Lean Startup Story: From Volunteer to Entreprenuer

Editor’s note: With the Lean Startup Conference in full swing, we want to take a moment to thank our volunteers. Today’s piece comes from Andrew Birkett, a college student, entrepreneur, and volunteer for the 2015 Conference. Be sure to say hello if you see him.

Volunteers at The Lean Startup Conference 2014

I was incredibly fortunate to attend the Lean Startup Conference in San Francisco last year. As a college entrepreneur being granted this opportunity was a truly incredible thing. I have never been able to afford to eat out at fancy restaurants, nevermind travel and attend conferences with such extraordinary entrepreneurs in attendance. Had it not been for Intuit I would not have been able to go. Intuit sponsored my attendance and paid all of my expenses, which is something I am incredibly grateful for. 

First things first, San Francisco is a truly incredible city. The vibe and general atmosphere is unlike anything I have ever seen before. It is incredibly hard to explain, but I will put it this way, as a 20-year-old no one was demeaning or rude to me and no one questioned my ability to start a company. In Florida, this is not always the case, some experienced entrepreneurs will see my age as a weakness; in San Francisco my age is seen as an advantage.

I attended the event with three other University of Florida students (Go Gators!) and we were able to tour an incubator, WeWork, while we were there too. WeWork in San Francisco is a really cool space that does not feel anything like an office. I instantly fell in love and joined an incubator as soon as I got back to UF. So far I have only listed the things that are supplemental to the conference that can be gained just from going to such an entrepreneurial city. Below I will talk about the conference itself.

There were a lot of things about the conference that truly blew me away. The first being the fact that unfortunately San Francisco had a horrible storm during the event and the power went out citywide. The organizers kept the event lively and created networking events where I met some truly awe inspiring entrepreneurs and heard about some really cool companies from around the world. Despite a serious challenge they stepped up and made it an even better event (just like an entrepreneur would). (Read more about the infamous power outage here.)

Second there were a lot of great sessions on marketing and Lean Startup principles that I have been able to utilize for my board/card game startup, Atheris Games.  I learned everything from how to get more responses to emails (subject lines matter) and how to use humor in business. Furthermore, I learned how to develop a product on a shoestring budget.

This is probably the most relevant thing I learned. Let me explain. At the time of the conference my company was working on our first game, Holeshot Heroes – an automotive themed card game.  I believed, and still believe, that this game could be an incredible success. The problem is the artwork for a game that uses custom automotive designs is quite expensive. (I have to source automotive designers, which are more specialized and more costly than most other artists.) By the time of the conference I already had almost all of my money into the game and I was not near completion. Pivot!

I started working on a second game. I had been working on Holeshot for over two years and every time I had a game idea that didn’t directly fit with a car theme I wrote it down. I took the best ones and created a WWII themed game. I was just about to start prototyping when I decided that, as a writer, I had to find a more interesting theme.

I got to thinking and the war game became Cul-De-Sac Conquest – a game about annoying neighbors. We got the gameplay right and began testing it at trade shows using nothing but Yu-Gi-Oh Cards with sticky notes on them. We paid an artist to make one character card and the graphic designer that designed Holeshot did the layout for us for cheaper than his usual rate. We used this one card to show everyone what it could look like. Everyone seemed to love the game even though we only had one card to show.

Once we built up a large enough audience and felt confident in our ability to sell the product, we paid to have a few of each card developed and have a campaign designed so that we could fund the game through pledges on Kickstarter.  Our campaign funded our $10,000 goal in only 52 hours, which is incredible for an early stage startup with little marketing dollars! We still have a long way to go to profitability, but it is a huge step in the right direction. Hopefully over the course of the rest of the campaign we can get closer to that profitability range or even become a fully profitable company with games in several retail outlets across the US (two smaller games stores already pledged to sell our game.)

Check out the campaign here.

We’re really excited that we were able to fund so fast, but we have very little into the development of the game so if it didn’t fund so early on it would hardly have been the end of the world. If we had not spent so much developing Holeshot, we could have been in an even less dire spot. The lesson has been learned though. More money into a company or product does not necessarily make it better. I would recommend spending as little possible while getting the general idea across.
With the truly limitless potential of 3D printers and other prototype development tools there is absolutely no reason to spend a ton of money creating most products anymore. We live in an incredible time. Make use of it! Start your company with as little money as possible, bootstrap for as long as you can, and work harder & smarter – you’ll do just fine. ☺

A Playbook for Achieving Product-Market Fit

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 Dan Olsen, Lean Startup consultant and author of The Lean Product Playbook. He’ll be giving a talk on A Playbook for Achieving Product-Market Fit at the 2015 Lean Startup Conference. Learn more about him here.

Product-market fit is one of the most important Lean Startup concepts, yet it is also one of the least well defined. Marc Andreessen coined the term product-market fit in a 2007 blog post where he said, “Product-market fit means being in a good market with a product that can satisfy that market.” You can find plenty of articles that mention the term, but they don’t provide detailed guidance on how to actually achieve product-market fit.

The Product-Market Fit Pyramid

Based on my work helping many teams achieve product-market fit, I created a framework called the Product-Market Fit Pyramid, which was first published in my new book The Lean Product Playbook.

The Product-Market Fit Pyramid
The Product-Market Fit Pyramid

The Product-Market Fit Pyramid is an actionable model that defines product-market fit using five key components. In this hierarchical model, each component is a layer of the pyramid and is directly related to the levels above and below it. From bottom to top, the five layers of the Product-Market Fit Pyramid are: your target customer, your customer’s underserved needs, your value proposition, your feature set, and your user experience (UX).

In the process of trying to define and build a successful product, you form hypotheses in all five of these areas (whether you realize you are doing so or not). The Product-Market Fit Pyramid helps you be more explicit and rigorous about your hypotheses.

The Lean Product Process

The Lean Product Process—also described in The Lean Product Playbook—is an iterative, easy-to-follow process based on the Product-Market Fit Pyramid. This process guides you sequentially through each layer of the pyramid from the bottom to the top. The process helps you articulate, test, and revise your key hypotheses so you can improve your product-market fit.

The Lean Product Process consists of six steps:

  1. Determine your target customer
  2. Identify underserved customer needs
  3. Define your value proposition
  4. Specify your Minimum Viable Product (MVP) feature set
  5. Create your MVP prototype
  6. Test your MVP with customers

Step 1: Determine your target customer

It all begins with target customers who will ultimately decide how well your product meets their needs. You should use market segmentation to get specific about who your target customer is. Personas are a great way to describe your target customer so that everyone on the product team understands for whom they should be designing and building the product.

You may not have a precise definition of your target customer at the outset: that’s okay. You just need to start with a high-level hypothesis and then revise it as you learn and iterate.

Step 2: Identify underserved customer needs

After forming your hypothesis about your target customers, the next step is to understand their needs. As you try to create value for customers, you want to identify the specific needs that correspond to a good market opportunity. For example, you probably don’t want to enter a market where customers are extremely happy with how well the existing solutions meet their needs.

