Is the Lean Startup Dead?

A version of this article first appeared in the Harvard Business Review

Reading the NY Times article “Jeffrey Katzenberg Raises $1 Billion for Short-Form Video Venture,I realized it was time for a new startup heuristic: the amount of customer discovery and product-market fit you need to find is inversely proportional to the amount and availability of risk capital.

And while the “first mover advantage” was the rallying cry of the last bubble, today’s is: “Massive capital infusion can own the entire market.”

Fire, Ready, Aim
Jeff Katzenberg has a great track record — head of the studio at Paramount, chairman of Disney Studios, co-founder of DreamWorks and now chairman of NewTV. The billion dollars he just raised is on top of the $750 million NewTV’s parent company, WndrCo, has raised for the venture. He just hired Meg Whitman. the ex-CEO of HP and eBay, as CEO of NewTV. Their idea is that consumers will want a subscription service for short form entertainment (10-minute programs) for mobile rather than full length movies. (Think YouTube meets Netflix).

It’s an almost $2-billion-dollar bet based on a set of hypotheses. Will consumers want to watch short-form mobile entertainment? Since NewTV won’t be making the content, they will be licensing from and partnering with traditional entertainment producers. Will these third parties produce something people will watch? NewTV will depend on partners like telcos to distribute the content. (Given Verizon just shut down Go90, its short form content video service, it will be interesting to see if Verizon distributes Katzenberg’s offerings.)

But NewTV doesn’t plan on testing these hypotheses. With fewer than 10 employees but almost $2-billion dollars in the bank, they plan on jumping right in.

It’s the antithesis of the Lean Startup. And it may work. Why?

Dot Com Boom to Bust
Most entrepreneurs today don’t remember the Dot-Com bubble of 1995 or the Dot-Com crash that followed in 2000. As a reminder, the Dot Com bubble was a five-year period from August 1995 (the Netscape IPO) when there was a massive wave of experiments on the then-new internet, in commerce, entertainment, nascent social media, and search. When Netscape went public, it unleashed a frenzy from the public markets for anything related to the internet and signaled to venture investors that there were massive returns to be made investing in anything internet related. Almost overnight the floodgates opened, and risk capital was available at scale from venture capital investors who rushed their startups toward public offerings. Tech IPO prices exploded and subsequent trading prices rose to dizzying heights as the stock prices became disconnected from the traditional metrics of revenue and profits. Some have labeled this period as irrational exuberance. But as Carlota Perez has so aptly described, all new technology industries go through an eruption and frenzy phase, followed by a crash, then a golden age and maturity. Then the cycle repeats with a new set of technologies.

Given the stock market was buying “the story and vision” of anything internet, inflated expectations were more important than traditional metrics like customers, growth, revenue, or heaven forbid, profits. Startups wrote business plans, generated expansive 5-year forecasts and executed (hired, spent and built) to the plan. The mantra of “first mover advantage,” the idea that winners are the ones who are the first entrants in their market, became the conventional wisdom of investors in Silicon Valley.“ First Movers” didn’t understand customer problems or the product features that solved those problems (what we now call product-market fit). These bubble startups were actually guessing at their business model and did premature and aggressive hype and early company launches and had extremely high burn rates — all predicated on an IPO to raise more cash. To be fair, in the 20th century, there really wasn’t a model for how to build startups other than write plan, raise money, and execute — the bubble was this method, on steroids. And to be honest, VC’s in this bubble really didn’t care. Massive liquidity awaited the first movers to the IPO’s, and that’s how they managed their portfolios.

When VC’s realized how eager the public markets were for anything related to the internet, they pushed startups with little revenue and no profits into IPOs as fast as they could. The unprecedented size and scale of VC returns transformed venture capital from a financial asset backwater into full-fledged player in the financial markets.

Then one day it was over. IPOs dried up. Startups with huge burn rates — building leases, staff, PR and advertising — ran out of money. Most startups born in the bubble died in the bubble.

The Rise of the Lean Startup
After the crash, venture capital was scarce to non-existent. (Most of the funds that started in the late part of the boom would be underwater). Angel investment, which was small to start with, disappeared, and most corporate VCs shut down. VC’s were no longer insisting that startups spend faster, and “swing for the fences”. In fact, they were screaming at them to dramatically reduce their burn rates. It was a nuclear winter for startup capital.

The idea of the Lean Startup was built on top of the rubble of the 2000 Dot-Com crash.

With risk capital at a premium and the public markets closed, startups and their investors now needed a methodology to preserve capital and survive long enough to generate revenue and profits. And to do that they needed a different method than just “build it and they will come.” They needed to be sure that what they were building was what customers wanted and needed. And if their initial guesses were wrong, they needed a process that would permit them to change early on in the product development process when the cost of changes was small — the famed “pivot”.

