How to build a startup that learns quickly

The faster you learn what works, the faster you’ll make money. Here’s how.

I’m a framework geek. I love it when someone takes complex ideas and distills them into simple, visual structure. So when Eric Ries’s Lean Startup book came out a couple years ago, packed to the gills with simple frameworks, I was like: This is my jam. I want to work with people who think like this.

I started designing for startups shortly after that and eventually made my way, where I’ve had the opportunity to put some of the lean startup principles into practice.

Since reading Eric’s book I’ve bought all the other lean startup books, read all the blog posts, and downloaded all the slide decks filled with tips. And so I was downright giddy when Eric became an investor in Reverb this past fall and invited us to the lean startup conference. Do you see a pattern here? I’m a compulsive framework collector. I’ve been slow to share my own lessons learned though. So here’s my first cut at that, and my first cut at writing words on the internet that are not part of a UI design.

I’m going to create a series of these based on what we’re doing at Reverb called Frameworks FTW. Here goes.

Principle 1.
If you’re not focused on the speed at which you learn, then you’re doing it wrong.

Lots of people think startup success is all about speed. Ship code. SHIP code. SHIP CODE. It’s definitely about speed, but the speed you should be focusing on is the speed at which your organization learns.

Dan Milstein from Hut 8 Labs gave an excellent talk on this idea at the conference. Here’s his clever “math” for why creating an information-seeking organization matters. Hang on to your hats. I’m about to go 9th-grade geometry on you here and format this like proof. Admittedly, I may have gone a bit overboard.

why the rate of information gathering matters in a startup
Lesson Learned:
The rate at which you gather information + make decisions serves as a proxy for the speed at which you’ll generate revenue. The faster you learn what works, the faster you’ll make money.

Ok yes, ACTUAL revenue is measured in dollars. But you only make dollars if people are buying your product. And people don’t buy your product if you haven’t gained an understanding of how to make it work for them.

Do you remember the oft-repeated lean startup maxim “get out of the building”??? All that geek-math above illustrates why it matters.

It’s not enough to do this once or twice. You have to create a culture that values learning in this way so you sustainably ship meaningful features and products. Your engineers don’t like talking to customers? That’s a problem. Your designers don’t watch people use their designs? That’s a problem.

At the lean startup conference, I learned how creates space for engineers and designers to quickly see how customers react to their ideas. They recruit people to come in for UX and concept testing before they even know what they’re going to test!?! People come in for these sessions 5 days a week! Moderators walk the participant through a prototype while engineers and designers watch/listen via video and screen sharing. If they have a question for the researcher to ask the participant, they live chat it to them right in the moment. They flip “get out of the building” on its head and bring the people to their office, creating a constant stream of insights. Here’s the simple visual for this:

reduce gap between wondering and knowing
Lesson Learned:
Reduce the amount time between someone on your team wondering how customers will use your product and knowing how they will use it.

Bonus Tip: If you don’t have the resources to recruit and bring research participants to your workplace: Go here, plug in a url, and get a free five minute video of someone using your product: I’m told you can do three of those per month.

At Reverb, we don’t have the resources to do what Meetup does. However, we do have a small team almost entirely composed of the exact target audience for our product, and we’re co-located with the biggest user of our platform. So when the product team needs to understand how someone might interact with a new design, we can walk across the room or down the hall and put it in front of someone, watch them interact with it, and start learning. And if something breaks, you can bet we hear about it almost immediately.

Lesson Learned:
Reduce the distance between you and your customers by hiring employees that use your product on a daily basis and locate your office near your customers.

Another way we gain valuable insight from customers is by using software to help us send personal follow up emails at key moments.

Some examples: A customer starts creating a listing on Reverb but stops short of publishing it to the marketplace — they get a follow up email asking them if they need any help finishing the listing. A few days after they join the site — they get an email welcoming them and asking for feedback. They joined and made 3 sales in a row — they get an encouraging note to keep selling and tips on how to become a better seller. Each of these interactions gives us a chance to make our business personal and make people feel like the valued customer that they are.

By distributing different follow up emails across the team, everyone has the opportunity to learn from customers. If every customer interaction goes through customer service, other team members lose touch with the problems experienced by customers. You rob your team of hearing about pain points and you rob your business of having many brains thinking about how to solve issues.

Lesson Learned:
Have every employee connect with customers in personal ways to distribute learning and get all team members thinking about how to solve problems.

That’s the first principle and a few lessons learned in the Frameworks FTW series. If you like simple visuals and want to catch all of the posts, follow the Reverb dev blog and follow me on twitter.

If you’re a front-end developer (especially if you’re a musician) you should come learn with us. Apply at

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