Tony Wright, left, Joe Heitzeberg and Mike Koss

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).

Are lean concepts a bad thing? Depends upon who you ask.

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.

Koss noted:

“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.

(Link) View more Technology Sound Clips


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John Cook is co-founder of GeekWire. Follow on Twitter: @geekwirenews and Facebook.

Comments

  • http://twitter.com/LeanStartupSEA LeanStartupSEA

    Thanks for coming out and doing a write up. The video is almost up and running!

  • http://twitter.com/FirstTimeOnline Joshua ‘Red’ Russak

    Thanks for the shout out. I appreciate you making it out and providing coverage. We look forward to seeing where this goes month.

    • johnhcook

      The whole “lean startup” concept is fascinating, especially Tony Wright’s comments about whether it kills the big “vision.”

      Thanks for having me out, and let me know when the video is live. (Sorry my big head kept getting in the way).

      • http://twitter.com/webwright Tony Wright

        I don’t think it necessarily kills big vision– but it certainly causes some people to get lost in small/tactical wins. I think that’s more a problem of misconceptions about Lean than it is with the ideas around lean.

        People think lean is about being cheap and running tons of A/B tests. In reality it’s about only spending what you need to learn, and then pouring on the gasoline once you’ve hit a scalable model. It’s way more about learning than it is about optimization. Eric (predictably) has a really good post on the subject here:

        http://www.startuplessonslearned.com/2010/04/learning-is-better-than-optimization.html

        • http://twitter.com/samgrossberg Sam Grossberg

          WRT the overuse of the word ‘pivot’ this article made it into my Twitter stream: http://www.businessinsider.com/most-successful-pivots-2011-4

          A better title would be ’15 successful businesses that weren’t the first thing their founders tried’ :)

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