When you develop a new product or improve an existing product, you want to address customer needs that aren’t adequately met: their “underserved” needs. Customers are going to judge your product in relation to the alternatives, so the relative degree to which your product meets their needs depends on the competitive landscape.

Step 3: Define your value proposition

Your value proposition is your plan for how your product will meet customer needs better than the alternatives. Out of all the potential customer needs your product could address, which ones will you focus on with your product?

Steve Jobs said, “People think focus means saying yes to the thing you’ve got to focus on. But that’s not what it means at all. It means saying no to the hundred other good ideas that there are. You have to pick carefully. I’m actually as proud of the things we haven’t done as the things I have done. Innovation is saying no to 1,000 things.”

You need to figure out how your product will be differentiated from competitive products. How will your product outperform the others? What unique features of your product will delight customers? This is the essence of product strategy.

Step 4: Specify your MVP feature set

Once you are clear on your value proposition, you need to specify what functionality your minimum viable product will include. You don’t want to spend too much time and effort toiling away only to find out later that customers don’t like the product you’ve built. The MVP approach is aimed at building only what is needed to create enough value in the eyes of your target customer to validate that you are heading in the right direction.

Customers may end up telling you that your MVP lacks an important piece of functionality. Or they may tell you that they wouldn’t use a particular feature that you decided to include in your MVP. The goal is to iterate until you have an MVP that customers agree is viable.

Step 5: Create your MVP prototype

In order to test your MVP hypotheses with customers, you need to show them a version of your product so they can give you feedback on it. You will need to apply user experience (UX) design to bring your feature set to life for your customers.

While you could build a live, working version of your MVP, it’s usually faster and more prudent to create an MVP prototype. A prototype is a representation of your product that you create without having to build your actual product.

Prototypes can vary in fidelity—the level of detail to which they resemble the final product—and interactivity—the degree to which the user can interact with the prototype compared to the final product. A hand sketch of your product (on paper or a whiteboard) would be low fidelity and low interactivity. For web and mobile products, medium-fidelity wireframes and high-fidelity mockups are frequently used.

You can use a set of high-fidelity mockups of your product’s pages/screens to create a clickable/tappable prototype. Prototyping tools (such as InVision) make it easy to specify clickable/tappable hot spots and link them to other pages/screens. Such prototypes can usually simulate the user experience of the final product with enough fidelity and interactivity to obtain valuable feedback from customers. Prototypes are a powerful way to look before you leap.

Step 6: Test your MVP with customers

Once you have your MVP prototype ready, it’s time to test it with customers. It’s important in this step to ensure the people from whom you are soliciting feedback are in your target market. If you don’t, you risk receiving customer feedback that can send you iterating in the wrong direction. A screener—a short survey to ensure research participants have the attributes of your target customer—helps achieve this goal. You then schedule time to speak with each customer one-on-one.

During the user test you want to carefully observe what the customer says and does as they use the prototype. You should also ask clarifying questions when appropriate to gain deeper learning. Asking questions is an important skill to gain the most value from user tests. A good moderator will avoid asking leading questions such as, “That was easy, wasn’t it?” Compared to a non-leading question, a leading question biases the response from the customer.

A good interviewer will also avoid asking closed questions such as, “Do you like that feature?” Such questions mandate a yes or no response from the user, which doesn’t provide much learning. Instead, you should ask open-ended questions such as “Could you please tell me what you thought of that feature?” Non-leading, open-ended questions give customers latitude in their answers and also encourage them to tell you more.

It’s beneficial to conduct user tests in batches or waves. A wave of five to eight users strikes a good balance between too few (where you risk not detecting some issues) and too many (where there is repetition and low incremental value of additional tests). At the end of the wave, you want to look across all the feedback you’ve received, both positive and negative. You want to identify patterns of similar feedback from multiple customers and prioritize any customer concerns that you’ve uncovered so you can address them.

Iterate to Improve Product-Market Fit

The Lean Product Process is an iterative process. After analyzing the customer feedback in step 6, you want to revise your hypotheses based on what you learned and loop back to an earlier step in the process. The feedback will determine which step you should return to next. If you only need to improve your UX design, then you can just go back to step 5. But if your hypotheses about feature set, value proposition, underserved customer needs, or target customer need to change, then you would return to the earliest step that requires revision and proceed from there.

In each iteration through the process, you will end up revising your MVP prototype, which you test again with a new wave of target customers. From one iteration to the next, you hope to see an increase in positive feedback from customers and a decrease in negative feedback. You may find that you just can’t seem to make much progress despite trying several iterations. If that happens, you should take a step back and revisit your hypotheses. You may conclude that in order to achieve higher levels of product-market fit you need to pivot (change one or more of your major hypotheses).

Ideally, after repeating the Lean Product Process for additional waves, you iterate to an MVP prototype that customers have no negative feedback on, consider easy to use, and find very valuable. At that point, you have validated your key hypotheses and have designed a product with strong product-market fit and should feel comfortable investing the resources required to build the product. Following this process should give you a high degree of confidence that when you launch your product, customers will use it and find it valuable.

To learn more about how to achieve product-market fit, come to Dan’s talk at the 2015 Lean Startup Conference.

Learning Through Stories

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 James Warren, who is the Founder and CEO of Share More Stories. He’ll be giving a talk on The Startup Storyteller: Using Stories to Learn at the 2015 Lean Startup Conference. Learn more about him here.

Officially, I started Share More Stories on June 30, 2014. But the journey began about two months earlier when I made the decision to become an entrepreneur.

Now when I embarked on this journey, I had the benefit of years of Fortune 500 brand building, new product and new business experience. But that was an altogether different journey. Sure, I knew I would leverage some of the skills I had gained during my corporate career, but I could sense that the experience of building a new company would be quite different. Fortunately, a wise friend told me to read the Lean Startup before I did anything else. And so that’s exactly what I did. For two weeks, during my initial decision-making phase, I read (or listened to) the Lean Startup. It totally resonated with me, inspired me and encouraged me to leap.

So I developed a preliminary strategy and plan, I filed for incorporation, I assembled a team of advisors and helpers, and we began talking to a lot of people. Thanks to my natural curiosity and passion for stories, I really wanted to listen to and learn from those who had stories to share, and see what we might glean from their experiences.

The first few months were fantastic. Although I felt the pressure of hitting milestones, my personal runway was still intact and we were learning at an incredible rate. So we continued on, confident in the future and focused on engaging many more potential customers and partners, listening to their stories, and honing our strategy and approach.

And boy, we heard a lot of stories.

Stories about wanting to connect with others.

Stories about the frustrations of not being heard or wanting a bigger audience.

Stories about what’s wrong with social media, and publishing.