Lean started from the observation that you cannot ask a question that you have no words for. At the time we had no language to describe that startups were not smaller versions of large companies; the first insight was that large companies executed known business models, while startups searched for them. Yet while we had plenty of language and tools for execution, we had none for search. So we (Blank, Reis, Osterwalder) built the tools and created a new language for innovation and modern entrepreneurship. It helped that in the nuclear winter that followed the crash, 2001–2004, startups and VCs were extremely risk averse and amenable to new ideas that reduced risk. (This same risk averse, conserve the cash, VC mindset would return after the 2008 meltdown of the housing market.)

As described in the HBR article “Why the Lean Startup Changes Everything,” we developed Lean as the business model / customer development / agile development solution stack where entrepreneurs first map their hypotheses about their business model and then test these hypotheses with customers in the field (customer development) and use an iterative and incremental development methodology (agile development) to build the product. This allowed startups to build Minimal Viable Products (MVPs) — incremental and iterative prototypes — and put them in front of a large number of customers to get immediate feedback. When founders discovered their assumptions were wrong, as they inevitably did, the result wasn’t a crisis; it was a learning event called a pivot — and an opportunity to change the business model.

Every startup is in a race against time. It has to find product-market fit before running out of cash. Lean makes sense when capital is scarce and when you need to keep burn rates low. Lean was designed to inform the founders’ vision while they operated frugally at speed. It was not built as a focus group for consensus for those without deep convictions.

The result? Startups now had tools that sped up the search for customers, ensured that what was being built met customer needs, reduced time to market and slashed the cost of development.

Carpe Diem — Seize the Cash
Today, memories of frugal VC’s and tight capital markets have faded, and the structure of risk capital is radically different. The explosion of seed funding means tens of thousands of companies that previously languished in their basement are getting funding, likely two orders of magnitude more than received Series A funding during the Dot-Com bubble. As mobile devices offer a platform of several billion eyeballs, potential customers which were previously small niche markets now include everyone on the planet. And enterprise customers in a race to reconfigure strategies, channels, and offerings to deal with disruption provide a willing market for startup tools and services.

All this is driven by corporate funds, sovereign funds and even VC funds with capital pools of tens of billions of dollars dwarfing any of the dollars in the first Dot Com bubble — and all looking for the next Tesla, Uber, Airbnb, or Alibaba. What matters to investors now is to drive startup valuations into unicorn territory (valued at $1 billion or more) via rapid growth — usually users, revenue, engagements but almost never profits. As valuations have long passed the peak of the 2000 Internet bubble, VC’s and founders who previously had to wait until they sold their company or took it public to make money no longer have to wait. They can now sell part of their investment when they raise the next round. And if the company does go public, the valuations are at least 10x of the last bubble.

With capital chasing the best deals, and hundreds of millions of dollars pouring into some startups, most funds now scoff at the idea of Lean. Rather than the “first mover advantage” of the last bubble, today’s theory is that “massive capital infusion owns the entire market.” And Lean for startups seems like some quaint notion of a bygone era.

And that explains why investors are willing to bet on someone with a successful track record like Katzenberg who has a vision of disrupting an entire industry.

In short, Lean was an answer to a specific startup problem at a specific time, one that most entrepreneurs still face and which ebbs and flows depending on capital markets. It’s a response to scarce capital, and when that constraint is loosened, it’s worth considering whether other approaches are superior. With enough cash in the bank, Katzenberg can afford to create content, sign distribution deals, and see if consumers watch. If not, he still has the option to pivot. And if he’s right, the payoff will be huge.

One More Thing…
Well-funded startups often have more capital for R&D than the incumbent companies they’re disrupting. Companies struggle to compete while reconfiguring legacy distribution channels, pricing models and supply chains. And government agencies find themselves being disrupted by adversaries unencumbered by legacy systems, policies and history. Both companies and government agencies struggle with how to deliver innovation at speed. Ironically, for this new audience that makes the next generation of Lean — the Innovation Pipeline — more relevant than ever.

Lessons Learned:

  • When capital for startups is readily available at scale, it makes more sense to go big, fast and make mistakes than it does to search for product/market fit.
  • The amount of customer discovery and product-market fit you need to do is inversely proportional to the amount and availability of risk capital.
  • Still, unless your startup has access to large pools of capital or have a brand name like Katzenberg, Lean still makes sense.
  • Lean is now essential for companies and government agencies to deliver innovation at speed
  • The Lean Startup isn’t dead. For companies and government the next generation of Lean — the Innovation Pipeline — is more relevant than ever.

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