A man named Kyle Harrison wrote a big Medium post (link at bottom of this page) about how he thinks The User Method is “clickbait.”
I didn’t realize a book could be clickbait, but I get what he’s saying. He thinks I’m making some bold claims with no substance.
Quite honestly, I’m flattered, and appreciate the discussion. Even though I never actually attack the Lean Startup in the book, I fully expected to make Lean Startup fanatics mad due to some of the implications.
Harrison’s main beef with The User Method seems to be that he thinks I’m proposing that entrepreneurs should never iterate or get feedback from customers.
In his rather combative post, Harrison wrote, (speaking of me):
…his point is — ‘don’t ideate, don’t iterate, don’t interview. Just build something you want, and tell people about it.’ I think I may have summed it up better than the Amazon description page.
Overall, Harrison believes that The User Method was written to “invalidate the lean startup method.”
Despite his opposition, Harrison demonstrates a spark of comprehension in this line: “… it may be true that the lean startup method is meant to iterate an idea, not create one.”
That is precisely the point, Mr. Harrison.
The Lean Startup is not designed to generate good ideas, rather to make bad ideas good.
And for some people, that approach is absolutely necessary. In fact, I assume that the Lean Startup is the most appropriate approach for most people.
But not for true entrepreneurs.
Let’s say you work for a golfing shoe company, and the company decides it wants to make an innovative new shoe for competition skateboarders. They want it on the market in two years and have budgeted $1 million to it get there.
You know nothing about skateboarding or skateboarders, but your boss walks into your office and says in that commanding boss tone, “I’m giving you the skateboard shoe project. Make it work.”
It’s very important to note that in this case you don’t get to decide what product you’re making. The decree has come from the top that you’re going to make a competition skateboard shoe.
You have a few options at this point. The safest is probably to simply copy an existing skateboarding shoe that you know skateboarders like. But your company wants this shoe to be even better than what’s already offered, so you’ll need to innovate a bit (Vans, by the way, are terrible shoes to actually skateboard in because the canvas gets instantly shredded by skateboard griptape).
Your next option is to simply guess at the design, materials, etc. and hope you’re right. Obviously not a smart way to go.
Thirdly, you could go ask some competition skateboarders what they want in a shoe. This is clearly the best option. You would be stupid, quite honestly, not to go out and ask skateboarders what they want.
Now, it may take weeks, months, or even years to translate the skateboarders’ requests into a usable product they actually like, but that’s ok. You get a paycheck every two weeks no matter what. You maintain your health insurance. You can spend all day every day talking to skateboarders and making new prototypes. You even have a small team you can send to skateparks to talk to skateboarders. If you say, “I want to do a focus group in the office with ten skateboarders on Friday,” you have the time and resources to make that happen. You may not even have to be there because your co-worker will take notes.
In a case such as that, where you have neither 1) the power to decide what product you’re making nor 2) the extremely tight resources of an entrepreneur, the Lean Startup is an awesome approach. It is probably the only approach that makes any sense at all. And with enough time, it will give you success.
The Lean Startup is not, however, the best approach for the majority of entrepreneurs. The reason I used the phrase, “true entrepreneurs” above is because there is an astronomical difference between someone like Eric Ries, author of the Lean Startup, and someone like Susan Petersen, founder of a small company called Freshly Picked, which I profiled in the book.
I don’t consider Eric Ries to be a true entrepreneur. His experience at IMVU falls more in the category of employee, because he fit the two criteria for “most people” — he didn’t have the power or responsibility to decide what product to make, and the startup he was a part of had been provided millions of dollars by investors, so he didn’t have the same constraints a true entrepreneur working out of his or her garage on nights and weekends has.
Susan Petersen, on the other hand, was a young mother and wife who’s husband was finishing school when she started her company. She needed money badly, and she had to make it while raising two children. She didn’t have millions of dollars to spend, a team of people to help her, or much time to make something work. She had a sewing maching and her kitchen table, and could only use them when her young children didn’t need her attention.
To use some loaded terminology, Eric Ries is the 1% of entrepreneurs. For big-money entrepreneurs like him who have cash to burn and teams of people at their disposal, the lean startup is great. For the rest of us — the 99% of entrepreneurs — it’s not. I know because I’ve done it numerous times under true entrepreneurial constraints.
(Susan Petersen’s business, Freshly Picked, was started via the user method and is now making millions of dollars per year selling Susan’s very fashionable baby shoes.)
The primary reason the Lean Startup isn’t a great approach for true entrepreneurs — garage entrepreneurs, if you will — is simply that it takes too long.
