Thursday, September 12, 2013

Introducing New Lean Startup Practitioners

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

In building the program for this year’s Lean Startup Conference, we’ve tried to strike a balance. We’ve invited some deservedly well-known experts—people like Steve Blank, Laura Klein, Cindy Alvarez, Brant Cooper, Patrick Vlaskovits, Janice Fraser and Ash Maurya—to share their insights. But we’ve also sought out new voices. Indeed, the majority of our speakers this year are people who, though they’ve been doing compelling Lean Startup work and have great stories to share, are not on the conference circuit.

To give you a sense of these practitioners, we asked some our new speakers to talk about how they use Lean Startup methods. Below are three of their takes on  MVPs. To hear more from them, register for The Lean Startup Conference today. We’ve just  put a new batch of tickets on sale, and when this one sells out, the price goes up, so sign up now.

Steven Hodas will be speaking at the conference about  applying Lean Startup methods within extreme bureaucracy—in his case, the New York City Department of Education. Steven came to the NYCDOE via NASA, where he built the U.S. government’s first public website. After starting two companies of his own, he now heads the NYCDOE’s Markets initiative, which works on fostering smart demand for innovative solutions to the most urgent problems in New York’s public schools. Steven framed the value of MVP in terms of the enormous bureaucratic hurdles he has to cross:

“The NYCDOE is by far the largest school district in the country, with 1,800 schools, 1.1 million kids, and 135,000 employees. Our annual budget is $25 billion. As a life-long edtech entrepreneur I was excited and wary when I was asked to run Innovate NYC Schools, a program within the Office of Innovation that's intended to make the DOE more flexible, responsive, and better able to function. I knew that nearly everything I'd want to do would be anathema to standard operating procedure. After all, that is the point of the work.

For example, the basic notion of an MVP goes against the core tenets (whether spoken or unspoken) of large, bureaucratic organizations. Those tenets are:

1) We don't have customers, we have subjects. (Unspoken)

2) We are the experts in both the problem and the solution. (Spoken, loud and proud)

3) Iteration is a sign of failure, because (2). (Spoken, as if to a child)

4) The way to avoid (3) is to design by committee and then to ignore feedback, because anyway (1).

Still, because my job is to create bridges that don't yet exist between people inside the DOE (see 1-4) and those in the entrepreneur and maker communities, the MVP model provides the best template. In my case, the scarce resources, rather than time and money, are time and political capital. And the urgency stems not from an agile competitor, a first-mover market, or a power-law distribution of reward, but rather from the need to achieve enough velocity to overcome the tremendous gravitational pull of business-as-usual.

Further, my products are actually processes. My deliverable is not software per se (though sometimes there is that too), but alternative models for operating and engaging, a different way for DOE employees to view and go about their own work. An MVP strategy is the only way to generate the early wins that build credibility with both internal and external audiences, thus allowing me the space to learn, improve, deploy again, learn, improve, and so on. Each MVP is like a ratchet tooth or belay anchor that keeps the work from going backward, while enabling me to generate greater momentum for the next, more ambitious reach.”

Khalid Smith, co-founder of LessonCast, will be speaking at the conference about concrete things small startups can do to reach product-market fit with B2C customers. LessonCast builds tools that help teachers, schools, districts and teacher’s colleges improve the way that educators are prepared to teach. Khalid, who has a background in coaching, has talked about the challenge of really confronting your own decisions:

“When I speak at startup competitions, my talk usually starts with ‘I’m not as interested in how much of your business you can build this weekend as I am in seeing you execute the part of your business that creates value. So don’t build your business today. Today, do your business; then building it is just a function of time and money.’ But it’s really hard to take your own advice. This was true of our path to our current concierge model [Ed note: the concierge model is the practice of building a front end or offering a service that appears automated--and then behind the scenes, doing the work by hand]. My wife and co-founder Nicole pioneered the core idea behind LessonCast as she led the turnaround of a middle school struggling to raise its test scores. Using her experiences as a guide, we built a suite of tools that she wished she’d had during those tough two years. We thought we had our MVP and the next step was to scale our solution. But as we tried to sell it—crickets.

It took us a while to realize we’d committed the cardinal sin of using our own opinions and experiences in place of customer validation. I heard the words as I said them to teams in competitions: ‘You are not the customer!’ ‘What experiment did you run to invalidate your hypothesis?’ ‘How do you know what features are must-haves and should be part of your MVP?’ I realized we didn’t have answers to these questions ourselves. All we knew for certain was that the process a school leader would follow, and the software a school leader would use because he or she built it himself or herself, were both different from what other school leaders would actually pay for.   

What we had was an embarrassingly difficult-to-use, first-generation version of our software for school leaders, plus an accompanying process that had worked in an exceptionally skilled and passionate user, Nicole. Nowhere in there was anything that qualified as an MVP. So we sold our software the only way we knew how—by not telling the clients about it. We call our technique the concierge-coaching model. This is a hybrid model where we worked with clients as consultants, but gradually asked the clients to perform more and more tasks themselves using our software. Their ability to complete the ‘assignments,’ with us there or on their own, told us what new features we needed to develop, pinpointed where we needed to improve the user experience, and helped us develop better tutorials.

We focused on three customers: one K-12 school, one teacher’s college and one online course. It was slow and tedious, but the discipline of using the concierge model is paying off. We are on generation 3.0 of our minimum viable product. We are beginning to show the innovation economics of a healthy business and, for now, we can look ourselves in the mirror after a coaching session and be confident that we’re taking our own good advice.” 

Valerie Gofman will be speaking at the conference about how her company, Sharethrough, has scaled Lean Startup methods as it’s grown—a considerable challenge for any maturing organization. Valerie is a product manager, and she works with the business and development teams to guide strategy, testing and communication for both internal- and external-facing products. Her experience of Lean Startup methods has been shaped by the environment in which she works—as she says, “In the native advertising industry, which relies heavily on platforms that are mobile and provide scale, it is paramount that we are able to provide new product features quickly and efficiently.”

Here’s Valerie on how MVPs are woven into Sharethrough’s work:

“The nascent digital native advertising space, which Sharethrough created nearly two years ago, is rapidly evolving. In brief, native advertising is a form of paid media where the ad experience follows the natural form and function of the user experience in which it is placed. From the beginning, our product teams have been focused on iterating and learning as quickly as possible, with MVPs in common use.

MVP is a frequently-used acronym on the product and engineering teams and pervasive around Sharethrough as a whole. From early-stage efforts on new products to iterating on existing features, thinking in terms of the MVP allows us to focus on shipping-to-learn rather than shipping-to-ship. For example, with Vine's seemingly overnight success, brands began requesting it as a means to engage with their audiences. By limiting scope to a base set of functionality that we needed to get in front of those customers, we were able to turn around an MVP within two weeks.

Our MVPs commonly involve Wizard-of-Oz-style manual workarounds [Ed: this is akin to the concierge model Khalid mentioned] that provide efficiency and rapid learning for product and engineering teams and help us demonstrate early success with customers. For example, when thinking about bridging two applications that would eventually converge, rather than initially going through the multiple iterations necessary to  deliver a full-fledged integration, we shipped the most critical (and risky) components first, allowing us to have real users on the system give us a green light. Then, after some not-so-mild course correction, we were able to proceed with certainty.”

Steven, Khalid and Valerie will each focus on important Lean Startup lessons in their conference talks, and they are just three of dozens of new speakers this year. Sign up today for the conference to hear from them all.
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