I don’t usually enjoy work-related emails popping up on my watch while I’m on vacation. But as my family and I lugged our beach gear back to the car beside the crystal blue waters of Lake Tahoe in July, I dropped my haul of umbrellas, buckets and spades to read the rest of what just pinged onto my devices.
At first glance, I thought the email from Heather McGough entitled “LSU Podcast” was an invite for me to appear as a guest on the official Lean Startup Podcast. Being the unashamed Lean Startup fanboy that I am, this was exciting enough. But on reading, the email was even better.
“OMG babe! They want to know if I would like to HOST the Lean Startup Podcast!”
It’s been a struggle to keep this secret, but my first episode has now just been published. This is my first ever attempt at something like this, and I’ve learnt a lot from the process.
But what also took me by surprise is just how much I learnt from the interview itself, and the amazing first guest that is Sarah Paiji Yoo, Co-Founder and CEO of Blueland, a startup that’s reducing plastic consumption by offering household cleaners and soaps in disposable tablet form.
So I thought I would try condensing a few of my top insights from the chat into a post here.
You can find the podcast episode via The Official Lean Startup Blog here
(All thoughts and opinions expressed below are my own.)
My Top 5 Interview Insights
1. The even better way to eat an elephant
At one point in the episode, Sarah recounts one of her father’s favorite sayings:
“How do you eat an elephant?
One bite at a time!”
But Sarah’s repeated success seems to be based on more than just breaking things down to small steps.
It’s about taking just the right bites,
at just the right time.
Some Examples I heard from Sarah’s story:
At a macro level: Tackling the problem of plastic consumption
Sarah’s mission is to make a meaningful difference to the amount of plastic waste and micro-plastic pollution in the world. This really is an elephant-sized problem.
Unable to change the entire world’s plastic consumption on her own in one go, Sarah analyzed the worst contributors to the problem, finding the problem-space of toothpaste as a more digestible, but meaningful first bite.
At a micro level : In testing Leap-Of-Faith-Assumptions
Having settled on toothpaste packaging as the most impactful problem to tackle first, Sarah broke down her hypothesis into a list of assumptions, then prioritized just 1–2 of those assumptions as her “Leap Of Faith Assumptions” that were the most important to test and validate first, before doing anything else.
This matches Sarah’s answer to my question “What have you learnt from practicing Lean Startup that was not obvious from reading the theory?”
Sarah shared that it’s not just about testing, or how to test, but knowing which questions to ask, and starting by testing only the most meaningful things.
Which in turn led to another interesting insight…
2. The right questions to ask aren’t always the easiest questions to answer
There‘s a lot of focus in the Lean Startup world on making experiments more minimal, but this is not always what is most valuable.
Sometimes, testing the right thing means running a complex, slow or even expensive test.
Testing the viability of Rockets of Awesome
Rockets of Awesome is a clothing subscription box for Children, which Sarah helped launch as CMO. On the podcast Sarah recounts how they had validated the appeal of the service to customers, but in order to confirm the true viability before scaling, they needed to validate their full unit economics.
Namely that the lifetime value of each customer (LTV) was enough to offset the cost of acquiring that customer (CAC).
IOW, is LTV>CAC?
This is the perfect question to ask, because if they were wrong on this, and LTV<CAC, then they would lose money on every customer they acquired, and scaling the service would only lead to an earlier death for the company.
But this is a very difficult question to test. There is no way to really validate this except for the time and effort to acquire customers and measure their true repurchase and retention rates. They had to run a large test with a lot of customers over a long time.
(Side note: I also found Sarah’s insight about basket size vs frequency fascinating)
Testing the toothpaste hypothesis
Sarah identified that the ‘LOFA’ to test for her toothpaste idea were:
- A) Would anyone want to chew toothpaste?
- B) Would people trust a new brand they had not encountered before?
Again, these are not easy questions to test — you can’t just ask people for their opinion on these.
To test these properly and really learn what is viable, you need to actually give people the opportunity to chew a new brand of toothpaste, and see how they react to it. But this is a very resource-intensive experiment to perform. You’d need to recruit subjects, create chewable toothpaste, distribute it, give subjects enough time to acclimatize to it and gather all the results.
But while neither of these tests were easy to perform,
they were the RIGHT tests to perform.
And they no doubt delivered Sarah a higher velocity of learning than a greater number of easier tests would have done.
Yet this insight is interestingly contrasted with the next one…
3. Don’t let perfect be the enemy of good
I don’t think Sarah ever said this in the interview, but this is something I observe in her work.