At my day job, where I’m not a true entrepreneur, I can easily find and interview five customers per week. In fact I’ve done it and it was almost unimaginably painless. The company I work for already had an enormous email list and customers who loved us, so I asked our receptionist to email some of our users and invite them into the office for a focus group each Friday.
And guess what happened for the next few Fridays. I showed up to work, and so did five customers. I didn’t even have to email anyone!
I’ve also conducted interviews to get “user” feedback in an entrepreneurial setting.
That was much harder. Where do you find people to interview? Who do you email? How do you get their email address in the first place? Where do you meet with them? In your garage at 8pm on a Wednesday? How long will it take to conduct even five interviews at that pace? What about ten? Thirty?
Let’s say you’re not a dentist, but for some reason you’ve decided to make an app for dentists (my team did once). Where do you even start? How many dentists will you have to talk to before you have a clear understanding of what they need? What if you find out they don’t want an app? (They didn’t.) Do you start the same process over for competition skateboard shoes? How many ideas are you going to have to go through before you land on something good?
In sum, the lean startup takes too long and requires too much effort for garage entrepreneurs to effectively use as a method for generating and validating ideas.
But nevermind that. Let’s throw away all attempts at explaining why one approach should work or another shouldn’t. Let’s look at what does work.
From the Kauffman Foundation:
User entrepreneurship describes firms started by individuals who create innovative products or services because they need them for their own use and subsequently found firms to commercialize their innovations… 46.6 percent of innovative startups founded in the United States that survive to age five are founded by users.
Now before you think that 46.6% isn’t impressive because it’s not even half of innovative companies, you must understand that there are many methods to start companies — firms not started via the user method could be started any number of alternative ways. So while this study did not find the user method to account for the majority of successful innovations, it does suggest that the user method accounts for the plurality (the biggest group) of successful innovations.
The next two, however, did find the user method to account for the majority of innovations in their markets.
In a Harvard Business School paper:
76% of the key innovations in the field of scientific instruments, 67% of the key innovations in semiconductor and electronics subassembly manufacturing equipment, and 60% of the innovations in consumer sporting equipment were developed by users.
By Eric Von Hippel of MIT:
Our key finding was that approximately 80% of the innovations… were in fact invented, prototyped and first field-tested by users of the instrument rather than by an instrument manufacturer.
Not only is the user method highly prolific, it is also more efficient! MIT found that users were “2.4 times more efficient at developing ‘significant’ innovations,” and that they spent less than half the money to do it.
Additionally, in my own research I found that some of the world’s most successful companies were founded via the user method, including Apple, Facebook, Instagram, GoPro, Uber, Airbnb, and many, many more.
Are You Crazy?
Now, let’s combine the user method’s phenomenal track record with its radical simplicity and ease, and I, for one, would easily rank it as the best approach to true entrepreneurship. In fact, I can’t understand why, as a garage entrepreneur, you’d attempt anything else.
Now, starting a company via the user method doesn’t mean you’ll never iterate or get user feedback. In fact, I wrote two entire chapters dedicated to explaining how the user method founders collected feedback (Two-Stage Innovation and The Tipping Point), and a few sections on iterations (ex: Cycle Time).
The big difference — BIG, like, I-can’t-possibly-emphasize-this-enough, big — is the stage at which they began to get feedback and what they relied on it for.
Because of this, in the book I split innovation into two stages, and instead of rewriting everything I’ll just quote it:
…the founders were often the only users during Stage One. Because they were making products for their own use, the founders were able to make decisions very quickly, without the friction of searching for feedback between each step.
By the time the founders were happy with their products as users, most of the major product decisions had been made. When Steve Wozniak introduced the Apple I computer, for example, he had already decided that it would be designed for home use. He decided on the programming language. He chose the hardware components. He designed the board to have just five holes.
Once the products were good enough that they could be used, they crossed the usability threshold, and Stage Two began.
During Stage Two, people other than the founders began to use the products as well. As they did so, those people offered suggestions for further improvement. Their suggestions were incremental, however. Instead of suggesting major product changes, users typically suggested improvements to features the founders had already established during Stage One.
Even Dropbox, which Harrison touts as a lean startup poster company, only began to collect and use feedback after founder Drew Houston had created the majority of the product.
So sure, some of the user method companies used the lean startup methodology. But they used it for the easy stuff — the incremental improvements late in the process. They didn’t, however use it for the biggest challenge of all: the product idea. Back to Harrison’s observation, the lean startup was not used to generate ideas, or even products. It was used to make minor improvements to products that were created via the user method.