And as I listened to these stories, I felt that we had definitely identified a need to help people get their stories out on their own terms. And I thought we had a unique approach in mind to meet that need.

So we started doing rounds of concept testing using platforms like QuickMVP and Unbounce, and it was all EXTREMELY helpful. But as we all know, without an actual product, there’s only so much one can learn from customers and users. It was finally time to get our MVP up and out.

There was a slight problem with that next step, however.

I wasn’t a developer. And we didn’t have one (yet) on the team. I couldn’t code. And I didn’t want to, either.

So I started looking for partners who could help me develop our alpha site, on what I called “startup-friendly” terms. And fortunately, I found an amazing partner who was willing to get involved. At the time, my expectation was a really minimum viable product that would almost function like a demo. Looking back, I almost sacrificed “viable” in favor of “minimum.” Fortunately, however, my development partner saw it differently, and invested an insane amount of time to provide us a fully functional prototype right at the outset.

When we launched on November 5th, 2014, I felt like a new man, a man on a mission. It was truly amazing, and being the big softy that I am, I cried. I felt a tremendous sense of pride and accomplishment, and I was so grateful to my team who really made that day happen. The beautiful thing was that we had built it so collaboratively, and it truly represented our own shared story, a story about people who simply wanted to be heard, and wanted to connect with others through shared experiences.

I know, I know. Sounds great. But how would it make money?

Well, I believed that the product we launched was just the start. Based on all the stories people told us, the data we amassed and all the insight we gleaned, I wanted to plan ahead, to anticipate building the beta just a few short months later. And I just knew that revenue had to be a ways off, because I made the assumption that meaningful revenue was dependent on scale, and we couldn’t get scale without a more robust product, and we couldn’t get that without funding.

That’s what I thought (or more accurately, assumed; and you know what they say about assumptions).

So, no sooner did I have a fully functional prototype – in fact, a totally awesome MVP that we could learn tons from – did I take my eye off the ball and started looking at crowdfunding.

And barely two weeks after our product launch, I also launched a crowdfunding campaign, since I thought that’d be the best way to raise capital to fund further development.

And after we launched the campaign, another wise friend told me that things would not turn out the way I expected, but that we would learn a lot along the way. How right she was (and still is).

See, the crowdfunding campaign didn’t really go as planned. In fact, you could sort of say it bombed. But the reason why was very interesting.

We asked people to tell us why they didn’t want to support it.

Based on the feedback we got, we identified some executional opportunities, as well a lack of clarity around our value proposition. But probably the most interesting story came from one of my team members, who was having dinner with her family and trying to get some insight into why they hadn’t supported us yet. And their answer shocked us.

“Why do you need to raise more money?”  Was the reply. “What you have looks pretty good to me.”


But, but, but… what we had wasn’t what we envisioned, so how could it be good enough?

Well, I guess that was Lesson One.

And that wasn’t even the half of it.

We also started hearing different stories, totally unexpected stories. These were stories from people in the marketing world, either on the business side or the nonprofit side. And these stories were nothing like the ones we heard months before.

These stories were about organizations’ needs to have deeper engagement with their communities. They were about the desire to have stronger connections with their audiences of customers, supporters and employees.

In their own way, they were also about wanting to be more connected, and wanting to be heard.


So, which type of company were we trying to be?

This is fundamentally a leadership question. And as the leader, I struggled mightily with it. I was stuck on what I thought we were supposed to be, and even though my team had likely arrived at the conclusion that a pivot was in order, I couldn’t see it.

I wanted to combine everything.

And their response?

“So, James, what does that look like? It sounds like two very different business models.”

And what they were really asking was, “What’s the vision? What’s the new roadmap?”

By the way (I might have forgotten to mention this), around this time, I had run out of personal runway. Talk about a crisis of confidence. This was nothing like the way I felt the previous summer.

Even in the midst of these new stories, our own story seemingly unraveled.

Traction on the platform slowed considerably, I started looking for work, and the team lacked direction. I still mustered the energy to force a couple of experiments, perhaps more out of pride than anything. But to call us aimless would’ve been an understatement. Paradoxically, by this point, the potential opportunity for brands and organizations was becoming quite clear, thanks to a growing number of inquiries into how we could help them. But I still couldn’t quite figure out what to do about it, or how to do it.

Truth be told, I probably knew what had to be done, but I just couldn’t get comfortable with the idea of changing direction.

And then a funny thing happened.

In my search for meaningful work to take care of my family and extend my runway, one of my mentors put me in touch with the CEO of a marketing firm. And the message was plain: “James, you need to do this. And it might also be good for Share More Stories.”

Things will not turn out the way you expect, but you’re gonna learn a lot.

So true, so true.

So I dutifully went to meet with the CEO of this firm, mustering up what courage I could, attempting to convey some semblance of that same future full of people sharing stories that we had imagined earlier.

And what was supposed to be a fifteen minute conversation turned into a three-hour dialogue. At the end of it, I had a partnership opportunity on the table, which would provide Share More Stories the opportunity to grow – to exist, in fact – while also giving me some much needed personal cash flow.

So, I consulted with my team and my advisors, and without much delay, we arrived at the obvious conclusion that bringing this firm on as an investor and partner made ALL the sense in the world.

So that’s what we did.

But that’s still not where it ends.

I still had to reconcile myself to the fact that the business was shifting. I had to get comfortable turning my gaze.

And finally, I did. I yielded.

I yielded to the insights that were staring me in the face. I heeded the stories people were sharing on the platform and sharing with my team and with me in person.

I reflected on what we had learned about what people wanted to share… and what they didn’t. I explored what connection and community might mean if seen through a broader lens. And I finally paid attention to the fact that personally, this was probably meant to be, since I had spent the vast majority of my career in brand management and communications. (Oh, did I forget to mention that?)

I let our shared narrative go in the direction it needed to go. And I also surrendered the notion that the platform had to be a certain way in order for me to feel like I was fulfilling my purpose.

And with that realization, we began to pivot. And this is when things got really exciting.

Very, very quickly, everything started to fall into place.

With a partner and investor, we were able to focus on the future, not just on the present.

Our value proposition got much, much clearer.

We identified a new customer base and we went after it.

And the response to our new proposition has been nothing short of amazing. Over the past several months, we’ve been approached by a number of customers, large and small, both brands and nonprofits, all of whom are really interested to find out how they can grow by connecting with their consumers or supporters through their stories.

And you know what? I couldn’t be happier. Because I’m still accomplishing my personal vision, and the overall mission for Share More Stories hasn’t changed all that much, even though the value proposition has changed considerably.

So that’s where we’re at. We’re focused on building, measuring and learning as much as we can, as quickly as we can, with this new kind of customer. We’re excited because have several pilots in development, each of which is another experiment.

But the best part about what we’re focused on now? Nothing we learned through our previous experience was wasted. We didn’t know it at the time, but our own journey was really a model of how to use stories to generate insights and apply those insights to grow. And as it turns out, there is some interest in that.