It seems to me that some aspects of Sarah’s work may not satisfy the critique of a hardcore purist, but it is Sarah’s pragmatic decision making that actually gets meaningful stuff done.
Example 1: The Toothpaste test
When I heard Sarah recount her story of her experiment to learn if people would actually chew toothpaste, I couldn’t help but raise concern with the fact that she had chosen to run the experiment with friends and family.
As we all know, friends and family are a notorious source of bad data, as they often lie to tell you what you think you want to hear.
But Sarah’s response to my challenge makes perfect sense. The question of whether or not people would chew toothpaste can only be answered by giving real people the chance to actually do it over time, and observing whether or not they really do. To test this with representative strangers would be very difficult as you would need mature branding, distribution and service to fairly test their perceptions, which would take a lot of time and money.
By limiting to friends and family, Sarah could first test if ANYONE would be willing to chew toothpaste at all!
Then only if there were a positive signal from that audience, the test could be advanced to testing with real customers.
As it transpired, the test disproved the hypothesis, so Sarah and her team were spared the time and expense of finding out that same fact many months and $$$ later. So the academically imperfect test was better than the perfect one.
Example 2: The plastic bottle
There’s a funny moment on the podcast where I assume that given Blueland’s mission, their “Forever” bottle must not be plastic. But it turns out it is!
Sarah too initially assumed that the bottle should be glass, But this was resoundingly rejected by customers. They also tested some aluminum bottles, but they were not popular either. In the end, a better, more sustainable plastic option proved the right solution.
This was a hard thing for Sarah to accept given her mission. Yet again a pragmatic decision prevailed.
It would be more impactful to the mission, if a sustainable plastic bottle were to be adopted by millions of people, than a glass or aluminum bottle adopted by a few.
4. The Internet doth provide
I’d wondered how a career expert in marketing fashion centric startups could acquire the expertise to produce something like a dissolvable cleaning tablet.
Turns out the answer was to ask the internet. From using YouTube to learn how to make the toothpaste tablets, to finding her head of R&D via LinkedIn, this is another great example of feasibility not being the greatest hurdle to innovation in the internet age.
There is also a moment in the podcast where we again the ask internet for their advice on something, so please do chip in with your knowledge and opinions either here or via twitter.
5. Don’t worry, we’re all human
If you find in practice that the Lean Startup life is more emotionally tumultuous than you expected, don’t worry. You’re not alone.
I know that for me personally, part of the appeal of The Lean Startup method was the promise of a logical, scientific process that would save us all some emotional pain. But the reality that both Sarah and I can relate to, is that while Lean Startup can give you better data to make better informed, more logical decisions, it doesn’t make failure any less emotionally painful.
Lean Startup gets you closer to the truth,
But the truth can still hurt.
I’m grateful to Sarah for having the vulnerability in the episode to share how hard it was to accept the invalidation of her toothpaste experiment, and pivot to cleaning products instead.
Even though the cleaning tablet is still in direct service of Blueland’s plastic reduction mission, Sarah had already invested so much time and energy into the toothpaste tablet, it was hard to let go.
I think that this is something that affects us all that practice. Once we’ve told our friends and family of our ideas, defended our dream from doubters and gone out on a limb against haters, a little bit of our ego, our identity, gets attached to the solution, no matter how in love we are with the problem.
Final Thought: Was This a Legendary Example of a Lean Startup Experiment or What?
Those of us seeking to practice and evangelize Lean Startup are always hungry for great case studies that exemplify the Lean Startup philosophy and accelerated progress that can be achieved from it.
I have to say this chewable toothpaste experiment of Sarah’s is one of best I’ve heard of. Let’s consider:
- Careful identification of the Leap-Of-Faith-Assumptions in most acute need of validation
- Focussed prioritization to split the two main LOFA’s into just the need to test the desirability of chewing toothpaste
- Teaching herself how to home-cook the pills for a realistic experiment without huge manufacturing costs!
- Setting success criteria in advance, to help reduce the emotional pull to ignore inconvenient data
- Having the courage to execute a true pivot following the result— a change in strategy without a change in vision
Massive kudos, and huge thanks to Sarah for sharing your story with us!
What do you think?
This was my first ever interview as a podcast host, and I’d love to hear constructive feedback, suggestions and questions for further discussion.
Were there areas of the discussion that you would have liked to hear more or less about? What would we need to improve to make you want to share it with your peers?
And again you can find a link to the episode via the official lean startup blog post here, including links to find it on your favorite source for podcasts.