Everyone wants to be lean. Not thin, trim or slender, just lean. The lean startup movement — heralded by author Eric Ries — operates on the premise that entrepreneurs are far better off when they rapidly deploy products in a capital-efficient manner, constantly sucking in feedback from users of the product.
The concept runs counter to the Zillows and Colors and Whrrls of the world, all of which raised massive amounts of capital on the promise of an idea. Lean startups don’t work that way. Instead of raising cash to commercialize an idea, crude versions of products are expected to be released and then adjusted on the go as feedback arrives. (Startup Weekend is a prime example of lean methodology at its finest).
There’s certainly a lot of interesting debate going on around how these ideas — driven by open source software, cheap Web services and third-party platforms– will impact the way technology products are made.
That debate was on full display Monday night as CubeDuel co-founder Tony Wright, Media Piston founder Joe Heitzeberg and PageForest founder Mike Koss engaged in a fascinating panel discussion about the challenges and opportunities of lean development practices. Moderated by Joshua “Red” Russak at the Startpad offices in Seattle, the panel was the inaugural meetup for the newly-formed Lean Startup Seattle group.
“The idea is, get rid of the concept of the big launch,” said Wright in explaining the concept. Instead, companies should focus on multiple releases and the “minimum viable product,” building a product that’s functional and educational instead of polished and pristine.
“Whenever anyone asks for (1000 Markets co-founder John Wedgwood’s), advice, he says build a damn WordPress blog…. And, it is true. Almost any piece of software in the world can be a WordPress blog. You can make a pitch on a WordPress blog and have a big buy button there and — whether the buy button works or not — you can sure as hell measure whether anyone clicks on it or not…. It is a way to test a theory.”
Even though Wright has successfully put lean practices in place at startup projects such as CubeDuel, he warned that entrepreneurs need to know when to say no to outside feedback. One of the big problems with lean ideals is that it can “kill the concept of vision,” he says.
“It makes everything data driven, and sort of supplants vision,” said Wright, adding that Facebook co-founder Mark Zuckerberg and Apple co-founder Steve Jobs are masters at going their own ways despite negative customer feedback.
Wright pointed out that Facebook would have canned the (now) popular news feed if it had listened to initial criticism, and added that Apple routinely tells its users what’s good for them.
“You got to know when to pivot, and know when to stick and tell your users to piss off,” said Wright.
Lean development practices also are having a big impact on the way that venture capitalists and angel investors operate. To some degree, the traditional investment models are at risk as lean concepts take over. That’s one of the reasons why new investment concepts such as Y Combinator and TechStars are gaining momentum, and more traditional VCs are struggling to stay relevant.
“If you dump multiple millions of dollars on somebody’s lap, you have made this big bet without any feedback. And that is kind of the antithesis of this whole idea. And it also happens in enterprises. Microsoft will go off and some internal manager says: ‘this is the next big product push’ and you kind of have the curse of the resources. You have infinite resources. You don’t have to be lean. And so you piss away a whole lot of money.”
Several of the attendees were asking whether video or transcripts would be available of the program. I happened to be recording, so I uploaded the discussion in three audio segments below. Enjoy.