How to Simplify Lean Startup for Accelerators

Summary: Even startups in Y-Combinator need Lean Startup help. Since the programs are so short, in the future I’ll focus on helping entrepreneurs with just 2 items: “Get out of the Office” and “Fake your MVP”.

This Fall I helped the latest class of Chinaccelerator  companies begin using Lean Startup.1   I started with a “Lean 101” presentation and explained the basics, used case studies, and how to use a business model canvas.

Although I was able to help many of them, in the future I’m going to try a different approach.

Why Accelerators Need Lean Startup

Not making something people want is the biggest cause of failure we see early on.

–Jessica Livingston, What Goes Wrong, Y Combinator co-founder

Indeed, Y Combinator companies have the same major challenge as every startup.

Are you solving a real problem?  Do people want the solution? These are the questions Lean Startup helps us answer.

Simplifying Lean for Accelerators

Unfortunately, answering these questions can take months or years.  Startups in accelerators don’t have the time or mindshare to absorb theory while building relationships, meeting advisers & investors, and getting ready for demo day.

In the future I’ll encourage startups in accelerator programs to do just 2 things:

1. Get Out of the Office

Steve Blank’s Lean Launchlab course provides a template for how this can work. Ask the startups to write down the top 3 problems they are solving and top 3 solution features.

Keep it simple.  For example, from the 3 problems Instagram tried to solve:

  1. Mobile photos don’t look so great.
  2. Uploads on mobile phones take a long time.
  3. Share to multiple services at once.

Writing less is harder than writing a lot, but we only have seconds to get mindshare.

Next, push them to talk to at least 10 customers a week.  Do they have these problems?  Does the solution resonate with them? Each weekly meeting you can ask them what they learned.2

Can’t find customers to talk to?  Ask them how they plan on selling.  This problem isn’t going away.

2. Fake an MVP

Once the startup gets a basic understanding of problems and solutions they need to get the solution into the hands of customers as fast as possible.   And that means building a Minimum Viable Product (MVP).

Plainly put, have them build as little as possible and fake the rest.

Unfortunately the guidance here is less clear because every product is different. This is where mentors can really add value.3  Question every assumption, every feature.

Do you need to build that business logic in the model or can you calculate it by hand and update the database?
Can you use the Ruby console instead of building an admin interface?
Do you really need to integrate with multiple platforms now?

Here are some great case studies on Faking an MVP 4:

The Lean Startup, Eric Ries, pp 92-110
Aardvark Presentation
Food on the Table presentation
How $40 Saved us 9 Months and $2MM (love this one!)

Before the Accelerator Starts

Lastly, I highly recommend pushing a startup to begin Customer Development before the program startups.   Two resources:

Lean Startup Machine – The fastest way to learn Lean Startup basics in a weekend.  I met Chinaccelerator startup Weibo Agent at Lean Startup Machine Shanghai.  By the time the accelerator started they had pivoted from a first idea to a real pain point.

Startup Weekend Next – Steve Blank’s new “pre-accelerator” program is going to be a game changer.   I’m organizing Startup Weekend Next Beijing early next year.

Questions? Ask below or email me at

  1. Chinaccelertor is a great program and the guys who organize it are a class act.  I really enjoyed the opportunity to work with them.  If your startup wants to enter the Chinese market I highly recommend it.
  2. Why 10? I didn’t make this up, this is the guidance Steve Blank is giving for his new Startup Weekend Next program.
  3. Tech mentors who understand Lean Startup are invaluable at this point
  4. Please let me know if you have others!
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