I have some news I'm excited to share: I'm launching a Kickstarter campaign in March. I can't wait to tell you more about it. But before I do, I'm conducting a very short survey. It's been a while, but long time readers know I always try to collect data before any kind of launch.
Please click here if you're interested in participating. I'll have more details to share soon.
(If your company makes a product for entrepreneurs that you'd like to donate as a backer reward for the campaign, please get in touch.)
Wednesday, January 14, 2015
Lately, I’ve been hearing from a lot of entrepreneurs experiencing pushback to the concept of minimum viable product. Their teams may disagree about what a product should look like, who the customer is, and which distributors to work with, but one thing they can all agree upon is: “We build high-quality products in this company. We wouldn’t even know how to go about building something ‘minimally viable.’”
How can we assure our teams that they won’t be penalized for adapting an iterative approach—even if the first version bombs? How can we make it clear that our goal is nothing less than delighting the customer? In fact, with an MVP we are not asking our teams to deliver low-quality work, we’re adopting a strategy for driving excellence throughout the organization.
An MVP is an experiment on the way to excellence.
When people hear the phrase “Minimum Viable Product” they sometimes forget to ask: minimum in regard to what? They worry they’ll need to do the same amount of work in less time by cutting corners. They fear they’re being asked to create a low-quality product that will put their reputation—or even people’s lives—at risk.
This is a misconception. “Minimally viable” does not mean operating in a sloppy or undisciplined way, building bad code that’s going to result in a lot of technical debt, or ignoring safety or health concerns. An MVP is not an excuse to throw our beliefs about quality out the window; it’s simply an experiment on the way to excellence.
Instead of taking one big swing with the launch of a new product—devoting months to the design of one technical feature or spending years in stealth mode developing a product without evidence that customers want it—it is an iterative approach to learn who the customer actually is, and what’s honestly required to delight them.
Why do we think that spending more time developing a product before sharing it with customers will get us closer to discovering what they really want? Or that mistakes are something to be swept under the rug? Who is familiar with a team that produced excellent work because they got less feedback and moved slower? Where is the evidence to support that belief?
An MVP approach can help us learn about what the customer truly values before we’ve invested too much time and money into building something they don’t need or want. Our work is not done until the customer is, in fact, delighted.
Of course, that’s easier said than done. But there are concrete steps we can take to create cultures of excellence in our organizations using an MVP approach.
1. Clarify what MVPs are and why they’re important. Remember, MVPs are just one part of an iterative Build-Measure-Learn process.
We use the term “Minimum Viable Product” as a reminder to people with product development backgrounds that we’re going to build something. We are going to take something to the customer that is as real as we can make it, but we’re not going to overdo it by trying to do something too elaborate. This is a built-in cure for the human tendency to over-engineer solutions.
It’s impossible to think about MVPs without remembering how they fit into the Build-Measure-Learn cycle:
- Enter the Build phase as quickly as possible with an MVP that will allow us to test a clear hypothesis we have about our product or strategy.
- Measure its impact in the marketplace using actionable metrics that help us analyze customer behavior.
- Learn whether our original assumptions about the product, process, and customer needs were correct or whether we need to change strategies to better meet our vision.
The Build-Measure-Learn feedback loop does not end once we’ve put our first product into the market. Every new launch of an MVP is an opportunity to gain valuable information about how well we’re meeting customer needs--and whether we need to adjust our strategy with a pivot.
2. Building a culture of excellence is our job as leaders.
I’ve long since lost track of the number of people who have given me excuses about about why the MVP approach “won’t work in our business.” Almost all of them have gone on to discover that it can, in fact, be made to work – in businesses as diverse as software, education, high-tech healthcare equipment and gas turbine manufacturing.
While every industry has unique challenges that make an iterative approach difficult, what teams are really saying when they balk at an MVP approach is they’re not willing to do the work required to run experiments. Creating hypotheses and then putting them to the test is never an impossible feat, but it is one that will require teams to work differently.
