Wednesday, October 31, 2018

An Interview with Author and Lean Startup Conference 2018 Speaker Giff Constable

One of the speakers at this year’s Lean Startup Conference, which kicks off on November 14th in Las Vegas, is Giff Constable. Giff is a repeat entrepreneur whose companies include Neo, a product innovation consulting firm where he worked with organizations like the Mayo Clinic and Time, Inc. before it was acquired by Pivotal. He was most recently VP of product at Axial, a fintech startup that connected medium-sized businesses with capital providers and buyers, where he oversaw product management, engineering and design.

At the conference, he’ll be talking about transforming your organization’s culture to support innovation and running two workshops: one on Mastering Experiment Design, and one on Customer Discovery. He’s also written books on both of those topics: Talking to Humans, published in 2014, and now, a follow-up volume called Testing with Humans, just out this week. Frank Rimalovski of NYU collaborated on both. We recently spoke about customer discovery, experiments, and his writing habits and process.

Testing with Humans uses a fictional story of two entrepreneurs building a soccer ball sensor company. How did you come up with that example and what makes it useful for discussing experiments?

The story is really a composite of multiple real situations. I just blended them into a unified arc. Business fiction can be tricky to get right, but it did allow me to get a lot of ideas across with one coherent example rather than twenty fragmented ones.

As for why a soccer ball? That's easy — I'm a huge English Premier League fan (go Bournemouth!), so how could I resist? In all seriousness, in both this book and its prequel, I wanted the entrepreneurs to have a product idea that many people could relate to. I chose physical products both times so that the concepts didn't feel specific to tech or software. Experiments and customer discovery are powerful across all types of business.

What was the most surprising thing you discovered while gathering the research for the book?

I guess the most shocking thing came from talking to my former colleague David Bland. I was surprised to hear him say how many people, across his coaching, are still struggling with the basic concept of landing pages. I would like to think that we're further along than that. I always have to remind myself how long it takes for things to seep into widespread practice, especially things that fight against our cognitive biases.

What step do people most often try to skip in the experimentation process?

I'm going to give you a three-part answer. The first is experiments themselves. Everyone knows that they should run experiments, just like they know they should talk to customers, but that doesn't mean they do it. People chase a perception of speed, when in actuality they go slower because of mistaken decisions, big and small, that could have been avoided.

Within experiments, however, it really depends on one's psychological profile. "Do-ers" jump right into experimenting without prioritizing what they really need to learn. "Seat of the pants" types ignore structure and change too many variables in parallel, making it really hard to interpret results. The high-charisma founder usually has a huge problem resisting confirmation bias. The introverts hide behind the experiment, putting data on a pedestal while missing out on the huge insights that come from talking to participants. To do lean startup well, you need to understand your own makeup and challenge your weaknesses.

Lastly, I've learned that for any big, important experiment, it's worth running an experiment about the experiment. In other words, test the design first, before scaling (just like a startup!). This small investment pays dividends with speed and better decisions.

If you had to pick one element that every single experiment needs to have, what would it be?

A very specific quantitative goal, even if it is a guess! I've always seen that if you don't go into an experiment with a clear goal, everything becomes mushy from that point on.

What's the most challenging audience question you've ever had to answer?

That has to be: "How do I know when to kill an idea?" I share a lot of tactics in the book, but there's one area where I absolutely refuse to be prescriptive: decision-making. Everyone has their own context. I certainly do not believe that one experiment should make or break someone's vision. However, I firmly do believe that good experiments will arm you with far better information to make those big, heavy decisions. Unfortunately, they don't let you off the hook of having to make them.

What's one of the best experiments you've seen and why?

The non-profit Taproot Foundation ran an excellent Wizard-of-Oz experiment as they sought to scale, by way of an online application, their historical service of connecting non-profits with pro-bono experts.

