This is the first of a two-part essay I’m writing on why Lean Startups are so hard. In part 2 I explain why I embrace skepticism.
I just completed a pilot customer site visit with a startup I’m helping through my EIR work. The startup has a lot going for it: talent, funding and support of large influential companies.
After a day it was clear that many of key our assumptions were wrong. Wrong as in, “They don’t have X problem” and “Y solution creates more problems than it solves.”
The kind of wrong that crushes your confidence as an entrepreneur.
Amidst powerpoint slides, laptops and stacks of coffee cups, we found ourselves in uncomfortable moments of silent frustration.
I decided to break the silence by stating the obvious:
Lean Startups are really, really hard.
Discovery – A Simple Concept
The concepts of Lean Startup and Customer Development are shockingly simple: Since startups are in the business of discovering a new business model, we need radically new frameworks, tools and tactics for optimizing the discovery process.
I’ve observed that—despite the popularity of the movement and their claims to the contrary—shockingly few entrepreneurs are able to implement even basic lean principles. 1
Why are Lean Startups so hard?
There is an enormous shortage of experienced mentors and case studies relative to the number of startups. Without hands-on mentorship or the support network of other Lean Startups, entrepreneurs find it difficult to invest the months and years into testing and discovery and usually revert to habit. 2
And as Eric has pointed out, discovery and learning is tedious, boring, frustrating work with failures that vastly outnumber successes. Most of us would rather sell the world on our great, unproven idea and enjoy the attention and resources of TechCrunch articles and quick venture funding. 3
But in due time Lean Startups will get easier as better support systems and smarter money help overcome these challenges.
Unfortunately, I’ve concluded the real source of Lean Startup frustration will be much harder to overcome: We’re not wired to think lean.
Our Genes aren’t Lean
As Michael Shermer explains in his new book, The Believing Brain: From Ghosts and Gods to Politics and Conspiracies – How We Construct Beliefs and Reinforce them as Truths, we have evolved biological thinking that is decidedly un-lean:
We form beliefs for a variety of subjective, personal, emotional and psychological reasons in the context of environments created by family, friends, colleagues, culture and society at large; after forming our beliefs we then defend, justify and rationalize them with a host of intellectual explanations…Beliefs come first, explanations for beliefs follow. I call this process belief-dependent realism, where our perceptions about reality are dependent on the beliefs that we hold about it.
First we believe. Then we look for justification.
That’s how our minds work—the very opposite of what we need for efficient discovery.
Believing First is the Easy Path
It is no surprise that discovery interviews with prospective customers about a new product or service often produce misleading results. We desperately want to believe that we’ve discovered a novel business idea and filter data accordingly.
We ask questions designed to give us the answer we want and place greater strength on responses that supports our beliefs.
Nor is it surprising that we rationalize a poor consumer response to a new product as “people are on vacation now” rather than confront the more likely possibility that our product launch didn’t resonate with our audience.
This is the easy path for our minds, and resisting the pull of belief-dependent realism is hard, hard work.
Thinking Differently: The Hardest Pivot
Fighting these inclinations is particularly hard for us because the stakes are so high.
Having invested months (or longer) getting ourselves, prospective customers, family, friends, advisers and investors to believe in us and our ideas—is it any wonder we’re scared to confront the reality that we were wrong?
Of course not.
We desperately want our assumptions to be right because the alternative is just too painful to consider, a pain that gets stronger as we invest more time and money into our beliefs. 4
Unfortunately belief-dependent realism is the single greatest source of waste in entrepreneurship because it impedes the discovery process.
You can’t discover an answer if you think you already have it.
Lean Startup Schizophrenia
What makes lean thinking even harder is that we have to balance this analytical, evidence-driven discovery process with the practical reality that we have convinced most of the world we already know the problem and have the solution.
90% of the world is sold by genuine passion and emotion—not evidence.
Asking a prospective customer, “I’m not sure of your problem or the solution but can I get you to test some ideas?” translates to “can I waste your time?” (If you find a customer that embraces your discovery process, you’ve found an earlyvangelist.)
Spending your day as both a salesman and a scientist is a tough balance, but one that we’re forced to make.
So Why be Lean?
Being a Lean Startup entrepreneur requires me to enjoy the process of failure.
So lean startups are tedious, frustrating, boring and lonely work that have a 90% failure rate. Put that way, who in the world would want to do this?
It has taken a few years and it’s been a painful path, but I’ve come to embrace and enjoy the discovery process. This is my career, and something I’ll endeavor to master in the coming decades.
I now expect my ideas to be 90% wrong and search for the 10% that is right.
I try to surround myself with people like Patrick Smith and Scott Day, who know my limitations and can tell me when I’m lying to myself. We have scheduled Pivot-or-Persist meetings where we make fast decisions on what projects to continue and what to kill.
My instinct for quickly identifying the biggest risk areas for a new product is getting better, and I’m now able to cycle through ideas in weeks—a process that used to take months.
But most of all I’m getting better at accepting and embracing the limitations of my mind. This is a skill that can be learned but you’ll have to ignore 99.99% of what you read on TechCrunch to do it. 5
In part two of this essay I have some advice for how you can learn to think differently.
- I can usually tell in five seconds whether an entrepreneur is practicing lean startup principles. If they speak in terms of discovery, quickly vetting the highest risk assumptions, etc., I know they are on the right track. ↩
- If you think you have the experience and aptitude to mentor startups on lean principles, please reach out to me. I’m working with Steve Blank to launch the NSF’s I-Corps program at Stanford this Fall and we’re looking for qualified mentors. ↩
- Silicon Valley just might be the worst place in the in world for a lean startup. Of course this is hyperbole, but at the moment you can get funding for an idea without any evidence for whether or not it can lead to a scalable model. Few entrepreneurs are able to resist the ‘glamor’ of TechCrunch coverage and available venture funding for an unproven concept. Taking the easy money for an idea is a rational choice. ↩
- Shermer and other researchers explain that we are more attached to our beliefs the longer we’ve held them. This is another reason to test the highest-risk parts of your business FIRST. Delaying a painful answer only magnifies the suffering. ↩
- I’m not picking on TechCrunch, just using them as a metaphor for the startup entertainment industry. They just happen to be the best at it. ↩