So the journey continues. And a journey like this – like yours – is full of moments of wonder, excitement, humiliation, detour, progress, and realization.  It’s an experience, and it is chock full of stories. The only question that remains is: what will you learn from them.

State of The Lean Startup 2015: Grow With Us


written by Heather McGough, Co-founder of Lean Startup Company

I would like to take a moment to tell you about the places our community has been in 2015, and more importantly, invite you to continue learning with us in 2016. Let me start by saying that before 2011, I didn’t know what Lean Startup methodology meant. I’d been in the world of nonprofit for seven years, and thought an “mvp” played basketball for the Chicago Bulls. Fast-forward to now, I’ve spent five years immersing myself in the Lean Startup community, and earlier this year co-founded Lean Startup Co. with Eric Ries and Melissa Moore. My goal is to teach folks Lean Startup methods and modern management techniques to help companies of all sizes in any sector learn the best ways to build products.

The majority of people who will learn and apply Lean Startup methods have not yet heard about it. In other words, we’re still sort of in our infancy. Sure, here in Silicon Valley it’s been on our radar for awhile, yet the movement continues to grow around the world. Over 60 countries have gathered in groups to learn how to apply the scientific method to business — from Kenya to Brazil, and Israel to Slovenia — people are just starting their journey to learn the Lean Startup approach. They go beyond the buzzwords of HBO’s hit show Silicon Valley, and enter a world where they know that the work they’re doing matters to someone other than their boss, solving problems they can actually validate.

Our community is one-part startup, one-part small business, and one-part enterprise. We come from the world of hardware, retail, education, non-profit, government and more. Heck, the other day the first CTO for the federal government, Aneesh Chopra, emailed us to say Lean Startup was explicitly called out in the Presidential Innovation Strategy document for problem solving. See page 110.

Lean Startup has crossed over into the mainstream of business. Look no further than the companies whose stories we’ve shared this year to see that the applications are helping companies large and small make inspiring transformations. I’ve been chatting with a lot of people. Check some of them out:

  • Techstars is a world renowned startup accelerator that’s using Lean Startup methodology to overcome challenges in supporting entrepreneurs. And get this: They have a 90% success rate.
  • In the world of education, Virginia Tech is keeping libraries relevant by developing new products and a cutting edge experience for their customers — the students.
  • The current hot topic in our community is how to use Lean Startup in highly-regulated industries. The director of innovation at AZ Credit Union achieved executive buy-in and created minimum viable products (mvps) within the world of finance.
  • The US Olympic Committee is using Lean Startup methods to develop technology for humans. Coaches are training athletes using gadgets that they wear to better understand their bodies.
  • Scientists from the National Science Foundation are using technology to get out of the lab and into the marketplace.
  • From the world of enterprise, Google’s Senior UX Researcher is using Lean Startup methods to create a good user experience.

What started as a grassroots movement has morphed into the way modern companies stay relevant. One example of a leader who deployed Lean Startup is Hugh Molotsi. Hugh is the former VP at one of my favorite companies, Intuit, and I’m fortunate enough to have him as my mentor. He used to run something called ‘Incubation Week’ for Intuit Labs. Even a $4 billion company can identify leap-of-faith assumptions, design effective experiments, build mvps, and fake the backend. Just ask him about it; he’ll tell you.

The organizational leaders I’ve spoken to are dead-set on building modern companies that can sustain innovation. They’re tired of time, energy and creativity being wasted. Lean Startup is more than just words in a book, it’s gone from ideas to practical use and is busting open doors in some of the most difficult workplace situations. Practitioners apply the scientific methods in startups and in the world’s largest companies, and know it’s also about setting up systems and processes, knowing that success isn’t sustainable unless they constantly adapt. They test, explore and iterate. They hold themselves accountable by using math like metrics, innovation accounting, and analytics.

Let’s face it, startups want to become enterprises and enterprises want to act like startups. People come to us for support, and we continue to learn what they need. I know this because my team holds calls with our customers year-round. We ask loads of questions, and here is what they’re saying: they need access to real world examples, want to learn how to coach teams inside their organizations and gain the ability to carry them forward even after the trainer is gone. Some are stuck at square one, seeking buy-in from management. Others want stories from outside Silicon Valley, and beyond software development. They want case studies by industry and a way to connect with one another to talk about what they’re going through. They seek tools, want to learn how to use metrics, and would love to snag a mentor. The good news? We’re listening. We have a blog, training program, annual conference, and have just announced our traveling road-show called Lean Startup Labs with an inaugural enterprise-focused summit taking place this Spring in NYC. But lookout Detroit, New Orleans, and more — we’re coming for you in 2016 with themes around startups, social good, education and more.

Our company has so many stories and so much advice to share in many forms. In 2016 we’re going to get it all organized so that all of you can more easily access it. Want to learn how to build an mvp in the enterprise in the field of healthcare, for example? We’ve got you covered. Companies are looking to us to help them scale programs like GE’s FastWorks. Lean Startup Company houses the best faculty and advisors in the world of Lean Startup, and if we don’t have the solution, we’ll help you find someone who does.

Then and now. People used to do stuff the old way; you know, spend years building something before they ever put it in the hands of a customer. One of the most exciting parts of my job is talking to people who are finding Lean Startup for the first time, helping them gain support from their peers or superiors, and seeing their utter enthusiasm for this stuff. People are using Lean Startup in new and unique ways. Some we don’t recommend, like dating or child-rearing. Others, we’ve found inspiring.  

Erica Swallow from Little Rock, AK is using Lean Startup in high schools. Ken Howard is using it at his church. Tiffani Bell used the approach to build a nonprofit that tackles the Detroit water shortage. Anthony Fraser uses it to bring entrepreneurship to underrepresented, minority, and low-income communities.  

Continuing to consume Lean Startup education. As a kid who grew up in small-town Indiana, I never thought I’d be hanging out with so many authors. Practitioners are writing books, teaching masterclasses, and hosting meetups around the globe. Eric Ries, my business partner and author of The Lean Startup, recently became the most successful author in Kickstarter history for crowdsourcing a workbook called The Leader’s Guide, which is the mvp for his next book, The Startup Way. He’s currently using a community platform called Mightybell to engage thousands of people in the curriculum he’s developed over the past few years during his work with startups and corporations.

Helping folks learn from each other. We’ve created a Slack channel, LinkedIn group, ambassador program, and university outreach program. We give free Lean Startup 101 training courses to accelerators and startups, invite underserved groups to our annual conference, and provide a livestream at no cost. As an organization we’re always looking to support people beyond our little bubble, and beyond tech. One of the potential clients I’m most excited about working with in the near future is the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

The movement continues to grow and evolve, and what my team is doing right now is an mvp for the future of Lean Startup. We interact with the world through our blog, engage with everyday stories by hosting you on our webcast and podcast series’, thousands of people gather at our annual conference and in dozens of cities around the world via livestream, and nearly everyday I get to talk to someone new about our training program.