Because they had been manually providing this service for years, they could have been cocky about their expertise. Instead, they challenged themselves to ask hard questions. They ran a Wizard-of-Oz experiment that was sharp from top to bottom. They had tight hypotheses statements and quantitative goals. They ran it at an intense pace. They tracked and openly shared their metrics. They talked to participants of the experiment, rather than relying solely on metrics to tell the story. The team also brought their entire organization along for the ride with excellent internal communication. In the process, they ran into unexpected challenges, learned a ton, and ultimately informed a much better final product (found at

It was particularly impressive to see a non-profit, which as a field can be pretty hidebound at times, attempting to work in such an agile and forward-thinking way.

Do you have a daily writing routine when you're working on a book?

This book took years to get out, because I was busy selling a company and then helping to build another startup. I was finally able to build momentum by getting up regularly at 5am. I could get an hour or two of good writing in while fresh, before startup pressures invaded my brain. And I'll admit, my family has been very patient as I've disappeared for weekends at a time.


You can buy Talking to Humans here. You can buy Testing with Humans here. Both books are available to schools and non-profits for free, via a form you can fill out either here or here. Follow Giff on Twitter at: @giffco.

Thursday, October 11, 2018

A closer look at Lean Startup Conference 2018

As we put the final touches on Lean Startup Conference 2018, I wanted to take a moment to share more about some of the panels, workshops, and events. For the whole program, please take a look here. We’re looking forward to channeling the energy and excitement attendees bring with them, and to providing opportunities to learn about not just things that have been successful, but missteps and major obstacles that have been overcome--all part of the Lean Startup process.

Reid Hoffman of LinkedIn and Greylock Partners will be talking about “blitzscaling” with his co-author Chris Yeh, and Stanford Professor Bob Sutton. That’s the growth management strategy that prioritizes speed over efficiency in an environment of uncertainty as an organization scales. It’s the engine that has powered companies including Amazon, Alibaba, and Google. As Hoffman has put it, if starting a company is like jumping off a cliff and assembling a plane on the way down, scaling is like “assembling that plane faster then strapping on and igniting a set of jet engines, while still building the wings.” You need the right tools.

Joel Spolsky, CEO of Trello, will be sharing his experiences building Stack Overflow (after 10 years, the 65th most popular website in the world with 12 billion views), Glitch, and Trello. His understanding of the value of building community has informed all of his work, and he views it as an integral part of creating a company. He’ll also talk about what coding can, and should, look like in years to come, a responsibility he takes seriously as he believes that “being a developer gives you an unparalleled opportunity to write the script for the future.”

Kabam, the mobile gaming company, hit a major stumbling block in its early days when its financing was lost due to the 2008 financial collapse. It not only survived but was sold nine years later for $1Billion. Co-founder Holly Liu will walk us through the the decisions that led to that outcome. Among other things, it’s a story about the inestimable value of the pivot, which in this case made the difference--several times--between folding and huge success. Along the way, the company faced challenges while scaling and going global, and she’ll touch on those, too.

In a fireside chat, Kathryn Minshew of The Muse and Brit Morin of Brit + Co will discuss their strategies for acquiring customers and how they continuously innovate to stay ahead of the shifting demands of the millennial generation. Both women started their companies as platforms for sharing information that helps people tap into their natural strengths--professional for Minshew and creative for Morin--and both companies are directly linked to their founder’s own experiences.

Hands-on learning will also a big part of this year’s conference, providing real experience with critical techniques. In the Mastering Experiment Design workshop, participants will come prepared with a risky assumption of their own to build an experiment on, which they can then use to begin testing right away. The essential elements of effective experiments, which are the best tool for making better decisions and assessing risk, will be outlined. The presenters will discuss how to avoid common mistakes as well as provide tools for unlocking the creativity of teams.

The Mastering Customer Discovery workshop will be a forum for practicing and refining customer interview techniques, finding good candidates, and turning what you learn into action. Talking with customers can be a surprisingly tricky thing to get right, so a great customer discovery process is important.

