The Lean Startup

I’m hearing “lean” everywhere (I mean lean like no fat, not lean like lean in). Usually the word is used in a manufacturing context with products made of glass, steel and plastic coming off an assembly line, but this book puts it in a startup context where products are often web services or apps. The author is a tech entrepreneur named Eric Ries and he promotes something called the Build – Measure – Learn feedback loop.

Let’s get some definitional things out of the way, a startup is defined by Ries like this:

A startup is a human institution designed to create a new product or service under conditions of extreme certainty. (Kindle loc. 366)

What we saw during the tech boom was that startups built products that nobody wanted and they went out of business. So the lean aspect of startups is different from that of manufacturing because it relates just as much to what to build as it does to actually building it. The goal of a startup, as Ries puts it:

The goal of a startup is to figure out the right thing to build — the thing customers will want to pay for — as quickly as possible. (Kindle loc.276)

He describes this chaotic atmosphere where a startup is building stuff, tweaking things, figuring out the marketing, dealing with investors, setting strategy, and resetting strategy. Ries aims to cut through all of this using his version of the scientific method:

… In the Lean Startup model, every product, every feature, every marketing campaign — everything a startup does — is understood to be an experiment to achieve validated learning. (Kindle loc. 749)

Ries goes on to explain what he means by validated learning and he applies the scientific method to real world startup examples, but all of this is distilled in his Build – Measure – Learn feedback loop. I’m paraphrasing this loop for myself, so I can remember it, because it’s the core of this book, here goes:

You have an idea, so you Build a product. It’s not the end product folks, it’s a minimum viable product (MVP). As soon as this product is out in the wild you need to Measure its performance relative to testable hypotheses, the value hypothesis and the growth hypothesis, with actionable, accesible, and auditable metrics. This measurement begets a set of data that you need to Learn from. This learning, or validated learning, is the real product of your startup; it was decided upon early in the process and it helps you assess the potential of what you’ve built and figure out what to build in the future — to pivot (or persevere). This Learning begets more ideas, and the loop restarts, as you incorporate these ideas into the product.

I’m sure I haven’t done Ries’ book justice. Also, did I mention you have to churn through this loop as fast as you can? Here’s how Ries puts it:

The truth is that none of these activities by itself is of paramount importance. Instead, we need to focus our energies on minimizing the total time through this feedback loop. (Kindle loc. 994)

There’s a lot of stuff in this book I can use, and test. However, I always come up with ways to apply stuff I read about in books, but I never really apply it. That’s an execution problem, a flaw in my Read – Analyze – Apply feedback loop. I’m not making fun, I’m highlighting how many of the concepts from this book can be used outside of the startup world, just in everyday work and personal life. Ries takes general concepts and uses Toyota, his own experience, and real-world examples like Facebook and Potbelly Sandwich Works to highlight how his points relate to startups, but many can be used in any industry or functional area.

I mean, reading books isn’t as important as gaining perspectives that enrich your life. Important stuff.