Join us. Not everyone can build rocketships or cure diseases, but I believe that the people in our community are tackling some of the biggest issues of our time. Lean Startup practitioners are a serious group of learners, and we welcome you to continue to learn and grow with us as we step into 2016.

Confusion over #Lean Manufacturing, Lean Healthcare, and #LeanStartup

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 Mark Graban, who is the Founder of Constancy, Inc. and the VP of Customer Success at KaiNexus. He’ll be facilitating a talk on Lessons on Lean Collaborations in Health, Energy & Talent Markets at the 2015 Lean Startup Conference. Learn more about him here and see this original post here.

I’m going to be attending the Lean Startup Conference in San Francisco, as a “faculty member,” a moderator for a session, and maybe serving as a mentor. The organizers asked me to write a post introducing myself to that audience.

Eric Ries, author of the book The Lean Startup: How Today’s Entrepreneurs Use Continuous Innovation to Create Radically Successful Businesses, makes it very clear that the Lean Startup methodology has its roots in the Toyota Production System and Lean manufacturing. Ries writes about factory settings and gives credit to giants like Taiichi Ohno (listen to our podcast talking about this).

There are some in the Lean Startup circles who seem pretty unaware of the industrial roots of Lean. This often causes confusion.

Let me tell a little bit of my story to help set context.

Listen to Mark read the post (and subscribe to the podcast here.)

Lean Manufacturing

I started my career as an industrial engineer at General Motors in 1995 (yikes, 20 years). I worked in an engine plant and our productivity and quality were far worse than a benchmark Toyota plant. We were trying to catch up by copying Lean and TPS methods and leadership styles. It made quite an impact.

The roots of “Lean Production” go back further than that, with the origins in Toyota post 1945 and as the term “Lean Production” was coined over 25 years ago.

Lean has been around much longer than the Lean Startup methodology. That lead to the creation of this meme:

lean meme startup

Lean Healthcare

Hospitals and health systems started using Lean or TPS methods in the mid to late 1990s. Listen to my podcast with Joan Wellman, one of the early innovators who helped bridge the gap between manufacturing and healthcare.

“Lean Healthcare” could basically be called “Lean Manufacturing Applied to Healthcare” but that’s an awkward term (and why emphasize the terms manufacturing or production in a hospital setting?).

I got involved in Lean healthcare 10 years ago and have focused on that ever since. There’s a lot to be learned from the management and improvement methods of Lean manufacturing — making the hospital a better hospital rather than “turning it into a factory.” I’ve written some books on Lean healthcare and remain active in this field.

Lean Startups

I first heard about Eric and the Lean Startup movement in late 2009, before his book was published. I wrote a blog post with my impressions here.

The main parallels of Lean Startup to my experience in manufacturing and healthcare include:

  • Respect people (customers and employees)
  • Be customer focused, solve problems for them
  • Improve using an iterative, scientific method
  • Be willing to discover the answer by testing things instead of “knowing” the answer
  • Do work in small batches and focus on flow and quality
  • Ask “why” instead of “who” when something goes wrong

To me, “Lean Startup” could also be called something like “Lean Manufacturing Applied to Startups,” but that’s, again, an unwieldy term. Edit: Or, more confusingly, Lean Startup concepts can be used by old, large companies to create new products and services.. or could be used by a hospital to help develop a new service line.

In my mind, “Lean” is a broader term, an umbrella that covers Lean manufacturing, Lean healthcare, Lean Startup, and more. Some in the Lean Startup community use Lean as a shorthand term for “Lean Startup,” which causes confusion.

There’s a bit of a family tree… although there are more “Lean ________” fields than can be crammed into an org chart.

Screen Shot 2015-10-19 at 8.59.30 AM

Now, you could maybe have “Lean Services” as a parent in the tree, but hopefully you get my point.

To say a company like Intuit uses “Lean” might be less accurate than saying they use “Lean Startup” methods. Arguably, “Lean Startup” methods are a subset of the broader Lean philosophy and management system. If a startup is using Lean Startup methods, that might be closer to the “Lean Product Development System” used by Toyota and others (listen to a podcast about this).

It’s possible that a manufacturer could use the Lean Product Development System without using Lean Production methods in their factories or using a broader Lean management system. How many startups use Lean Startup methods to launch a product but don’t have a Lean culture? If a startup uses “Build – Measure – Learn” cycles but has a culture of blame, cost cutting, and silos that don’t work together, they can’t be called a “Lean” organization in the broader sense any more than a factory that uses 5S is a Lean culture.

Lean Startup in Manufacturing

One source of confusion is manufacturing companies like GE and Toyota starting to use Lean Startup methods to develop new products. Toyota (of course) and GE (in recent years) have used Lean methods in their factories. It could be that Toyota is much more of a Lean culture than GE has become, but I don’t know GE very well. When Jack Welch was CEO and called some employees “turkeys,” that’s not a respectful Lean culture at all. I hope GE has gotten better about things like that.

When Lean Startup people say “GE is using Lean” now, they shouldn’t mean just “GE is using Lean Startup.”

The fact that GE is using Lean in factories (as part of their reshoring efforts, which I applaud) doesn’t mean they are doing “Lean Startup in Factories.” They’re doing Lean. Or Lean manufacturing. I believe GE was embracing Lean Manufacturing before they started with Lean Startup.

The approaches are compatible and complementary. Hopefully, they are part of a broader Lean culture that’s developing at GE. Or they’re just using Lean tools.

Lean Startup in Healthcare?

I sometimes get asked about my work as, “So they’re doing Lean Startups in healthcare now?” Maybe, but that’s not the work I do. I’m focused on improving healthcare operations (including how care is delivered) and the culture and management system of hospitals.

If there are organizations using Lean Startup methods to develop medical devices or innovative new clinics, that would be very interesting… but different than the Lean Healthcare work that many of us are doing.

I hope this helps clarify some of the history and connections between these Lean practices. At some level, Lean is Lean, if there are consistent mindsets and philosophies (such as “don’t blame individuals for system problems”). Maybe we can talk about this at the conference!

Navigating the Landscape of Customer Discovery Requires You to Be Both Open and Direct

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 Ariana Friedlander, who is the Founder of Rosabella Consulting, LLC . She’ll be giving a talk on Mastering Customer Discovery at the 2015 Lean Startup Conference. Learn more about her here.

If you have been at the customer discovery process for any significant length of time, chances are you have encountered some challenges.  These difficulties may include getting false positives, not getting valid feedback, or simply having difficulty connecting with customers.  Such struggles can dampen your enthusiasm at best and at worst, cost you a livelihood.

Part of the challenge I have seen is that to be successful at customer discovery (which usually does not happen until after a few failures) you need to simultaneously be open and direct in the process.  Without directness, you run the risk of having conversations that are all over the place and do not help you narrow your focus.  Without openness, you miss viable opportunities that may help you get to a product market fit more quickly.

