Misconceptions about Lean Startup


by Ry Walker

Popularity of the Lean Startup methodology continues to rise, but suffers from misconceptions by people who don't understand it, similar to early days of Agile software development.

Think of Lean Startup as equivalent to "Agile for business model development."

You may discover one or two aspects of Lean Startup that you don't agree with, and make the mistake of throwing the baby out with the bathwater.

This reminds me of the early days of Agile, where people dismissed it because they disagreed with aspects such as pair programming and less planning.

Agile development excels when projects contain extreme uncertainty. Lean Startup will follow it's path towards widespread adoption over the next few years, because the people who use it love it. The haters are dismissing it before giving it a chance.

I'd like to take a shot at some of the most prominent misconceptions.

"It advocates delivering low quality work"

Some people equate the word lean with cheap, and cheap with low quality. They are using the wrong definition of the word lean.

"Lean" in Lean Startup is derived from the Toyota Production System, which is decades old. The definition of Toyota's lean is "to design out waste and overburden."

Lean Startup focuses you on a minimal set of core features (reducing overburden), talking to customers early (reducing waste), and taking a scientific approach to tracking actionable metrics (Pirate Metrics) over vanity metrics ([Vanity Metrics vs. Actionable Metrics] (http://www.fourhourworkweek.com/blog/2009/05/19/vanity-metrics-vs-actionable-metrics/)).

The goal is to iterate quickly, and therefore spend money effectively.

"It's too restrictive on my creativity"

Some think the Lean Startup approach sounds too clinical, that it abdicates design responsibility to customers, and is restrictive on creativity.

Some see Lean Startup as a debate about "art" vs. "science" — and feel they must choose one or the other.

Lean Startup is as a wrapper around the same creative processes you use, only now you get a more concrete scoreboard on your vision.

Steve Blank recently said "A founder’s vision is just an opinion stated passionately."

Do have a big, compelling vision — but be rigorous about testing that vision against reality.

You're going to find out eventually if your design is effective. Lean Startup wants you to get that feedback as soon as possible.

"It's scammy to test on real customers"

Some equate Lean Startup with building landing pages with nothing behind them, pretending to be a real product. And they don't want to be that guy, tricking people into thinking they have a real product.

A core task in determining the scalability of a product is to determine how much it costs to get sign ups.

There are ways to engage your target market in both a clever and considerate way. Ben Curren did a talk at QCMerge, it is a great counterpoint to the fears around the "build a landing page" strategy.

Real issues

There are some real issues with adopting Lean Startup, and like Agile, it's not perfect.

It's a hell of a lot better than the polar opposite — locking yourself in your office for months hacking on your vision, then being disappointed during the "big reveal" that nobody cares or wants to buy.

It's uncomfortable, because you don't get to live in your own reality distortion field. It requires discipline. It exposes problems early, which may dampen enthusiasm.

True — many successful entrepreneurs locked themselves up in a room, and launched something that the world loved. These success stories are heavily promoted. You could follow that method, intuitively get it right, and Lean Startup would have only slowed you down.

But the numbers are clear. The batting average for startups growing to sustainable businesses is low, about is 1 in 10. Lean Startup helps you shorten your at-bat time, so you can get on to an idea or version of an idea that works for you.

Lean Startup reduces waste, gives you a scoreboard, but WILL bruise your ego.

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