And that means nothing less than full support from leadership. That’s true in the tiniest startup and the world’s largest companies. New thinking requires a act of leadership.
As leaders, we’re responsible for creating and supporting the platforms that will allow for experimentation. We have to make sure that our teams have the right tools and insist the work be done iteratively. And we have to hold them accountable for a high standard of success: “Show me progress along the way, but remember that you’re not done until you’ve delighted the customer.”
Sometimes this means building infrastructure that makes experimentation possible: One way of doing this is creating an innovation sandbox to protect the rest of the organization from the experiment. For example, pick a few customers to experiment with and promise to pay them penalties for any kind of fault during the experimentation period. Or select a subset of your web traffic and divert those customers to a new experience. If customers are unhappy at any time during the experiment, the startup team has to promise to make it right. That often means engineers taking support calls and sales people working with existing customers. That’s a good thing, because it enhances the learning your team will get. It also gives your team the cover to work quickly; while you may lose money in these early days, you’ll have learned a great deal about what the customer really wants.
Often, it requires thinking creatively about what shape an MVP can take. One thing to keep in mind is that while every MVP provides some "quantum of utility" (to borrow Paul Graham's phrase) to the customer, there’s a wide range of MVPs. When your sales process is long and complicated, models and brochures can act as products. Even though they’re not “products” in the traditional sense of the word, they still offer us a chance to gauge customer interest by asking for some exchange of value, even if that exchange is not monetary. For example, we can ask customers to spend more time talking to us about the product, take part in a training program, or agree to recommend the product to other decision-makers in the buying process.
3. Cross-functional teams are key to delighting the customer.
Once we’ve set up the right conditions for experimentation, it’s important to create cross-functional teams who, together, can assess which features truly deliver value.
Say you wanted to run an experiment to test which aspects of a new appliance drive the most value. You couldn’t just send a salesperson because they would not know which features drove the most cost. Nor could you send a design team without knowledge of the supply chain or the current market landscape. This experiment requires a collaboration between the product designer, a salesperson, and someone on the manufacturing side. By working together, they can identify what drives cost and what drives value--when, prior to running such an experiment, you couldn’t really know what drives either.
It can be challenging to make the case that all functions should be represented at both large organizations where it’s difficult to get people assigned to any project full-time and at small startups where resources are scarce. But remember that the goal of Lean Startup methodology isn’t just to build a product, but to learn how to build a sustainable business: a cross-functional approach is key to this kind of learning.
Building a culture of excellence will also require rethinking the way you measure and evaluate performance. When evaluations are tied to functional performance, a good day is one in which everyone did their job well: Did engineers strive to create the “highest-quality” product or service? Did legal limit the company’s liability? Did marketing anticipate external trends accurately enough?
But if we build products we can’t sell or processes no one uses, it doesn’t matter if we executed on time and on budget. Entrepreneurs and general managers should not simply be content with functional excellence but strive for products, processes, and systems that delight our customers.
4. If a customer doesn’t like what you’ve made, that’s a discovery, not a failure.
Even after teams have grasped the concept of the MVP on an intellectual level, they often find it hard to pull the trigger on those first iterations; it takes them a while to set up those initial meetings with customers or launch their first MVP.
They can be held back by any number of worries: What if we show the customer something they don’t like? What if going in with a minimum viable product makes it seem as if we don’t know what we’re talking about?
As counterintuitive as it sounds, finding out that our minimum viable product is too “minimal” is good news. We can simply apologize, and use the customer feedback to build a new version that does meet their needs.
The good news about MVPs is that we can always make them more complicated as we go, so we might as well start simple and let the project grow in complexity until we have delighted the customer. If we do something we believe is too simple and customers agree, we can consider that a major win. It doesn’t mean the end of the project; it means we can use what we’ve learned to build the next iteration.
We don’t want to wait around for some mythical moment of perfection nor do we want to run around with no process. We use MVPs to test our strategy— if it’s not helping us achieve our visions, we need to make an adjustment.