I have been teaching Lean Startup for the last 2+ years, working closely with over 50 entrepreneurs in Northern Colorado (yes, I have some interesting lessons learned about doing Customer Discovery in the emerging hemp/marijuana industry). Customer Discovery is a cyclical process.  There are points within a conversation you may move from open to direct lines of inquiry and vice versa.  From my experience, many problems stem from an inability to balance openness and directness.  

After encountering the same challenges over and over again, I sketched the Landscape of Customer Discovery to provide a visual representation of the many moving parts.  My goal is to provide a simple tool that helps Lean Startup students master the nuances of the process.  Lets get started!

Gauge Trust Building

Everything stems from trust.  Building Trust is essential to getting valid feedback.  Start by looking at the gauge and evaluating whether building trust is easy or difficult for you and the customer segments you are working with.  It is often very difficult to build trust in B2B relationships, especially the higher up the ladder you go.  Whereas, building trust in B2C is often easier.

If trust is difficult, a more open line of inquiry may be the best fit to start.  If trust is easy to build or already established, a more direct line of inquiry may be the best fit.  Mark how easy or difficult it is for you to build trust on the gauge.  Ponder the questions below to help.

  • Do you already have trust established or are you starting from scratch?  
  • How deep into potential customers’ problems and challenges do you need to go to gain valuable insights for validating your business model canvas?
  • Does talking about their problems require a lot of vulnerability from your customers?
  • What kind of relationship is sufficient for you to have trust with customers?

If you would like to take a deeper look at how to build trust checkout Judith Glaser’s work on Conversational Intelligence.  Her model, TRUST, is to use Transparency, Relationship building, shared Understanding, Shared Success and Truth Telling/assumption Testing (sound familiar).  A little transparency combined with a more open line of inquiry can make the difference between getting shutout and becoming a trusted confidant (you may be shocked the things people will volunteer when they trust you).

Check-in With How You Are Feeling

Yes, we are going to get a little more touchy feely.  If you feel like you are confidently on a path to a product market fit, you are probably itching to be more direct.  Whereas, if you feel as though you are in search of an opportunity or need, a more open line of inquiry is necessary.  

  • How confident do you feel about what you will do to create and deliver value to customers?
  • How certain are you about your customer segments?
  • What elements of your business model canvas remain ambiguous or too broad?
  • How comfortable do you feel getting really specific with the problems, solutions and customer segments you will be serving?

I have found that most people jump right into a direct line of inquiry.  They are excited, confident (why else take the leap) and feel like they have everything figured out.  After a while they become aware of what they don’t know.  They need to take a step back so that they can search for new opportunities or really build a deeper relationship with the customer.  

Craft an appropriate line of inquiry

If you have been following me thus far, you should have a strong sense of whether you are in a more Open or a more Direct customer discovery experiment.  The next step is to craft your line of inquiry (AKA experiment) accordingly.

Here are some real life examples that will help you differentiate how to best craft an appropriate line of inquiry. These examples demonstrate different iterations of a few business models.

Direct Customer Discovery Questions

  • Please rank the following problems in order of importance for you to solve as they relate to your community engagement and philanthropy…
    • Attract New Talent
    • Improve Reputation
    • Employee Retention
    • Be more strategic
  • Which of the following challenges are you experiencing that you want help overcoming in your business?
    • Getting unstuck
    • Getting past overwhelm
    • Building my business
    • Getting the word out
    • Generating a/more profit
    • Connecting with fellow trail blazers
  • What is your annual budget for professional development training per employee?

Open Customer Discovery Questions

  • Why is it important for your business to do philanthropic work?
  • What inspired you to start your own entrepreneurial endeavor?
  • What kinds of professional development trainings are you currently offering to your staff?

Before you actually draft questions I recommend revisiting your business model canvas to determine what hypotheses you need to test next. Then draft up as many questions as you can think to ask.  Put them away, do something else and re-visit. Narrow it down to your best 4-8 questions and proceed to “get out of the building” assuming you have systems for documenting your conversations and a plan for how to connect with customers.

This is Just the Beginning

Differentiating between a more open versus direct line of inquiry has empowered myself and my clients to be more resilient throughout the Customer Discovery Process.  I have worked with businesses that enjoyed success beyond their initial projections as a result of applying this approach.  I was able to exceed my goals for a crowd funding campaign earlier this year from being appropriately open and direct in the customer discovery process.

We just touched on the tip of the iceberg here.  If you look at the Landscape of Customer Discovery, you will notice there are more elements than we reviewed.  I will be sharing the Landscape as part of my talk at the Lean Startup Conference.

This is an MVP (I drew it myself) and I have been actively conducting experiments about it with my students.  If you feel compelled to, you are invited to join the conversation here to help shape the Landscape of Customer Discovery.

  1. What questions do you have about the Customer Discovery Process?
  2. What problems are you experiencing with Customer Discovery that you are struggling to address?
  3. How does the Landscape of Customer Discovery resonate with your experiences?
  4. What is missing from this Landscape that you believe is integral to successfully completing the Customer Discovery Process?
  5. Is there anything else you would like to share?


A Crash Course in Minimum Viable Marketing

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 Ritika Puri, who is the Co-Founder of Storyhackers and the Chief Storyteller at Lean Startup Co. She’ll be giving a talk on MInimum Viable Marketing at the 2015 Lean Startup Conference. Learn more about her here and see this original post here.

Increase conversion rates. Build brand visibility. Generate an ROI. “Prove” the results of your marketing.

If you’re a marketer of any specialty, at any size organization you’re probably under extreme pressure to generate ‘big wins’ and astronomical growth. But there’s a big question on your mind: how do you go from zero to one million (dollars, users, pageviews, etc.) for a new campaign?

For many marketers the process of developing a new campaign concept feels like throwing darts in the dark. You might start testing ideas until something sticks—which is a good first step, but what you’ve probably realized is that trial and error will only get you so far.

Regardless of your marketing specialty—PR, PPC, SEO, content, or otherwise—you need to take careful steps to optimize your chances of success. That’s where the concept of ‘minimum viable marketing’ comes in.

If you’re familiar with the Lean Startup methodology, the concept stems from Eric Ries’s definition of ‘minimum viable product’ (MVP), defined as the minimum product feature set for gathering the most data and learning. Just think of your marketing campaign as a product rather than a promotion. Every blog post, tweet, and even ad creative serves two external clients: your target audience and your company. Imagine that you’re building a connector.

Along these lines, the core value of ‘minimum viable marketing’ is that it helps you detect potential risks and areas of improvement before you’ve amplified your marketing campaigns to six or seven-figure spends.

Here are some techniques for building a minimum viable marketing campaign, coupled with examples, to help you get started.

