Thursday, November 7, 2013

Open to All: Scholarships for The Lean Startup Conference

Guest post by Lisa Regan, writer for The Lean Startup Conference.

We’re dedicated to making The Lean Startup Conference unlike other entrepreneurship conferences. That includes not only selecting terrific speakers you don’t already know, but also making registration broadly accessible. So we’ve got scholarships for people who wouldn’t otherwise be able to attend—early-stage entrepreneurs, particularly those from beyond Silicon Valley; staff from small non-profits; and students. Here are the details for each group.

Early-stage entrepreneurs; people participating in startrup incubator or accelerator programs; and bootstrappers. As Lean Startup takes root around the world, we’d like to learn from and help people working in geographically diverse areas connect with each other. But travel, particularly for early-stage and bootstrapped entrepreneurs who are physically far away, can be hard to swing. To ease the financial load, we’ve got a scholarship program that strips away luxuries and offers you a ticket that’s under-cost for us.

We’re interested not only in bringing folks to San Francisco, but also in helping Lean Startup communities take root beyond Silicon Valley. So on the partially-validated theory that Lean Startup methodologies will thrive most readily in areas where people can support each other, we’re giving priority to groups. Individuals can apply, but the scholarship application form is designed for a community leader to bring in a group from a geographic area or from an incubator/accelerator program. There’s no group size requirement per se, but we’ll look for a bigger group from say, New York City, than from a region with a smaller existing Lean Startup community. There’s also no deadline for applicants, but we’ll let people in on a rolling basis, and we anticipate running out of spots well before the conference, so apply now.

If you live outside the San Francisco Bay Area, and you’re simply unable to consider travel, you can apply to host a free livestream of the conference in your town. Last year, we had 300 livestream groups worldwide.

Non-profit staff and volunteers. This year’s Lean Startup Conference has a number of talks on Lean Impact—the movement to apply Lean Startup ideas in mission-driven organizations. For small and minimally funded non-profit organizations who could benefit greatly from participating in these sessions but can’t afford the conference fee, we have a special scholarship program.

Students. Students, particularly undergraduates, are some of the most open-minded and avidly interested people in our orbit. They’re also some of the least able to afford registration. The good news is that The Lean Startup Conference relies on top-notch volunteers to keep our events running smoothly, and we’ve found that students often make the best volunteers. We take the volunteering commitment very seriously, so please apply only if you’re able to offer us both time and friendly dedication. The deadline for applying to volunteer is this Friday, November 8 (that's three days from now!).

This is the first year we’ve offered the scholarship program, which means we can’t yet tell you what the experience of coming to the conference on scholarship is like. But we did have volunteers last year, one of whom, Sourabh Chakraborty, is returning this year as a scholarship program participant. Sourabh is a college student deeply engaged with entrepreneurship issues, but located outside the usual tech geographic nexus. We wrote to him to ask him about his experience at last year’s Lean Startup Conference, and what he hopes to learn this year.

LSC: You were a volunteer last year at the Lean Startup Conference. Can you give a little intro to how you came to Lean Startup—what you do, what interested you about the conference, and how those two things are connected?

Sourabh: I'm a student at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and part of the local community of entrepreneurs and startup folks in Lincoln and Nebraska. I've tried a few ideas of my own in the past, and tried to help my friends with their ideas. I was under this impression that because I could code and build something, I could solve a problem. But every time we started, whether it was my idea or my friends' ideas, we would keep getting struck with this intangible smack at the beginning — What is or isn't our solution? Does anybody really want it? How will we decide pricing? Didn't Steve Jobs say that customers don't know what they want...? So I guess we should build what we as entrepreneurs and ideators think is right. Why is it taking so long to get something out of the door? Oh, right, we have an impossible list of features that will take months to build.” And that’s all not to mention the hours and hours we spent at the coffee shop discussing equity. Boy, did we all put up a hard fight in our heads for those dreamy millions!

This repeated frustration forced me to look at other processes, and I came across some material from Steve Blank's book The Startup Owner’s Manual, and his Udacity course, How to Build a Startup. Very soon I was doing Business Model Canvases for everything (of course, I hadn’t even read the entire book yet). That process lasted a few months before I got frustrated that it also wasn't helping. After reading the first few chapters of Eric's book, The Lean Startup, and investigating some other blogs and listening to other people's processes, it slowly dawned on me what Lean meant and what Steve Blank and Eric Ries were talking about—and how common-sensical it was.

Following Lean Startup stuff online, I came across the Lean Startup Conference. Because I'm a student, I emailed the organizers to see if there was any way I could attend by volunteering. I learn best through osmosis and asking questions, so putting myself amidst other Lean Startup entrepreneurs would, I thought, be an incredible opportunity for me to get better at my process.

LSC: What role does Lean Startup play in your work now, post-conference—both in terms of approach and practice?

I’m exploring concepts like starting with the riskiest assumption, rapid prototyping and testing our assumptions by getting feedback, and then iterating our solution. Through our university's student group we built software products for a couple of startups in the summer, and we advised our clients based on these principles. We've also been adopting this with our other creative clients, like, for example, the advertising campaign we are working on.

Personally this process has been a relief, because the focus has turned from, “How successful was our solution?” to “How much did we learn from the last iteration?”—and getting that pressure off our shoulders has been incredible. Now we can fearlessly go back to square one if we have to, even if much work has been invested, because nobody is to blame. We just move on as quickly as we can to the next iteration/experiment.

I should say that I still feel I understand only some principles of Lean Startup—I haven't gotten into Lean Analytics and Build-Measure-Learn yet, which is part of why I’m so glad to be coming to the conference again this year. I'm still in the beginning stages.
LSC: What do you think was the most valuable thing you learned at last year's conference?  Did you have an experience with particular impact at the conference, or meet someone you otherwise would not have?

I learned how widespread the Lean Startup concept was among the entrepreneurs who were at the conference, and what I needed to bring these principles to my friends back in Lincoln and at my university. After attending the conference the first time, my answer to most things in life has become "I don't know, but I've got a hypothesis, and let’s find out if its right.”

In terms of the talks, the most eye-opening experience was right towards the end when the winner of the Lean Startup Machine [Mark Abramson] talked about their team's process of pivoting two or three times over a weekend as they discovered new insights. Another very memorable talk came from Barath Kadaba, speaking as part of Scott Cook’s Intuit Panel, who described conducting an experiment in India to try and help Indian farmers judge the market for their goods by sending them a daily SMS with personalized agricultural information. As an Indian student, I was happy to see problem-solvers using Lean Startup principles in my country and getting amazing results. This is especially impressive since it’s so hard to understand the context of the customer in India, because of the differences in social structure, class and culture between the problem-solvers and the customers.

Of course, meeting people was the biggest thing, and the serendipitous meetings were the best. The volunteer staff, some local startup folks, old friends, a random startup guy in my dorm room who's in his eighties—all that was just amazing.

LSC: Anything else you'd like to say about Lean Startup, its value for your work, or the experience of going to the conference?

The only thing I can think of for any student or entrepreneur who is trying out different strategies to start a startup and is struggling at the ideation stage is—give these principles a shot. And The Lean Startup Conference really is the best place to get started, because you'll meet hundreds of people who've done it before, and tens of people who are taking the first steps, just like you. The Lean Startup Conference is the safest place to fail.

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