Consider the un-Lean Startup

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I’m very unsure about the following, but it was nagging at me yesterday, so figured I’d put it to paper. The philosophy of highly iterative, capital efficient, prototype-focused product development was popularized by by Eric Ries in his concept of “Lean Startup”. The goals of this approach to product development (and business creation) aim to get the furthest with the little capital possible, to avoid splashy launches upon which the success or failure of a company or product is determined, and to stay closer to the users; to be more human-centered.

This approach to startup development was common in web startups before Eric Ries popularized its terminology, but today it is considered gospel. I am an acolyte of lean startup methodology, and (reluctantly, haltingly) consider myself a ‘designer’, or at least a design-thinker. But, as with any opinion or perspective that becomes so wildly popular as to appear to be fact, the gospel of lean has gone a bit too far, and there are some places where entrepreneurs have challenged me to think about it differently.

– Try prototyping a pre-school, or a new insurance method. Not much room for error with kids and car accidents. And as startup ideas that use software/hardware get more ambitious and oriented towards important problems, more products will be much harder to prototype, like these.

Minimum Viable Product:
– MVP native mobile applications have no users. And tablet even fewer. Earning downloads on mobile is an emergent practice, and one that does not work the same way as the web. (But it works.) If you get a bunch of one- and two-star ratings early, getting back to a rating that will drive downloads is extremely difficult. Speaking of mobile…

Continuous Deployment:
– Apple takes 2 weeks to approve anything in the App Store. Continuous deployment is plain impossible with an iPhone app.

Iteration and iterate and iterate:
– Customers aren’t interested in funding R&D, but paying for products that delight; iteration isn’t an intrinsic good, but a tool. Overuse it at your peril, and end up facing the…

– So many startups pivot out of pressure to hack breakout growth before they run out of money. Product-market fit sometimes (often) takes a long time. And particularly when trying to make a new market, disruption means that not a lot of people will use your product or understand why it’s valuable to start. And it takes a combination of luck and perseverance to convince them. 

Some of the brightest founders I’ve met recently have eschewed the lean startup model. But, interestingly, they’ve done so in opposite ways.

A few have bootstrapped – focusing early on revenue, the way a small business does, believing that they don’t have to rush to win. Paul Graham suggests that startups are companies that are designed to grow fast. Maybe I’m wrong to call these startups, then. And if these don’t eventually grow, they won’t make their investors back money. But I like them, and would actually want to invest in some of them, as a seed investor.

Others have raised (or are looking to raise) a lot more money than is typical for their stage, have built world class teams and are building with conviction, patience, and are doing actual R&D, a concept that has fallen out of favor of late. Failing to execute on Web 1.0-style ‘fat startups’ has its risks. Color famously crashed and burned, after all. And R&D processes that aren’t open run the risk of failing in the blind spots, which all teams have. But I can’t help but find these interesting too, if just because they’re unusual.

I still think the lean startup, and design-thinking (it’s fairy godmother) are highly effective ways of building a business, and of creating a product. There are more cases than not where having a beginner’s mind, building as many “listeners” into your product as possible, and optimizing for learning what your users want before spending money will lead to winning strategy. And, as with any framework, through the right lens, it can be applied anywhere, to anything. But that doesn’t make it gospel.

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