Your Life as a Lean Startup

Hi and welcome back! You may notice that occasionally I include forewords like this to “talk” to you directly and prime you before the actual article. Don’t be alarmed, it’s one of the things I’m testing (staying true to the topic of today’s story). As always, please take a moment to disconnect socially before reading this story. If helpful, take 30 seconds to breathe in and out deeply, clearing your mind. Ready? Let’s begin.

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For those familiar with the concept of the lean startup, forgive me as I take a moment to get the others who aren’t up to speed so this story today will make at least some sense to all readers. The idea of the lean startup, in one sentence, centres on a method of creating and managing startups and getting a desired product to customers’ hands faster. The approach was pioneered around the time of the Dotcom boom, and formalized by technologist and entrepreneur Eric Ries in his international best seller The Lean Startup. In the book, Ries gives many case examples of how a firm, startup or not, can rapidly test, iterate, and launch a product in order to minimize waste and the risk of making “something nobody wants”. A concrete example Ries drew from his own experience at IMVU was taking months to build a chat function for users (that nobody really cared for).

I’m not going to give case examples or preach the lean startup methodology today — there are boatloads of books, organizations, and websites dedicated to that and I’m by no means an expert or veteran. However, I do understand it with enough clarity to reference it as an analogy, through reading the aforementioned book, working at Electric 8 (Singapore-based digital growth practice), and in general my interactions with entrepreneurs and VCs. Using the lean startup analogy, I’m going to attempt to inspire you to try to look at your life from a new angle today. Specifically, I’d like to challenge you to see your own life as a lean startup.

In software development, waterfall development is an approach in which the product team plans extensively all the components to build for a product, engage in months and months of intensive development and resource investment, and then after 4–12 months of hard work, do the grand unveiling and ship the product to market. Unfortunately, it runs into the very problem that the lean startup approach addresses: customers may not even want your product and you’ve just wasted a whole bunch of time, money, and energy. If you think about it — really think about it — many people’s lives are lived in a “waterfall” style. You spend years getting a Bachelor’s degree with the idea of doing one thing by the end of it, without really testing or trying it. After 4 years, you’ve entered the job market, and effectively committed yourself to a job that may or may not be fulfilling for 2, 5, or even up to 10 years. That’s a pretty big gamble, if you ask me.

Tell me if this next part sounds familiar to you. A 20-year-old student attends his classes, does group and individual assignments, and takes exams. When he’s not in school or doing schoolwork, he’s on Facebook, chilling with his buddies or girlfriend, watching a series on Netflix or TV, playing video games, eating out a lot, and occasionally traveling for leisure. Two years later, he joins a bank because that’s the only offer he got when interviewing with different firms, and the only reason he applied to the bank is because they were recruiting on campus.

What this guy could’ve done with some of his free time, instead of playing video games (there’s nothing wrong with that by the way), is go get some experience at a small (or big, if he’s lucky) firm to test the waters. Through iterations of different experiences including part-time jobs, internships, and job-shadowing, this guy could’ve figured out what product he really wanted (read, job he really wanted) by graduation.

Even though the example I gave is in a college setting, this “life as a lean startup” mentality can be applied by anyone at any age and any stage of their career. If you are working 9–5 (or worse yet, 9-much later), you could always a Friday afternoon or the weekend to dip your toes into something new that you think you may like. Learn more about it by listening or doing. I launched TCW less than a month ago, and already I’m getting hands on experience managing a website and a brand. I didn’t have to quit a full-time job, stop everything I was doing, or banish all relationships just to do this. It takes little effort and lots of consistency. Obviously, you can’t be experimenting your whole life. At some point, you will need to commit to something, but if you’ve gone through this process of testing different experiences, I promise you will be much more certain that whatever you end up choosing to do will be much more fulfilling.