If your team is concerned that creating an MVP will mean skimping on quality, it can be a good indication that they care about what they’re building. They recognize the importance of excellence and they strive to produce high-quality work —it’s why you hired them. This approach is not about asking people to ignore their skills, values and gut instincts about quality; it’s about making sure that they don’t waste their time and talent over-designing features that are not actually important to the customer. It’s about empowering your team to leave dead-end projects and activities behind so that they can invest their time into work that truly matters.
Monday, December 1, 2014
Guest post by Lisa Regan, writer for The Lean Startup Conference
The Lean Startup Conference is next week--and now that we can step back and see all the speakers and mentors, we have to say: Wow. When you look through the list, you’ll see big names that we’re very pleased we landed, epic companies we really want to hear from, and people we’re particularly excited to present because they have incredible stories to share--and you won’t hear them anyplace else.
Here are a few speakers to look out for--though with more than 80 speakers and 40+ mentors, there are far too many standouts for us to mention individually here. Another way to learn more about who’s speaking is to sort the conference program by category and find people addressing specific topics.
We’ve got speakers who are justifiably respected by a lot of entrepreneurs. For example:
- Todd Park convened the team that saved Obamacare. As the emeritus Chief Technology Officer of the United States, he still connects government and Silicon Valley. He and some of his key team members will share advice for working in large (very large) organizations.
- Ben Horowitz’s book The Hard Thing About Hard Things is driving the conversation around startup management this year. He’s a founder of Andreessen Horowitz, which has backed Facebook, Skype, Jawbone, and dozens of other companies whose products you use. Eric Ries will interview him.
- Bob Sutton is a Stanford professor and the author of several best-selling books on standout management, including Scaling Up Excellence, an investigation of high-growth companies. He’ll talk with Eric Ries about how companies successfully scale.
Companies of note
Learn from companies that have been through the fire--and have lessons to share.
- Aditya Agarwal has lived through startup hypergrowth--twice. He was a very early employee of Facebook, and engineering director there through the moment it blew up. Now he’s VP of engineering at Dropbox, where he’s seeing similar growth. He’ll bring us real-world advice.
- Melissa Bell co-founded Vox.com, which opened for business earlier this year and immediately became one of the most important site launches in a year of big launches. And the whole site was developed in just 9 weeks. Melissa will talk with Lean Startup Productions CEO and co-founder Sarah Milstein about how experimentation continues on the site even with millions of eyes on it every day.
- Blair Beverly from Google’s AdSense group will describe a stealthy method for convincing colleagues to get on board with Lean Startup.
- Jocelyn Goldfein was most recently Engineering Director at Facebook and will talk about how different types of software allow for different types of experimentation.
- Bill Grundfest is not what you usually expect from a startup conference. A comedian who founded NYC’s Comedy Cellar--an enduring business--Bill has written for TV sitcoms and media companies. He’ll be running a hands-on session on how to make a compelling business video. We gave him a night session so he’d feel in his element.
- Dan McKinley will show the math he used to test new ideas as an engineer during the early days at Etsy.
- Hugh Molotsi, an accomplished innovator at Intuit, will talk about recognizing good ideas in big organizations.
- Cory Nelson will talk with Eric about how GE has applied the MVP method to its development of very large diesel engines.
We go to great lengths to find stories you won’t hear elsewhere, and then we train those speakers so that they can tell their stories with impact. Some of the best lessons you’ll learn this year will come from people you’ve likely never heard of before: Sheena Allen, Tiffany Bell, Kevin Ellsworth, Seppo Halava, Margo Wright and many, many more.