Step 1: Put ideas to the test before committing to a larger budget

The field of digital marketing is going through a big transformation. What was once a ‘brand building’ function has now turned into an ROI-focused numbers game. Thanks to new digital analytics capabilities, marketers are able to optimize KPIs like customer lifetime value and direct response conversions. Not to mention, there are dozens of marketing channels that are available for companies to pursue.

With so many complexities at play, how do you ensure that you’re taking the right steps forward? To start, you need to simplify your campaign idea and concept. Rather than jumping in head-first with a six or seven-figure budget, start with a few hundred dollars. You may end up losing money, but at least you’ll gather enough data to iterate your way to a successful, sustainable, and scalable marketing strategy.

Consider this video case study from Mighty Handle, an early stage CPG startup with almost no marketing budget.

In early 2014, Mighty Handle had just achieved its initial product/market fit and was ready for the next big step in its company trajectory: a pilot with a handful of Walmart locations. Before the company could test its product with Walmart customers, however, it needed to overcome a big hurdle—packaging.

Even though Mighty Handle sales were going well online, through channels like Amazon, the company’s marketing advisor Anita Newton wasn’t sure what look and feel would resonate with Walmart customers.

So, she launched a series of paid channel ads on Facebook and YouTube, targeting Walmart’s shopper demographic. This approach allowed her team to collect initial data and test concepts without an extensive market research and design budget. After spending a few hundred dollars on paid channel ads, Newton’s team was able to settle on a design.

The result?

The test was everything that Newton could have wanted and more. Based on her experimentation process, she was able to design a packaging concept that resonated with Walmart’s buyers. Mighty Handle is now available in 3,500 Walmart locations nationwide.

Step 2: Interview your customers

If you’re in the tech world, you’ve probably come across the concept of “customer development,” which is a qualitative research technique that UX specialists use to study their audiences. The idea is simple: face test concepts with your audience to uncover opportunities for iteration. If you want to read more about customer development, check out this resource from entrepreneurship professor Steve Blank.

Customer development is a common practice among product development teams and makes it easier for engineers, product managers, and designers to identify opportunities for improvement—potential mistakes to avoid, new feature ideas, etc.

What you may not know is that customer development is a valuable technique for marketing teams too. And the process is simple:

  • Come up with a list of challenges that you’re experiencing with your marketing, in addition to assumption that you’re making about your customers.
  • Translate that list of challenges and assumptions into concrete questions that you should ask.
  • Come up with a list of 15-20 people in your target audience, focusing on the specific segments that you’re trying to reach.
  • Have a 30-45 minute phone call with each of these people. Bonus: take your customers to lunch or coffee.
  • Record each of these calls. Get them transcribed.
  • Read through and mark up each transcription. Identify trends.
  • Summarize those trends into a cohesive list.

Pay attention to the subtleties in your conversation: your target customer’s tone of voice, the word choices that he or she uses, and the topics that get him or her excited. Use these findings to inform the messaging and creative concepts in your marketing campaigns.

Here’s an example of this process in action:

Curiosity.com, a popular website for curated content, wanted to learn if the company’s messaging was on point. After conducting 15 customer interviews, Curiosity found that members of the company’s target audience identified with variations of the word “inspire.” After changing its website messaging to reflect that concept, the company was able to increase its account registration conversions by 50% and improve retention as a result.

A Crash Course in Minimum Viable Marketing

Step 3: Run tests continuously

You need experimentation to uncover new marketing channels: no exceptions. But getting a ‘testing’ budget is hard, especially when you can’t pre-prove the success of your initiative. It all feels risky because there’s a chance that you’ll lose money.  At the same time, however, you need to run experiments to keep your marketing programs alive. For one, marketing ecosystems change over time, and established channels become ineffective or expensive over time. If you were an early advertiser on AdWords, for instance, you probably paid a small fraction of today’s costs per click (CPCs).

So here’s what you do:

  • Take a look at the profitability of all of your marketing programs, successful and unsuccessful. Study your margins to understand where you’re generating the highest gains and losses.
  • After figuring out where your margins stand, figure out how much you can afford to invest into a research and development program. Maybe it’s $100 a day–maybe it’s more or less. Find out what’s comfortable for you.
  • Using the forecasts that you prepared, come up with a campaign budget cap.
  • Once you have your budget cap in place, run your marketing experiments continuously. At any given time, you should be running at least one test.
  • Aim to fail quickly. Don’t beat a dead horse. Nix your unsuccessful marketing campaigns. Iterate upon the ones that are on the fence. Grow your successes, and learn from your mistakes.

As a case study, one finance publisher was able to grow its campaign budget from $100 to $1M by following this approach–starting small, ironing out kinks, and then scaling.

Final thoughts

When it comes to marketing, the best way to get big is to start small. Study the intricacies of your marketing program, and figure out ways that you can improve. When you find something that finally ‘sticks,’ put your full energy behind it. Ramp it up, and make it part of your core operations. Then, start testing again.

How to Choose Your Next Experiments

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 Teresa Torres, who is a Product Coach at Product Talk. She’ll be giving a talk on How to Choose Your Next Experiments at the 2015 Lean Startup Conference. Learn more about her here.

“I think we should use folders.”

“I think we should use tags.”

“I know. Let’s test them both.”

Does this sound familiar? I bet it does.

By far the most common mistake teams make when they are new to Lean Startup methodologies is they fall into the trap of substituting judgment with experimentation.

Instead of thinking through which option might work best, teams throw spaghetti at the wall and hope something sticks.

This is both ineffective and expensive.

The Lean Startup gives us tools to test our judgment, not replace it.

As founders, product managers, and UXers, we still have knowledge and experience to bring to the table.

We can and should reason our way to good solutions.

The Lean Startup doesn’t change that.

Instead, it encourages us to maintain a state of doubt long enough to test our reasoning.

Instead of moving forward with certainty, the tools in the Lean Startup toolbox encourage us to pause and test our assumptions before barreling forward with a complete solution.

Just as scientists don’t test every permutation in their space, instead they use insights to identify the most promising experiments, we can and should do the same.

During my session, I’ll walk attendees through a case study, where they’ll work through mapping the challenge – exploring the problem space long enough to be sure those insights occur.

This exercise will help product teams learn how to define the context of their own challenge so that they can escape the common pitfall of testing everything.

This session will help attendees create a map that guides their future decisions and helps them choose their next experiments.

About the speaker: Teresa Torres coaches teams on user-centered, hypothesis-driven, product development practices including Agile, Lean Startup, and design thinking. She helps companies integrate user research, experimentation, and the right analytics into their process resulting in better product decisions. Her recent clients include CareerBuilder, Prezi, and the Wikimedia Foundation. She blogs at www.ProductTalk.org

The Case for the Button

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 Amanda Cowen, who is the VP of Marketing at Farmhouse Delivery. She’ll be giving a talk on The Case for the Button at the 2015 Lean Startup Conference. Learn more about her here.

