Thursday, July 25, 2013

Lean Startup Beyond the Tech Sector

Guest post by Lisa Regan and conference co-host Sarah Milstein.

The Lean Startup methodology has its roots in the tech sector, where companies need to iterate quickly in order to survive. But the methods have expanded into nearly every industry we can name. In fact, at last year’s Lean Startup conference we had speakers from a number other sectors, including government, transportation, education and public health. They demonstrated the ways that testing and measuring could help many industries build truly useful, successful products and services. At this year’s conference—for which a new batch of discounted tickets has just gone on sale—the conversation continues with additional industries and a deeper focus on exactly how Lean Startup works in other sectors. For those of you who couldn’t attend last year, we wanted to point out a few talks from 2012 that we’ll be building on this December.

Could anything be less like a startup than the federal government? Todd Park, the nation’s Chief Technology Officer, cheerfully admitted as much when he spoke at Lean Startup last year. But, as he also said, “Projects within [government] often are.” Park helps the federal government in “harnessing the power of Lean Startup mojo to better serve the American people.” He described a dizzying array of initiatives in a range of fields—health, energy, education, public safety, finance and non-profits. Here's just one example. The FDA hosts Innovation Pathway 2.0, a program offering streamlined processes for evaluating and approving potentially revolutionary medical solutions. Companies that create devices can see these rapidly pressure-tested, cutting the length of clinical trials and shortening products' time to market (as well as cutting failing ideas faster). Specific challenges help fuel this effort, for instance a call to address end-stage renal disease that put an artificial kidney into testing. Park’s mission: help slow-moving government learn to more quickly pivot toward what works.

Of course, MVPs and prototyping, which Park mentioned in that last example, can be key Lean Startup tools, and last year we heard from two speakers who used it to find success in areas far from tech. Danny Kim of Lit Motors invented an appealing little vehicle that has, as he says, “the romance and efficiency of a motorcycle with the safety and efficiency of a car.” It essentially cuts the car in half, leaving just the part the driver sits in (plus a really cool set of wheels). The idea is for something sustainable and affordable—“the same thing the Model-T did,” as he puts it. Jumping into mass production of something as complex as an automobile is incredibly difficult, so he started by testing out a showroom before he built the cars. When he found that nearly 16% of people who walked into this simulated showroom were ready to put down money on the spot, he had demonstrated enough marketability to start hand-building the vehicles for individual sale. He sold out of machines before even getting Series A funding.

You can MVP just about anything, as we learned from Jocelyn Wyatt of She is working toward affordable waste removal in Kumasi, Ghana, a city of 2.5 million where 72% of people do not have in-home toilets. Wyatt’s organization iterated through a series of MVPs to find a toilet that functioned like a camping unit – durable, and requiring no sewage system — but that people would be willing to use. And once IDEO had the units, they also prototyped a system of service operators to empty them. They even prototyped and tested a brand name and logo that reflected not what they thought the locals would want, but what Ghanaians actually chose (see the video for the surprising differences). The result: IDEO is scaling from 150 toilets to 10,000 over two years.

Last example—education, where Lean Startup methods give “testing” a whole new meaning. As Diane Tavenner at Summit Public Schools, a group of charter schools in the Bay Area, told us last year, “The typical public school is the opposite of lean or startup—it’s guaranteed customers and guaranteed revenue, even when you’re losing your customers.” But by testing the school’s methods, rather than just the students, she is changing that, starting with a math curriculum with one major principle: self-design. Her team created a math guide with a range of materials—online courses and assignments, playlists of materials, games, in-person lectures—and invited students to learn at their own pace. Students determine what they’re ready to be tested on, and when. The teachers and administrators collect data and meet to discuss it daily, and they respond in weekly cycles, testing different solutions to see what works. They’re aiming at 100% graduation rates for their students from 4-year colleges; as it is, 100% of their students already become eligible for college, against a California average of 24%. To find out about how Summit’s “tutoring bar” replaced lectures, check out her 2012 talk:

Some of last year’s speakers will be returning to The Lean Startup Conference this December with more nuanced insights to share. We’re also bringing in additional speakers from these sectors and from sectors new to the conference, including US healthcare, bioscience, traditional automobile manufacturing (where lean principles got their start) and more. If there’s a particular industry you want to see included, let us know in the comments. Meantime, as you may recall, we sell discounted conference tickets in batches; when one batch sells out, the price goes up. We’ve just opened up a new batch today, and we look forward to seeing you in December.