Jul 5, 2010 0
Mar 17, 2010 2
Ben Horowitz has a great contrarian article about ‘Fat’ startups which has caused immediate reaction around twitter and the Lean Startup community. Unfortunately, his article has very little to do with the Lean Startup concept and a lot to do with reactionary CEOs flipping out about the infamous Sequoia presentation. It also has a little to do with how choosing a name is important. For the record Ben Horowitz is right, but let’s backtrack a little bit.
What is the ‘Lean’ in ‘Lean Startups’
The ‘Lean’ in ‘Lean Startups’ comes from ‘Lean Thinking‘ as used in the streamlined production process pioneered by Toyota. This process is designed to banish waste in a production process. In the specific context of the Lean Startup process, it is to ensure that if you’re going to add a feature to your product there had better be a customer there to love it.
What the ‘Lean’ in ‘Lean Startups’ is Not
‘Lean’ in this context has nothing to do with spending less money. It is about effectiveness. It is about preventing your developers writing code that will never be used. It is about making sure that when you only have only one hundred hours to spend writing code, that as many of those hundred hours as possible are spent creating features that customers actually want. Fundamentally, it is about increasing the amount of validated learning you can get out of your process. To do this might involve increasing the amount of money you spend. It may require spending more money on people who are continually testing that your hypotheses are correct on actual users.
What’s the difference?
In Ben’s article we see CEOs reacting to the Sequoia memo, which makes a lot of sense. Around the startup community it was like a meteor had hit. Guy Kawasaki said that if you weren’t paying attention to this memo then you were clueless. Any available investment money dried up overnight. What Horowitz sees in these investment pitches is CEOs trying to display their cluefulness to potential investors by preaching the ‘Low Cost’ mantra. But he’s claiming that sometimes you need to spend big. Is there a disconnect?
Where the ‘Lean Startup’ becomes a ‘Fat Startup’
The critical mission of a Lean Startup (from Eric Ries’s concept) is to get to Product-Market fit. Horowitz’s VC partner Marc Andreessen describes it as the only thing that matters. This is where the two stories link up. It’s the next stage in the same process – when you have product-market fit and there is a scalable and repeatable sales model you crank up the volume! All that validated learning turns into a method where a smaller amount of sales effort turns into a much larger amount of money. You spend to get there, and then you spend a whole lot more.
Pumping too much money into a small start-up is unhealthy for both the company and the investor. On the other hand, Facebook has raised several hundred million dollars and is on track to produce fantastic returns for all of its investors. So what’s a start-up to do?
The difference here is one of timing. Facebook had phenomenal growth – users on college campuses all across the country were signing up at an amazing rate. That’s a pretty good indicator of product-market fit, and a different ballgame entirely. At this point the organization needs to scale to meet the demands of the market, and to do that you need money. A lot of it.
Both Opsware and Facebook had product-market fit and were racing to gain a dominant position in a market where no clear leader had emerged. The decision to shoot for break-even revenue vs land-grab for market share is a strategic play at this stage. They both chose the process that Geoffrey Moore describes for capitalizing on hyper-growth markets in “Inside the Tornado“, which is a place that most startups can only dream of getting to.
Sorry Eric, “Lean Startups” is a terrible name for this movement. There’s been too much confusion with people translating “Lean” into “Spend zero money”.
Jan 18, 2010 4
The types of sites I read have slowly migrated away from pure technical sites talking about monkeying around with with code towards sites discussing business, customer development, marketing, and general startup concepts. Here’s a list of my favorite authors, blogs, podcasts, and forums dealing with these topics. Who else should I be listening to? Let me know in the comments.
Update: All the best Lean Startup and Customer Development resources in one place: http://www.leanstartupfeed.com/
Customer Development and Lean Startups
Steve Blank is a successful startup veteran and MBA lecturer in the Haas School of business at UC Berkeley. He took the lessons he learned in successfully marketing his startups to develop the concept of Customer Development in the must read book “The Four Steps to the Epiphany“. Seriously, if you’re working in a startup – you need to read this book.