Many Lean Startup experts under one roof
The conference features core Lean Startup experts helping you learn the most important ideas. That includes:
- Cindy Alvarez, author of Lean Customer Development, running a live customer-development problem-solving session
- Laura Klein, author of UX for Lean Startups, running a session on validating assumptions
- Grace Ng, founder of Javelin, giving a talk on designing effective experiments
- Manuel Rosso of Scripps Networks Interactive giving a talk on creating a culture of experimentation
- Hiten Shah, co-founder of KISSmetrics and Crazy Egg, talking about A/B testing
Office Hours is your opportunity to sit down one-on-one with an expert and hash out the problems you’re facing. You can get direct advice from many of our speakers and from people like:
- Farrah Bostic, founder of The Difference Engine and an expert in customer research
- David Charron, serial entrepreneur and professor of entrepreneurship at UC Berkeley’s Haas School of Business
- Kevin Dewalt, a pioneer in bringing Lean Startup ideas to Asia
- Ame Elliott, a senior team leader at IDEO, where she brings products from design to production
- Sharethrough co-founder and CTO Rob Fan
- Learie Hercules, technical lead for a number of successful Lean Startup implementations
- Jini Kim, key member of the team that saved Healthcare.gov and a healthcare startup entrepreneur
- UX designer for Toyota ITC Matt Kresse
- Alicia Liu, engineer at mobile startup Lift.do
- Erin McKean, founder of content personalization platform Reverb Technologies
- Tim O’Reilly, founder and CEO of O’Reilly Media
- Nicole Sanchez, founder of Vaya Consulting and a leader in improving hiring and diversity
A program highly relevant to you
We’ve tagged all the conference sessions by category, so you don’t have to guess which will be of interest to you. Here are just a few things you might look for:
Thursday, November 20, 2014
Guest post by Lisa Regan, writer for The Lean Startup Conference
Eleven months in the making, the full schedule for The Lean Startup Conference is at last complete, and we can’t wait to show you around! OK, sure, we’re still nailing down a couple more speakers and sessions, which we’ll announce as we finalize them. But other than that, it’s all there. Talk descriptions, speakers, workshops, evening events, Ignite, Office Hours…but we’re getting a little ahead of ourselves. Let’s slow down and go over just what we have and for whom.
We took the feedback we gathered in previous years to expand on and improve the program. We’ve got more in-depth how-to talks than ever and even better opportunities for you to meet other relevant attendees. That means there’s never been a better year to attend than this one. For first-time attendees, this conference offers a complete introduction to Lean Startup. Returning participants will find new speakers, fresh ideas, more options to meet other entrepreneurs, and special sessions for advanced practitioners.
Here’s an overview of it all, and of course, you can find more detail on our site. (If you need additional ammo to convince your boss, we’ve written up detailed benefits for employees of established organizations.)
-- The Conference Core: Two Days and Three Nights of Intense Education and Connection --
We don’t fix what’s already awesome. So as per usual, we kick off the main conference on December 9 with Ignite--a high-energy, entertaining series of lightning talks.
On December 10 and 11, the two main conference days are packed with mainstage talks to inspire and breakout sessions to teach you the how-to of implementing Lean Startup methods. At your request, we’ve brought in speakers from all kinds of organizations--including young companies, Fortune 500s, mission-driven orgs, and government, and they create websites, apps, games, hardware, consumer goods, social services, media products and more. We’ve tagged the talks by topic, so you can zero in on what interests you most.
If you’ve scanned the list of speakers before, take a second look. We’ve recently added talks from: Former US CTO and current tech advisor to the White House, Todd Park; former Facebook engineering director Joceyln Goldfein; Dropbox engineering VP Aditya Agarwal; and KISSMetrics founder Hiten Shah.
Take a third look, too, because there are a lot of people there you haven’t heard of but who have in-the-trenches information to share. That’s no accident. We actively sought out great stories, not just big names, and we found people who had compelling experiences to present. These are people you won’t hear at any other conference. It’s what keeps the Lean Startup Conference on point: No stale talks.
We’re also going beyond traditional sessions. To help experienced Lean Startup practitioners share knowledge with each other, we’re dedicating several breakout sessions each day for advanced attendees to hold focused conversations with each other. And after dinner on December 10 and 11, we’ve added hands-on sessions for you to learn video-editing techniques from one of our favorite speakers last year or to catch a jazz set with a discussion of improv as an analog for business collaboration.
