Lean Startup Conference? We have a terrific deal for teams of 8 or more. Save 20% on Fall pricing by 10/31. Don’t waste your Q4 training budget — register today.

[Day 15/30] what have you learned in the last 14 days?

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Over the past 14 days we have shared a lot the basic principles of The Lean Startup method, and more advanced information, like innovation accounting and how to implement Lean Startup in an existing company.

If you signed up late, or haven’t had a chance to read everything–today is the perfect opportunity to catch up.

Today we are reviewing what we have covered and looking forward to what is coming up.

Ready for what is next? Over the next 14 days, we will share with you:

  • How to get Executive Buy-in (and you can use the principles to get anyone to buy into anything)
  • Management – How do you manage a team or company using Lean Startup
  • The difference between actionable metrics & vanity metrics
  • Lean Marketing
  • How to deal with failure (this is key for your team–normally founders can handle failure much easier than employees)
  • How to do Lean Startup in a highly regulated field (we get A LOT of questions about this)
  • Examples of ‘out of the box’ companies and teams using Lean Startup
  • and so much more…

We would love to hear your insights from the first 14 days of the 30 Days of Lean Startup AND if there is something you want to learn about that we haven’t covered yet–or that we’ve covered and you have remaining questions on–let us know about that too!

If you know that you want the best resources and knowledge about Lean Startup, then our flagship conference is for you. You can see our full speaker lineup and get all the details here.

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How The Lean Startup Team Practices Customer Development

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

Customer development is one of the cornerstones of Lean Startup. It teaches that instead of assuming your beliefs about your business to be true, you should apply an engineering, or scientific method, in order to validate the ideas.

Though customer development is one of the toughest aspects to execute in the build, measure, learn framework–and is often seen as an “extra”–it’s a critical part of the process that helps us avoid mistakes early and identify new market opportunities.

In this post, we’ll share how our team at The Lean Startup Conference uses customer development to shape our product design.

  1. Talk to your target customers first before you build anything

Every January, a good 10 months before our next conference, our core team holds 45-minute calls with alumni to learn whether or not they’ve gained the knowledge they’d hoped to get at our previous conference. Additionally, we talk to potential customers all year round to discover what struggles new community members are facing.

The benefits to conducting feedback early are two-fold: We make sure that the conference–our product–aligns and evolves with the needs of our audience. We build what brings most value to our customers.

If you’re looking for an additional application of this idea, check out this talk from Daina Burnes Linton, co-founder at Fashion Metric. She learned that her assumptions about her target market were wrong, switched gears, and built technology that was more in line with her customers’ needs.

  1. Create low-touch, high-impact feedback loops with customers

We practice a continuous and ongoing learning process. To maximize the time of the core team, we divide and conquer. We segment our customer base into four key groups: young startups, established businesses, enterprise, and government/education/nonprofit. This process allows us to streamline the analysis portion of our efforts, which in turn allows us to see themes and share findings within the team, on an ongoing basis.

Next up, each team member interviews 1-2 customers each week, and take notes in an analysis-ready, living, breathing Google spreadsheet. When a customer conversation really inspires us, we share our notes, news feed style, in Slack.

Once we begin to see themes, our co-founder, Heather McGough, does a full analysis across segments, allowing us to later be ready for synthesis; in other words, decide which content, tools and services we should test based on the needs of our community. It’s a low-touch process that keeps our customers close to our day-to-day operations. Think: It’s a lot like your check-in meetings with your boss, coupled with a semi-annual performance review. Only this time, your boss is your customer.

Our biggest takeaway is that customer development should integrate with your own processes. There’s no right or wrong approach. When we first started building out our systems, we studied multiple methodologies for interviewing, qualitative research, etc… the list goes on. But we realized that the best thing to do first was simply get started. And that’s what we encourage fellow Lean Startup practitioners to do, too.

Conference speaker Charlie Scheinost, an engineering manager at Adobe, spoke about how his team takes turns answering questions through their product’s live chat software. The process takes very little time out of each engineer’s week while providing direct and relevant insight into customers’ key needs.

Extras: we recommend this book by Steve Portigal as a guide for interviewing users.

  1. Build MVPs and test ideas in increments

The Lean Startup Conference takes a full year to build out its annual program, but we test editorial concepts iteratively. By the time November hits, we’ll have published more than 50 blog posts, podcasts, and webcasts. The significance? These are all MVPs that lead up to our flagship conference.

Through these content experiments, we look at feedback between the lines: what’s getting shared, and what’s generating sign-ups. We take these lessons learned, adapt, and iterate as much as we can–with more content. For example, one of our most popular webcast, Speed as a Competitive Advantage with GE, helped us see that we have a huge number of enterprise folks who want to see more stories about enterprise innovation in highly-regulated environments. In turn, we created a ‘corporate innovators track’ for the 2015 event and actively pursued speakers like the VP of Product Delivery at American Express and the Head of Digital at Wells Fargo to meet this demand come November.

For another application of this idea, check out this talk from Anita Newton, marketing advisor to CPG startup Mighty Handle.

In 2014, the company faced one of the biggest opportunities in its existence: a pilot with Walmart. Mighty Handle had one shot to perfect its packaging, and couldn’t afford to take any chances. So what did Newton do? She ran a series of Facebook and YouTube ads to test concepts with Mighty Handle’s target audiences. This iterative approach helped her identify the right packaging for her target audience. Today, Mighty Handle is sold in 3,500 Walmart locations nationwide.

Validation Between The Lines

In addition to the steps referenced above, we use multiple channels to sanity-check our assumptions. We run a post-registration survey to give every attendee the opportunity to express what they’re looking to learn, we engage with audiences on Twitter to find popular topics, and we host a live chat on our registration page. The bottom line is that we’re engaging with customers year-round, so that we can come up with a conference program that addresses their current struggles. It’s an iterative process that ensures we’re hitting the mark each new year.

Get Started

What is one way you can implement these strategies into your own customer development process? Get even more hacks, tips, and case studies from companies that are using Lean Startup in our Explore Lean Startup Bundle. You will get free, instant access to 9 HD video case studies packed full of strategies you can implement now.

This post was written by @ritika puri, resident storyteller and Heather McGough, co-founder of Lean Startup Co.