As is the right business model, which is the focus of the Don’t Bet on Your First Business Model workshop. It tackles how to validate a business model in the early stages, using the Lean Canvas tool to look at assumptions about problems, solutions, and sales channels followed by creating hypotheses and experiments to either validate or disprove those assumptions. Every experiment, regardless of its outcome, should be built on a solid foundation, and this workshop shows how to do that.

We’ve also put together a number of case study presentations on fundamentals that will speed and shape your building process in the early days. There’s one on A/B Testing that draws on growth management lessons from KISSmetrics and I Will Teach You To Be Rich to help answer questions like: “What happens when your testing program is set up incorrectly?” It also lays out the 8 tried and true rules of testing that can help you avoid worrying about what you’re testing instead of how you’ll execute the test. This kind of testing, done right, is definitive for creating growth. Another case study takes up Amazon’s practice of “Working Backwards” that’s been so critical to the company’s innovative culture and growth. It will cover how the company is organized to follow this practice, and how its mechanisms actually work on a practical level.

Finally, we know building a business is more than just work. That’s why we’ve put together a panel that looks at the human side of being a founder. Taking Care of Business AND You brings together experts from numerous fields to talk about founder self-care on every front.

Having hundreds of Lean Startup practitioners in the same place is also an ideal time to draw on that other critical resource--the knowledge and experiences of peers. We have no doubt that the conversations and connections will be boundless, in settings that include all of the above and also range from small, conversational Meetups to more structured Lunch and Learns.

We’re looking forward to seeing you in Las Vegas. If you haven’t registered yet, you can do it here.

Tuesday, October 2, 2018

Join me in Downtown Las Vegas on November 14th

In just over a month, I’ll be heading to the Zappos campus in Downtown Las Vegas to meet up with a global community of entrepreneurs at the Lean Startup Conference.

I’m really excited about this year’s program. Whether you’re brand new to Lean Startup, a seasoned practitioner, a founder, or an innovation leader within a global enterprise, you’ll have a chance to learn from and meet some of the most truly innovative thinkers I know. We hope you’ll leave inspired to go back to your organization and take action.

I’ll be taking to the main stage with Tony Hsieh, CEO of Zappos, to talk about how his company has overcome critical business challenges and answer your questions. Also featured on the main stage will be Kabam Co-Founder Holly Liu, LinkedIn Co-Founder and CEO Reid Hoffman, Brit + Co Founder and CEO Brit Morin, and Stack Overflow Co-Founder and CEO Joel Spolsky.

There will also be workshops focused around case studies that dive deep into real-world applications of Lean Startup principles across industries and company sizes, including non-profits. Each of you will get to choose an example that applies to your own circumstances, so these hands-on sessions will be not only interactive but super relevant. Some of them cover Lean Startup basics like assessing risk and making assumptions, how to build a great team, how to use A/B testing effectively, and the value of learning from failure. Others explore the ways you can effect real change once Lean Startup has become your standard way of operating, whether in your own company by using innovation accounting--VC-like metered funding and growth boards to assess and either kill or continue projects--or, in a whole different, equally critical realm, by using lean principles to propel social change through programs and education.

A number of panel presentations have been put together as well, to create space for discussion and diverse perspectives. These tackle big issues like how to lead culture transformation inside a large organization, how to use Lean for fundraising in the non-profit world, the huge changes that the Internet of Things is bringing to business, and a conversation about the human side of being a founder.

Each of these workshops and panels is meant to give you a chance to engage with entrepreneurs who’ve experienced--or are experiencing--the same challenges you do, so everyone can learn from each other.

This chance to make lasting connections continues to be thing people most often talk to me about after conferences, and it’s the reason so many of you come back more than once. This year, we’re expanding that network to include entrepreneurs, intrapreneurs, and innovators from across the world so we can all benefit from even more perspectives. I hope that the evening dinners and receptions we’ve planned, including a special event at the world-famous Mob Museum next to Zappos Campus, will provide yet another way for everyone to connect on a more casual, but equally important, level.

I hope you’ll come to Las Vegas to lend your voice, share your ideas, renew your energy, and explore ideas that will inspire and challenge you.