We know that meeting other people at conferences can be rewarding--but surprisingly hard to pull off. So On December 10 and 11, we’ve booked tables for Lean Startup group dinners at popular San Francisco restaurants. These were such a hit last year that we’ve expanded on them, and we’ll designate groups for each venue--startup founders and early employees, entrepreneurs within the enterprise, or mission-driven and non-profit innovators--so that you can connect with the attendees most relevant to you.
You probably don’t come to this conference for the food--but that wouldn’t be a crazy idea. For lunches, we’ve contracted with local food trucks to park outside the conference and offer a taste of San Francisco entrepreneurship (literally) just for conference participants.
-- Go Deeper: Up to Five Days of Incredible Events --
We designed our Platinum and Gold Passes specifically for people looking to do a deep dive into Lean Startup. They include training and are an amazing deal; they also offer exclusive networking opportunities. You can buy these passes now or upgrade an existing Silver Pass. Platinum Passes include everything above, plus:
- Startup site visits. Who doesn’t love a field trip? Platinum Passholders will spend December 8 visiting four successful San Francisco startups. See for yourself what innovation environments look like and connect with the people making them work.
- Workshops. December 9 is devoted to full-day, hands-on sessions led by our community’s most accomplished Lean Startup trainers. This year’s workshops cover Lean Startup 101; Introducing Lean Startup in Your Corporation; Lean Impact; Innovation Accounting; and Metrics: The Data That Will Make or Break Your Business.
- Office Hours. On the evenings of December 10 and 11, you can sign up for 15-minute, one-on-one conversations with select conference presenters and expert mentors. This was an experiment we tried last year, and we were frankly overwhelmed by the positive response. So this year we’re expanding Office Hours not only with more speakers, but also with more mentors from a range of fields--giving you an unusual chance to talk with people like O’Reilly Media CEO Tim O’Reilly, Reverb Technologies founder Erin McKean, and entrepreneurship expert Nathalie Molina Niño.
- Live Q&A with Eric Ries. On December 12, Eric will answer attendees’ questions live. He’s going to take all kinds of startup questions--on designing experiments, understanding metrics, deciding when to pivot--whatever comes. You not only get to ask, but you also get to hear details of the challenges other entrepreneurs are facing.
- Perks include:
- Reserved front-row seating in every conference room
- Platinum line at Registration to save you time
- Platinum line for our food trucks on Tuesday and Friday
- First dibs to sign-up for our Office Hours
- First dibs to sign-up for our group dinners
Our Gold Pass covers three days--including December 10 and 11, plus your choice of Workshop on December 9 or Live Q&A with Eric Ries on December 12. Gold Passholders also get access to Ignite, Office Hours, and designated ballroom seating for December 10 and 11 mainstage talks.
-- A Pass for Every Income --
We’ve talked a lot here about the Gold and Platinum Passes, because they offer incredible value. But we also want The Lean Startup Conference to be accessible to everyone. So we’re pleased to offer passes at a complete range of levels:
- Our Silver Passes are a great deal: Two full days of the conference, a seat at Ignite, sign-ups for dinners, food truck tickets for purchase.
- Our Scholarship Pass offers the same benefits as the Silver Pass, but brings the cost of the conference down to $200 for people who otherwise wouldn’t be able to attend (think: fledgling solopreneurs, employees at very young startups and small non-profits). Apply for a Scholarship Pass here.
- Livestream the conference. For the first time, we’re making the conference available via livestream to individuals. You get all the mainstage talks and the most popular breakouts, along with access to live Q&A, moderated chat, and a conference social network. You pay per screen, so sit down with a couple of friends and split the cost.
- If you’re a student, you can apply to volunteer. Pitch in for a shift, and we’ll give you a Silver Pass. Apply to volunteer here.
All passes are on sale now, and you can compare them here. And, again, you can now see the whole program on our site. Register today to join us for our best Lean Startup Conference yet!
PS. While you wait for December, check out our webcast on November 25 with Brant Cooper--one of our most popular workshop leaders--and Coca Cola’s Carie Davis. It explores a topic we haven’t seen discussed elsewhere yet.