When I walked into the 500 sq foot room in the basement of a 1920s house converted to office space and saw 5 guys huddled around a desk fashioned out of a door and two saw horses, I thought I knew out what Lean Startup was.  It meant frugal.  It meant minimizing your burn rate.  It meant no bottled water and certainly no free lunch.  As Chuck Testa would say, “NOPE!”  That’s not what Lean Startup is.

It wasn’t the glamorous office space that lured me away from Whole Foods Market to work at Food on the Table.  It was Lean Startup principles.  Manuel, the CEO and founder, explained to me that we were digging for gold.  We’d talk to our customers.  We’d try an experiment here, and experiment there based on what they said.  The ones that worked, we would add more resources and continue digging.  The ones that didn’t work, we would cut bait and move on.  He told me that if I had customer data to support a decision, then titles and opinions didn’t matter.

When Food on the Table was acquired by Food Network, our team brought our Lean Startup training with us.  The first project I had as product manager of FoodNetwork.com was to increase retention.  In interviews, users had mentioned they would like to compare recipes.  The dev team said a working prototype of this would take at least three weeks to build.  That sounded like a lot of resources to invest to a feature that wasn’t proven.  My Lean Startup background told me I could find out quickly by doing a test.  I could put a button on the recipe page that when clicked said “Coming Soon!”  That was a completely new way of doing things for the team.  My talk will focus on how that button introduced the power – and cost savings – of Lean Startup to a huge organization.

I recently left the Food Network to return to startup land.  I joined Farmhouse Delivery, a subscription service that delivers fruit and vegetables from local farms to our community.  In a survey, we found that our customers find it difficult to cook with everything in their bushel each week.  As the popularity of services like Blue Apron and Plated grow, we thought we could provide a similar service, but using the items in their bushel and providing proteins and seasonings that are all locally sourced.

I guess we could have a fully baked product, labels printed, webpage up, menus for weeks, and operations planned out for the quarter.  But remember, I’m a Lean Startup girl.  What’s the first step?  Talk to people!  I spent two days on the phone with our customers.  Every single one loved the idea of supplementing their bushel with a meal kit.  I sold a dinner prototype to 95% of those customers.  Those that declined were vegetarian.

The next week, I received feedback from our first testers to see if they would renew, and cast a wider net for new customers.  For new customers, I sent an email rather than calling.  The conversion rate was very similar.  We increased our sales by 2.5x the second week.

Operationally, this is a big stress on our packing room and our chef, but we have a threshold we need to meet before we add more resources.  The neatest part?  Lean Startup isn’t just for software.

No one knows the right answer: the uncomfortable truth about running lean

Editor’s note: The 2015 Lean Startup Conference had dozens of excellent speakers and mentors who were eager to share their product development, entrepreneurship, and innovation stories. Learn more about them in our ‘Lean Startup Speakers’ series.

Next up is Wes Kao, who is the Director of Seth Godin’s altMBA. Wes gave a talk on The Hidden Burden of Iteration at the 2015 Lean Startup Conference. 

The truth is that I was attracted to the lean movement because it felt safe. Lean is a relentless march toward the right answer, an evolving process where we go from safe to safest, from new to tested to successful. Sign me up.

It turns out, though, that I couldn’t have been more wrong.

Lean is in our blood

Running lean is a core part of our approach at the altMBA. We don’t even call it lean—we just call it normal.

I’m always keeping an eye out for feedback from students. I look for patterns and pattern breaks, then follow the trail to see if the insight warrants a change. If it makes sense to roll something out while the workshop is in session, we’ll do it.

Along the way of launching and iterating, I’ve learned a few things. The most important is this: no one has the right answer.

There might not even be a right answer. If you’re launching at the pace that we do, or if you want to, internalizing this concept might help you as it helped me.

No one knows the right answer, but you still have to make decisions.

Lean is about iteration. Iteration is about change. Change brings uncertainty, which generates anxiety.

As humans, we’re wired to think that change is a threat. We want to avoid it at all costs. We can grow to live with change, but it doesn’t come naturally: it requires the extra step of convincing ourselves that it’s okay.

Despite all this, you have to make decisions in the face of ambiguity. Decisions drive a project forward.

This means that in order to circumvent your own brain’s reluctance to embrace change, you have to get good at spotting your own fear when it comes up.

If this doesn’t work, everything could come crashing down.

What we have now isn’t so bad…

Is what I’m about to do a really bad idea?

You have to notice when you’re making excuses, and admit to yourself that they are in fact excuses.

If you’re feeling totally safe all the time, you’re probably doing it wrong.

Choosing to iterate means inviting uncertainty into your life. It’s a choice you have to make every hour of every day. This is something I grapple with daily, and it might sound familiar to you if you work on projects that might not work.

What I hope you leave here with is this: it’s normal to feel uncertain and afraid. We waste energy thinking about whether we’re supposed to be feeling this way, but this is exactly how you’re supposed to feel.

If this doesn’t seem like something you want to live with, then maybe lean isn’t for you. That’s entirely okay too, so own it and recognize the choice you’re making.

Think of discomfort as the norm, not the exception. It will always be hard.

Anxiety comes from expecting one thing, but getting another.

We expect a smooth path, but instead the road is punctuated with blips and fire drills. It’s like trying to keep a bunch of frogs from jumping out of a bowl and to stay in one place.

You might be thinking, “How many times do I have to embrace change for it to feel easy? When will I feel safe and certain again?”

The tension will always be there. Operating in an agile way means that you are not only living with tension, but inviting it with each step forward that you take.

Let’s say it out loud now: your work is never going to be completely done. To stay ahead of the curve, you will always have to push to try something new. It might never feel easier.

There will be an ongoing urge to repeat what you did before, even if you only did it once.

There’s implied safety in doing something the way you did it last time, or copying a competitor completely. The historical evidence of something having worked in the past makes you want to do it again because it feels “proven.” There’s less of a chance it could go wrong.

There is nothing wrong with repeating what works. You just have to be aware when you’re doing it because you’re scared of a new thing, or because what you’re doing now really is the best way.

You will want to pull back to an imagined place of certainty. You must resist this urge if you want to continue to iterate and improve.

This all sounds terrible. Why would anyone choose to invite anxiety into their lives?

The kind of person and organization who commits to doing the hard part has a main competitive advantage: not everyone is willing to make hard decisions.

Not everyone can or wants to deal with uncertainty. By choosing to run lean and to handle the anxiety that comes hand-in-hand with lean, you’re able to move faster than your competitors.

If you can stomach the anxiety, you can reap the benefits of discovering what works and what doesn’t faster than your competitors do. You can switch strategies before dumping a ton of resources down a path when you should have iterated sooner. You can spot opportunities and act on them–you stay one step ahead.

So if you’re choosing to do lean, then understand that the hidden burden of iteration is anxiety. Stop beating yourself up for feeling anxious. It’s normal, it’s okay, and it means that you’re on the right track.