Is Your Product Team Really Lean?

or, What startup founders need to know about building lean products.

At some point between Steve Blank initiating Lean Product Development amongst the startup masses and teams putting it into practice, this notion was born that lean = cutting corners. While that’s sorta batshit crazy, it’s also understandable how the message may have gotten jumbled over time.

Seriously though, look at the industry jargon we’re navigating:

  • Agile
  • MVP
  • Sprints

If you didn’t know any better, you could just as well assume lean product development simply meant doing less work at breakneck speed. #no

Actually, if you’re following a lean approach to building your business, digital or otherwise, you’re doing more work and involving more people (e.g. your customers) along your journey to launch.

So then why is it called Lean?

Building: Traditional vs. Lean

In order to understand what Lean ain’t, let’s look at a more traditional approach to building businesses & products. You may have heard this process referred to as terrible, er .. I mean .. Waterfall.

A traditional approach starts with a team of internal experts cooking up the perfect solution to a problem they’ve experienced or been exposed to.

To use a digital product as our example, the team would spec out the entire solution, soup to nuts. This process might take months. At the end of this stage, you’re left with a product spec that, when printed, could impair an adult giraffe.

That spec is then handed to a separate team that’s expected to read and build everything within, over the next several months or years. When they finish, another team tests it. They find bugs and depending on the severity, the entire process has the potential to repeat until enough bugs have been fixed that it’s deemed verified.

Still with me?

Finally, after months (years?) of doing stuff, the product is introduced to the customer for market validation.

Everyone holds their breath… they’ll need enough customer approval to launch, otherwise the product needs to be rethought or potentially shelved. Yeah, that happens.

Don’t get me wrong, there are applications for it; e.g. building a rocket, or curing cancer. You want there to be a methodical, step-by-step approach with multiple checkpoints along the way, prior to human trials. But for you, the hungry, overly-passionate startup founder, this approach will bleed you dry before you ever get to say Andreessen Horowitz.

Lean, on the other hand, can accelerate this entire process and save you countless dollars. But there’s a wrong way and a better way.

Lean: Wrong vs. Better

There is no “right” way to put lean product development to work for your company but there’s a handful of common mistakes you’ll wanna avoid.

Lean, the wrong way.

  • Paying designers to design before you’ve spoken to your customer.
  • Paying developers to code before you’ve spoken to your customer.
  • Paying anyone to do anything before you’ve spoken to your customer.
  • Acting on behalf of all of your customers — you may be building something to solve a problem you’ve experienced first-hand, but that doesn’t mean you represent the entire market.

Lean, the better way.
First, get out of the building and talk with your customers. Ask them questions about their experiences when encountering the problem you’re trying to solve. And be prepared to unpack their initial responses by asking 5 Whys.

Armed with your customer data, your team can begin to empathize with and articulate the problems the customer is experiencing.

One empathy map New Haircut created of our customers.

When you’ve done this much, you can connect the dots between what your customer needs, along with the matching solutions they’ll find overwhelmingly and uniquely valuable.

You’re probably anywhere from 1–4 weeks deep at this point, vs. the months of heavy spec writing.

And now, it’s time to begin building about your MVP — the core, complete solution you’ll bring to market. This is when your designers and developers are set in motion, hopefully working in some kind of agile process to build and launch complete features & flows every 1–2 weeks.

At first there are sketches, wireframes and prototypes to share with your customers. Ask them for reactions and interpretations. 5 Whys and jazz.

Soon after, you have polished, intuitive, well-developed interfaces with flows your customers are more likely to appreciate and emotionally connect with.

But you’re not done there. You’ll wanna establish metrics to listen for and track, to make sure your customers are finding, using, buying and promoting your product, as intended. Otherwise, you’re continually iterating that MVP and versions to come until you’ve arrived at product-market fit — holy Mecca for founders and investors (and customers), alike.

Lean: Quick and Easy?

Did that seem faster? To your team, no. To the market, probably.
Was the work simpler? #gtfo

But what’s undeniably more beneficial with lean product development is that at every step of the way you had something in your customer’s hands that she could see, touch and provide invaluable feedback on.

By the time your traditional competitor stops hitting snooze and begins to learn what the market really wants, you’ve already secured market validation and poised for a healthy growth stage. You’re probably also awesome, yes?


Building a product is easy. Building a great product your customers will value isn’t hard but takes hard work. If you have any questions about this article or lean product development, gimme a shout.