What’s wrong with the lean startup methodology?
For the uninitiated, the Lean Startup methodology is a practice for developing products and businesses based on ‘validated learning’, getting customer feedback quickly and often. The process was proposed by Eric Ries in 2011. The objective is to eliminate uncertainty in the product development process. This practice has transformed the way companies are developed.
Instead of building in isolation from users, startups regularly expose the product to customers throughout the development cycle. In doing so, teams are able to make more informed decisions about what to build, from core product functions to what colour a button should be. This sounds sensible, common sensical and is very practical in the making of a digital businesses.
It is no surprise then, that in recent years, it has become the new norm for how to build a startup. It has even made its way into the minds of those building non digital businesses. There is much to credit the lean startup methodology for, but what are some of the issues that have emerged from this new convention changing our mindsets?
When the methodology is repackaged it is oversimplified
As more people begin to believe that entrepreneurship is the solution to their corporate woes, more products emerge to educate people in how to become entrepreneurs. It is not surprising then that the methodology has been repackaged, repurposed and resold in ‘entrepreneurship courses’ that promise to help you make ‘$1000 a month.’
Many of these are by successful, credible entrepreneurs and a lot of them live up to their promises. However, this is only on the grounds that the business you want to start fits with their instructions. In efforts to convert the lean way of thinking into actionable steps, they often produce guidance that is restrictive.
For instance, the popular approach of creating a landing page communicating the problem and proposed solution, including a sign up sheet or method to pay, then running a Google AdWords campaign may be sufficient for a validating whether or not to progress with a taxi app or an e-book on fish keeping. However, it might prove massively insufficient for a team wanting to start a luxury hotel to obtain any meaningful information about how to proceed with their business.
Existence of such courses and articles, such as ‘3 Steps to Validate Your Business Idea For FREE…almost’ by the Startup Bro’s oversimplifies the process. It fails to cultivate a mindset whereby an individual understands hypothesis testing and knows when to abandon a project. Not because they ran an advert for a week but because they know they have executed on enough of the right actions for their particular idea to know what the most suitable next steps are.
The drive to be minimal can lead to entrepreneurs to consider sacrificing on quality when they shouldn’t
Although I believe that a person giving you money is the best test of whether or not you are building something financially worthwhile, the answer to ‘what is the least and fastest thing I can do so customers will pay me?’, will be dependent on what you want to build. In certain circumstances, quality will be required to make customers buy from you, it might even be why they buy from you.
Companies like Ikawa, makers of the digital micro coffee roaster had to work for years until they had a shippable prototype. In talks with their founder, Andrew Stordy, he mentioned that “the more physical a product gets, the less lean product development can be.” For a marketplace selling sportswear, a webpage with fake images and a way for customers to pay might be sufficient.
However, for designer cosmetics, luxury shoes or jets powered by hydrogen fuel cells, a little more might be required and the journey to getting to something that make customers part with cash might take longer.
The drive to eliminate uncertainty can kill artistic vision
In an article written for issue 02 of the Startup Magazine on mobile and tablet, Stefan Lewandowski, former CTO of Makeshift, makes a case for building a ‘minimum lovable product’, with the spirit of ‘passion and a sense of play’ as opposed to building things that can only be ‘immediately be validated’, that potentially leads us to ‘building boring startups tweaking dull landing pages to extract an extra 0.1 percent conversion rate.’
I wholeheartedly agree and believe this to be true whether your product is digital or physical. The drive for immediacy and minimalism can paralyse creativity, this is especially true to products driven by art such as clothing. When a woman buys a £2,000 dress from Mary Katrantzou, she is not just buying a piece of clothing, she is buying into the artistic vision of the designer.
Sometimes we want to make things not because they can be ‘validated’ quickly, but simply because we want to turn our mind’s vision into a reality. Sometimes constantly asking for opinions can be inhibiting. Sometimes we might need to work the other way round — starting with what we want to make and finding people who love it instead of finding out exactly what people want us to make and then making it.
The lean startup methodology is something that informs what I make as an individual and how we create as a team. It informs the decision making process, helping us to become more resourceful, focussing time and resources in the right place.
Every industry and every product development process, digital or not, has something to take from the lean startup methodology. In an age where we are seeing creativity flourish, even outside of technology, it is unsurprising that this methodology — which was written with digital product development in mind — is being layered onto the production processes of non-digital products.
Irrespective of what you are building, whether it be an app or an aeroplane I urge you to embrace not just the subtleties of product creation but also the subtleties of your motivations to create. Then and only then, will you be able to know what are the best actions to make the vision you have in mind become a reality.