For the uninitiated, lean startup methodology is a practice for developing products and businesses based on validated learning—essentially getting customer feedback quickly and often.
As HBR.org contributor Steve Blank explains, lean startup principles favor “experimentation over elaborate planning, customer feedback over intuition, and iterative design over traditional ‘big design up front’ development.”
The lean startup 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, and their products, are developed.
Instead of building in isolation from users, startups regularly expose the product to customers throughout the product development cycle. In doing so, teams are able to make more informed decisions about what to build, from core product functions to what color a button should be. This sounds sensible and practical. It is no surprise then, that in recent years, it has become the new normal for how to build a startup.
Lean Startups Gone Wrong
There is much credit to the lean startup methodology, but what issues and challenges have emerged from its practice?
When methodology is repackaged it is oversimplified.
As more people begin to believe entrepreneurship is the solution to their corporate woes, more products emerge to educate people on how to become entrepreneurs. It is not surprising then that the methodology has been repackaged, repurposed and resold in “entrepreneurship courses” touting marketing claims of ‘Earn $1,000 A Month” and so on.
As more people begin to believe entrepreneurship is the solution to their corporate woes, more products emerge to educate people on how to become entrepreneurs.
Many of these new offerings are marketed by successful, credible entrepreneurs and some even live up to their promises. However, this is only plausible if the business you want to start fits within their constructs. In efforts to translate a lean way of thinking into actionable steps, they often produce business guidance that is restrictive.
For instance, the popular online marketing approach of creating a landing page to communicate a problem-solution with a lead gen form and click to pay may prove insufficient for a team launching a luxury boutique hotel.
Existence of such courses and articles, such as “3 Steps to Validate Your Business Idea For FREE…almost,” by companies like Startup Bro’s, oversimplifies the process; failing to cultivate a mindset whereby entrepreneurs learn by hypothesis testing—when to abandon a project, not because they ran an advert for a week, but because they know they’ve executed on enough of the right actions to confirm suitable next steps.
The drive to be ‘minimal’ can lead to sacrifices in quality.
I believe that a customer who gives you money is the best test of whether or not you are building something financially worthwhile. In certain circumstances, quality will be required to make customers buy from you and 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 stock images and click-to-pay CTA might be sufficient. However, for designer cosmetics, luxury shoes or jets powered by hydrogen fuel cells, a bit more might be required. The journey of building something that makes customer’s part with their 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, a technologist and 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 “immediately be validated” leading us to “building boring startups, tweaking dull landing pages to extract an extra 0.1% conversion rate.” I wholeheartedly agree.
The drive for immediacy and minimalism can paralyze creativity. When a woman buys a $2,000 Mary Katrantzou dress, 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 vision into a reality. Constantly asking for opinions can be inhibiting. At times, entrepreneurs may need to work the other way around — starting with what we want to create and then finding people who love it.
“Sometimes we want to make things—not because they can be ‘validated’ quickly, but simply—because we want to turn our vision into a reality.”
Lean startup methods inform 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, and focus time and resources in the right place.
Subtleties of Creativity
Every industry has something to learn from lean startup methodology. In an age where we are seeing creativity flourish, even outside of technology, it is unsurprising that this methodology—originally crafted with tech products in mind—is now phased into the production of non-tech products.
Irrespective of what you are building, I urge you to embrace the subtleties of your motivations to create. Not just the subtleties of product creation. Then and only then, will you be able to know the best actions to make your vision a reality.
This article has been edited and condensed.
Natasha Hussein is the Editor of The Startup Magazine where she is building an engaging magazine experience on the web, mobile and tablet devices. Formerly, Natasha wrote and co-produced the Fulfillment Manifesto, a short artistic manifesto to inspire millennials—endorsed by successful entrepreneurs and the Harvard Business Review. Natasha has a degree in Chemistry from the University of Bristol and has a keen interest in people development, sustainable design and technology for the built environment. Connect with @thestartupmag on Twitter.