Eric Ries developed the Lean Startup methodology by combining concepts from the Toyota Production System (Lean Manufacturing), Agile Software Development, the OODA loop, and Steve Blank’s Customer Development model. The combination of these ideas results in a low-cost startup that is critically focused on rapidly producing a product which satisfies customer needs. There are some fantastic concepts in his writing which will inspire (Minimum Viable Product) and possibly scare the crap out of you (Continuous deployment for example).
Dave McClure is a successful entrepreneur and angel investor. Dave mainly writes about using startup metrics to drive success. His “Startup Metrics for Pirates” presentation describes essential metrics any web application needs to measure to turn first-time users into obsessed fans. His refreshingly informal writing style pulls no punches, and his violent use of text color will make your eyes bleed. (The reason I have pictures next to each of these authors is mainly due to this loud advice. He’s right.).
Individual Article of Merit:
This epic saga by Recess Mobile tries to map out the entire landscape of Customer Development and Lean Startups. I can only imagine how long it took them to write this one.
Sean is a seasoned startup marketer having led several companies through to IPO. He writes about Customer Development, PR, and startup marketing. As a quick taster, check out his Venture Hacks interviews on bringing a product to market – Part One on what to do before Product/Market Fit & Part Two on what to do after Product/Market fit.
Brant is another very experienced startup marketer who is developing a series of tools and models based around the Customer Development methodology. He recently conducted a survey into the current Customer Development landscape which can be found here: Customer Development Survey. Most recently he put together a simple model which ties Customer Development, the standard sales funnel, and Dave McClure’s AARRR metrics into one cohesive whole [Available Here]. Highly recommended.
Venture Capital and Entrepreneurship
Fred is a VC at Union Square Ventures based in New York, which funds companies such as FourSquare, Boxee, and Etsy. His blog covers a wide variety of topics in the area of entrepreneurship and business strategy, and also a little bit of venture capital concepts. He provides a very interesting critical eye on technology industry news.
Mark is a successful British entrepreneur who has “gone over to the dark side” to become a VC. He covers the gamut of entrepreneurial topics from raising startup capital, marketing, right down to the definition of “Entrepreneurial DNA“. His fantastic interview on Mixergy was quite probably the most inspiring thing I listened to last year.
Nivi and Naval have founded successful companies, and invested heavily in startups like twitter. They cover a full range of startup essentials from securing funding from angel investors, how to choose company advisors, the psychology of a board of directors, and a fantastic selection of case studies on all of the above and more.
Business Model Hacking
Alexander’s blog centers around the Business Model Canvas methodology which involves analyzing business models, pulling them apart into their constituent parts and then reassembling them in interesting ways. Lego for business if you will. He uses an interesting tool sheet to aid this, which I think meshes perfectly into the lean startup concept of ‘pivoting’.
Podcasts, Interviews, and Videos
Andrew Warner co-founded an internet business with his brother which went on to generate over thirty million dollars a year in sales. With Mixergy, Andrew has conducted some of the most inspiring and amazing interviews with entrepreneurs you’re likely to find. He conducts frank and probing interviews that dig deep into the mindset of his interviewees – people who have either taken their business to dizzying heights, or failed spectacularly trying. As well as my personal favourite interview with Mark Suster listed above, you should check out this interview with Ben Huh of “Failblog”, or this amusing interview with Neil Patel of KISSMetrics. This is quite simply an amazing resource.
Jason co-founded weblogs Inc which grew to be a huge network of niche content sites, and was eventually acquired by AOL for a giant bag of money. TWiST interviews a wide range of guests in the technology sphere, and intermittent shows where listeners can ask Jason for advice. Very entertaining and informative.
Bob specializes in news and advice aimed at MicroISVs at his blog 47 Hats. As opposed to the more general entrepreneurship podcasts listed above, the Startup Success Podcast digs into the more specialized issues faced by independant software vendors.
Lean Startups Circle
A Google group centered around advice for entrepreneurs running lean startups.
Business of Software Forum
Joel Spolsky’s forum covering a range of issues faced by developers trying to market software.
Everything under the sun relating to technology and entrepreneurship. User driven article voting, hosted by Paul Graham’s startup incubator Y Combinator.