The Lean Startup is dead, Long live The Lean & Mean!

How dare I announce the death of the million copy success story? Who am I to put in doubt the virtuous circle that inspired Dropox, and which will most probably contribute to its demise ? In  whose name am I announcing the end of the fabled unicorn that saved us from the quicksand and the chaos, and shed light upon our ignorance?

Well, putting the name aside, a direct witness of facts, having observed startups from all sides and who spends much of his time with entrepreneurs facing the customer.

The entrepreneurs with really good ideas don’t know they are innovating, so they don’t think of reading the book.  Others are there just to be part of the movement, so they use the concepts as a varnish or hair gel. And another third keeps reading it over and over again, improving their incremental understanding at every twirl, and finally drowning in it.

That leaves roughly 3% to actually accomplish something, killing the myth of optimized innovation.

Don’t get me wrong – let’s give back to Cesar what belongs to Cesar. The idea of Customer Development is fundamental, we’ll never thank Steve G. Blank enough for his contribution.  But it came with as much consideration for UX as did MS DOS (before the mouse): it was a geek thing, viably minimal, but for a limited audience which we’ll call the visionaries.

Fortunately, unencumbered by distribution issues, someone came along with branding to cross the chasm. Eric Ries got it right. He took out the Access side of it, and repeated the mantra in simple terms. Even better, he piggy-backed a much more serious concept than those belonging to t-shirts and couches, that of Lean Manufacturing. Brilliant hack Eric, I’ve got to hand it to you!

Though a simple common denominator, this was good because it gave a common language to a growing cause and has served as a lighthouse to a movement I hope will continue to grow. But the startup community has progressed enough now to start moving beyond the simple iteration model. If we want to be efficient and go beyond this sabbatical exercise, we need to both improve our understanding of innovation and also make it more accessible.

For reminders, the fundamental challenge for a startup is listening to the market. This is the essence of Steve Blank’s work and one of the main gates in Eric Ries’ triad of build, measure, learn. Somehow though, this key message keeps getting lost. If we have the human factor to blame, there is also the technical part to keep in mind: how and when to listen.

Though good advice for incremental improvement, one of the major criticisms to The Lean Startup is that it drives you away from real innovation, the type that implies significant changes in the way we do things, called disruptive or radical.

Everyone has heard the anecdotes. In remote times, if asked, consumers would say they wanted a faster horse or a bigger candle. None would have thought of asking for a car or a light bulb. Likewise, today we are asking for more leg room in the aircraft when we can get the hyperloop (for lack of a better example, and this is where vision comes in).

But that doesn’t mean we can stay in our labs and tinker away until we’ve bled dry.

What we need to improve now is our understanding of HOW to listen to the market. Depending upon whether you are in the radical or the incremental business, you may want to read Thomas Kuhn’s essay on the Structure of Scientific Revolutions. It highlights from the angle of the history of science the notion of disruption. Understanding the psychology behind the objections and their evolution can be of help to understand how to listen and respond to naysayers in the realm of startups.

One option to improve the “HOW” is to adapt your listening to the maturity of your innovation. HOW you listen depends on WHERE you are in the process. Put simply, first you listen to the needs (not just the problem, because then you get stuck in the same box): this gives your vision. Then you listen to the system, how your solution interacts with the rest of the world. Then you listen to the expectations, which means customers still don’t know how to formulate what’s on their mind. Finally you can eventually listen to their demands. Depending how much you actually need to give in will determine your potential for growth and the solidity of your business model.

Market Readiness Level Grid

Market Readiness Level allows to nuance your position in the innovation process

Overall, this is what I call “Be Mean”: stay determined and focused on your vision. If you’re not mean, that’s because you are day-dreaming and not really confronting and listening to the market. And beware, it isn’t because you are mean that you’re incapable of backing off and reflecting upon the objections that have been thrown at you. The spirit of lean is understanding what brings value to your audience, not listening to segment’s whims.

Now the spirit of Startup! In this case, the devil is in the title. Anointing oneself a startup is starting off with a big handicap. Beyond the spirit, it implies that your market is necessarily large and that you will be going out to get a lot of cash, no matter what. Considering the complexity at hand, there should be a lead premise and only one: how can I make sure my innovation brings value. THAT will then determine how much cash I need to go get, and over what timeline.

I’m sure if entrepreneurs could choose at the onset between startup, startmedium and startslow, we would have a lot less disillusionment. It would allow us to separate between the innovation aspect and the growth aspect, and underline the fact that the former doesn’t automatically bring big change, and especially quick change.

This is not to say entrepreneurs shouldn’t be ambitious, on the contrary. Once the core of the innovation is solid, then you must think global, especially in our days of long tails! But don’t focus on the glory before the value.

Our American counterparts would probably object to this, where the tradition is to throw in a lot of cash early, before being sure there is actual value. This strategy has its upsides, but may become difficult in the coming times. Pendulums tend to swing and one could argue there is certain hype about startups, with its inevitable disillusionment. In addition the offer has surpassed the demand. There is more money than there are projects and we can ask whether there are more projects than there are needs.

By needs I am talking about those that are scalable and command sufficient value so as to justify a startup denomination – high growth, high investment. Sure there are disruptive fields coming down the road, but I doubt there will be enough to feed all the cash looking for a good investment.

Hence, we need to nuance the title, but I doubt it would have sold as many copies had it been called The Lean Startslow.

So now that we know the concept developed by Eric Ries is akin to a diet book, meaning there is a big promise and a simple solution, what do we do with those who are really ready to sweat and bring something new to the world, carried by passion?

Should we come back to fundamentals, or make it easier to use? The case against in-depth learning would seem closed after reading “The Dumbest Generation”, implying we should accept the new age and deliver knowledge differently than before. That could entail for instance developing the killer app of innovation we can put into everyone’s hands to lead step by step.

Or we could on the contrary deepen our understanding of this necessary realm through adapted observation and research methods.

To answer my rhetorical question let’s say both. My hope is that The Lean Startup will be a stepping stone to something more elaborate and profound, on the one hand, and to something more user friendly on the other. Feel free to share if you have suggestions to make!



Further reading

Lean by Leon

Origins of The Lean Startup

Steve Blank