This post was written by Sarah Milstein, co-host of The Lean Startup Conference.
We’re looking for speakers for the 2013 Lean Startup Conference. Last week, we announced that our short application form was live. Today, we’re following up with answers to frequently asked questions we’ve received since then, because the answers will help your application succeed. If you’re a Lean Startup veteran, feel free to skim the beginning, as this is mostly stuff you already know.
1) Can you tell me more about your audience? The Lean Startup Conference is an event by entrepreneurs for entrepreneurs—except that our definition of “entrepreneur” may be different from the one you have in mind.
Eric has talked often about recognizing a startup as an organization designed to create a new product or service under conditions of extreme uncertainty. Most commonly, that’s uncertainty about whether you can build the product at all (what MBAs call “technical risk”) or whether anybody will use or buy it (“market risk”). Although every organization faces some uncertainty in developing new stuff, the conditions are not always extreme. For example, when your company adds another blade to its disposable razors, the product’s technical development, marketing and sales will follow relatively predictable paths.
But that’s not to say that every established company developing personal grooming products is operating risk-free. What if your company is concerned that emerging customer pressure and local laws will make disposable razors difficult, if not impossible, to sell in the U.S. in ten years? Now you may be facing several kinds of risk. Will you be able to think up alternative products? If so, will customers be interested in the new ideas and able to incorporate those products into their daily routines? If so, will you be able to manufacture those products efficiently—or at all?
So when we say our conference is by entrepreneurs for entrepreneurs, we’re talking about people in any kind of organization—for-profit, non-profit, governmental, education, startup, Fortune 1000—who are responsible for developing products and services beyond the edge of what your organization can know through its or its competitors’ existing experience.
Often, in very young organizations, those people are simply the founders. In more established places, they may have nearly any job title. And in any organization, they can be technical, but they can fill other roles altogether. What they share is a need to learn a lot very quickly and the ability to adjust—sometimes subtly, sometimes radically--after incorporating new lessons.
2) Ok, I get it: the “startup” part of “Lean Startup” can be a lot of things other than two people in a garage with a couple of laptops. So what kinds of talks do all these entrepreneurs find valuable? Our attendees are hungry to learn more about the “lean” part of “Lean Startup”—how to learn quickly and effectively to reduce all that extreme uncertainty (the MBAs call this “de-risking”; it would be fair to call the MBAs “language assassins”).
Now, “lean” is often used to refer to a company’s financial situation, so it might make you think of a bootstrapped or under-funded organization. But when we talk about “lean,” we’re referring to the processes a company can use, when developing a new product or service, to learn quickly about the questions it has. (If you’re getting the sense that “Lean Startup” is neither “lean” nor “startup” as you’ve considered those words before, you’ve got the right idea.) We also care that those learning processes are as cheap as possible, so that you can try the maximum number of things as you’re learning before you run out of cash. “As cheap as possible,” though, is relative and may mean spending many thousands or millions of dollars to learn what you need to know.
For example, if your publishing company is thinking of putting out a coffee table book in the U.S. about cooking with insects, you might reasonably ask: Will anybody buy this? (You know you can produce such a volume; the processes you already use for publishing lavish books on baking cakes nearly all apply here.) One way to find out if anybody will buy the book is to go ahead and publish it. Commission the writer and photographer, assign an editor to develop the book with them, find people to test the recipes, get a copyeditor to review the final text, have production people layout the pages and correct the photos, hire a freelance indexer, get a pro to proofread the whole thing, and then ship it off to China for printing (and probably send a production expert to oversee the run). Oh, and your salespeople have to make sure bookstores will stock it, and your marketing and PR people will have to make sure readers know it exists. From the time you decided to find out if anybody will buy it until the time you’re able to actually test the idea using this approach is approximately two and a half to three years. Not to mention $200,000 in staff time and hard costs.
Or you could work with the writer to create a blog, see if it can attract a readership, and then test whether those readers will pre-order a book—which you can do before you’ve put ten seconds of effort into creating a print volume. Total time elapsed? Two to six months, and as a bonus, the readers test the recipes for you. Note that this isn’t a free process. You may have to pay the writer and photographer, and perhaps you’ll spend some money on training the writer to use blogging software and social media tools that help them build a following. Generously, it might cost you $20,000. In other words, you could test ten book ideas for the cost of publishing one. And because you can run your tests simultaneously, you could learn in several months rather than over the course of a decade or two which are worth investing more in.
At The Lean Startup Conference, our attendees are keenly interested in ideas like the blog approach—that is, they’re looking for ways they can quickly and cheaply generate and test more ideas to learn faster. There are a few ways your talk can help them:
- You can provide advice on how a significant challenge—like a seemingly intractable and long-term development cycle—can be approached in new ways using Lean Startup methods. Last year, Danny Kim talked about how his company, Litmotors, was rapidly testing the market for totally new kinds of cars. While most of our attendees are not in the automotive sector, they could see ways to apply Litmotors’ thinking in their own organizations. Similarly, Diane Tavenner talked about the way Summit Schools had run short-term experiments within the fairly drawn out cycle of a school year. And Jessica Scorpio shared the way GetAround had used prototyping to test their very big idea.
- You can give hands-on advice for a particular process that helps people learn, like A/B testing. Maybe you’ve got technical advice for getting the most out of A/B testing on software projects. Or maybe you’ve done A/B testing with a food-delivery service and you have advice about how to run real-world A/B tests. Or maybe you've realized that A/B testing has some significant problems that most people aren't aware of. Last year, Janice Fraser and Laura Klein ran a workshop on tools that you can use to validate ideas. Adam Goldstein talked about a particular live-chat tool that Hipmunk has used to learn more quickly than they realized was possible. Matt Brezina shared techniques for learning when you’re developing a mobile app—an environment that many people think resists rapid development.
- You can give advice about working with other people when you’re using Lean Startup techniques. Perhaps you got fired up about MVPs two years ago, but it took nine months to convince your boss that there would be value in selling a product that didn’t yet exist—and now you can share the secrets of getting other people on board much more quickly. Last year, speakers from Intuit, Meetup, Knod.es, Neo, Change.org and BloomBoard all talked about how you can build internal support for Lean Startup. Dan Milstein talked about using the 5 Whys technique—and gave key advice for doing it better with your team.
- You can give counter-intuitive advice on implementing Lean Startup techniques. Last year, the co-founders of Back to the Roots talked about their innovation accounting and how they were ignoring sales metrics in order to grow. Charles Hudson shared his hard decision to pivot from the iPhone to Android platform for his company’s games. Jocelyn Wyatt and Tendai Charasika both gave specific examples of how getting out of the building had yielded surprising results.
- You can give advice about applying Lean Startup ideas to business areas other than product development. Last year, Stephanie Hay and Leah Busque both talked about Lean Startupping their marketing processes. George Bilbrey gave insight on using the methods on a sales team.
I’m sure you see the theme emerging here: our attendees want your advice, based on your experiences. They don’t need to be convinced that Lean Startup provides a compelling alternative to traditional product development, so we are not looking for talks about the fact that you’ve had success with Lean Startup in an unexpected sector or in a part of the world outside San Francisco. But if you’ve applied Lean Startup ideas, and you have experience to share that other people can use, our attendees may derive inspiration from an unusual context, like a story from the pharmaceutical industry or a startup in Nigeria.
Hopefully, you've also noticed that checking out last year's talks can be a good way to get a sense of what we look for. (The talks linked here all all take you to videos from last year.)
Our talks range from five minutes to three hours, and we structure them based on the information you have to share, so don’t worry too much about length. Focus instead on the advice you can give.
3) Cool—advice is key. Any particular themes you’re interested in this year? We’re looking for entrepreneurs’ stories from around the world and from different sectors that share deep learning. As this is the fourth year of the conference, and as noted above, we’re moving away from talks about the fact that somebody has applied Lean Startup in a place or company that’s unexpected and are instead focusing on advice from those people. If you need a theme to guide you, ask yourself: What advice can I give other people to help them achieve growth in their organizations?
Based on attendee requests, some of our talks this year will be more in-depth and targeted to segments of our audience. So if you have advice that you think is relevant only to people working in established corporations, or only to government employees, or only to non-profit leaders, or only to innovative educators, or only to engineers, no prob—you can indicate that in your application.
Do note that the conference is a no-hype zone (no pitches, no launches). Really, it's a place to learn and connect with other entrepreneurs. In addition to talks, the program will include peer-to-peer events for sharing ideas and meeting other entrepreneurs, along with structured mentoring.
4) I’m not a coder; should I bother to apply? Glad you asked. About half of our attendees are not technical, and very few of our talks focus on technical processes. So, no, you absolutely do not have to be a developer to give a talk. That said, we do have room this year for a handful of tech talks. So if you’ve got advice to share on implementing a continuous deployment framework, for example, we’re all eyes.
5) Do I have to follow the directions on the application form? Ok, nobody has asked this question yet. But I include it because we pretty consistently find that about a quarter of all applicants blow off the most important part of the form: the link to the two- to three-minute video you have made for us.
Note that that is not “the link to your website” or “the link to a video of you speaking at another conference” or “the link to a video of you being interviewed on tv.” We require that you create a video for us, and we give explicit directions on how to do so. Once you’ve come up with your talk idea, the video itself should take just a few minutes to create. Don’t let it be a barrier to applying. Do follow the directions. Applications are due by
We look forward to reviewing your ideas.