My Lean Startups Haven’t Followed the Script

Summary: At long last, Lean Startup has become a global movement.  While more an more of us are talking about Lean Startup, far fewer are talking about how tedious, frustrating, and tough it is in practice.  In this post I share what my personal experience has been like – and it hasn’t followed the Lean Startup script.  

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In two weeks I’ll be in San Francisco for the 3rd Lean Startup Conference, now an annual ritual and a time to reflect on how Lean Startup has impacted my career. 4 years ago a handful of us were organizing fledgling meetups, blogging about our experiences, and struggling to apply theory to practice.  Lean Startup is now a global movement, and while people everywhere are talking about Lean Startup concepts, far fewer of us are talking about what Lean Startup is like in practice.

I’ll share with you my experiences in the Lean Startup trenches.

Lean Startup Conceptually

Investors, advisers, and entrepreneurs are finally spreading the meme and talking about Lean Startup. While this is a wonderful – we no longer have to browbeat people into thinking differently – in the interest of brevity we are mostly rehashing a familiar script:

Startup X had an idea for Y. They systematically tested assumptions, pivoted based on learning, then {{Insert Clever Tactic Here}} pivoted to Z, built a simple MVP and started growing. The rest is legend.

If only we entrepreneurs would follow the process, we too can succeed. Truth be told, I’m more guilty than most of spreading this perception2.

Practicing Lean

In sharp contrast to the way we talk about Lean Startup conceptually is my experience in doing it. I have found Practicing Lean to be lonely, tedious, tough, frustrating work – the stuff we don’t talk about in the case studies.

I’ll contrast my own experiencing with two of my failed startups.

Soapbox.com – My Un-Lean First Startup

In 1999 at the height of the Internet boom I started my first company to build a platform where people could buy and sell stock research reports. While we failed just as dramatically as most during that period, it was one of the best experiences of my life.

The illusion of progress is thrilling when you don’t know any better (or don’t want to know any better). We raised money, hired a great team, built innovative tech, landed on the cover of magazines, played lots of Foosball, worked like hell, occasionally fought, and celebrated small victories.

ClaimAway – My First Lean Startup

10 years and another failed startup later I was sick of failure and decided to try putting Lean Startup to practice. I started ClaimAway to tackle the challenges associated with the consumer finance side of Health Care. Over nearly 2 years I pivoted through (at least) 5 different ideas:

  1. A personalized medicine social media platform (no market, no problem)
  2. A system for managing Health Savings Accounts (no problem)
  3. “Mint.com for Health Care Finances” (intractable solution, no revenue, no channels)
  4. An insurance claim filing service (no channels, couldn’t scale)
  5. A platform for getting Autism services covered by insurance (ran out of time)

By “pivoted through” I mean that I systematically tested different ideas using a Lean Canvas and found that all of them failed when I presented the evidence to advisers and myself.

My experience in ClaimAway was a sharp contrast to that in Soapbox.com. Spending 3 months meeting 50 moms in coffee shops is not thrilling. Writing code is a welcome respite from trying to cull conclusions from dozens of disjointed conversations.

When a startup won a high-profile award on idea I pivoted away from 6 months earlier my friends and family asked me, “That was YOUR idea! Why did you quit so soon?” Talking about data and evidence only resulted in (misplaced) sympathy and glazed eyes.

The Lean Startup case studies don’t talk about how tedious, lonely and frustrating the process can be.  Finding people with problems to interview can be hugely time consuming.  Feedback is confusing, inconsistent.  Learning what didn’t work feels like failure, not progress.  Even my entrepreneur friends told me they would never be able to stick with such a disciplined process that long.

The steady, boring hum of discovery is harder than the singing and crying of hype.

So Why am I Still Committed to Lean Startup?

I can’t imagine doing things any other way. I just couldn’t bear to knowingly waste my time like I did with Soapbox.com. Tough as it is, I press on, determined as ever, wiser indeed, but still toiling every day.

What keeps me going is friends like Giff Constable, Ash Maurya, Patrick Smith and others who know firsthand how tough it is to put Lean into practice. I can lean on them or read their blogs when I’m going nuts.

Can you relate to my feelings?

If so, I hope we get a chance to meet soon. And if you’re at the Lean Startup conference in two weeks I hope you’ll take a moment to introduce yourself and share your experiences over a beer or two. First round on me…

 

  1.  Innovation Illustrated 1: Build, Measure Learn photo by johnny goldstein.  Licensed CC 2.0.
  2. Eric Ries, to his credit, has consistently decried these simplistic perceptions.

5 Comments

  1. PABLO ESQUINAS November 23, 2012 at 7:18 am #

    Hello Kevin,

    Even not attending the meeting, thanks a lot for:
    1.-Being so brave and honest to talk about about no feasible projects even taking a trending/sucessful approach and “dark” side of all it. This attitude is not too much popular in Spain and other countries.
    2.-Keeping involved on ideas exchange to share your experiences with other lean startups processes and professionals.
    I would like to ask you for a favour, could you be so kind to provide me with some web links to startups cases?
    Kind Regards a Good Luck.
    Pablo Esquinas Dessy

  2. shlomo December 11, 2012 at 1:02 am #

    Kevin,
    I’m most interested to know how you got to the following conclusions marked with stars.

    A personalized medicine social media platform*** (no market, no problem)***
    A system for managing Health Savings Accounts ***(no problem)***
    “Mint.com for Health Care Finances”*** (intractable solution, no revenue, no channels)***
    An insurance claim filing service ***(no channels, couldn’t scale)***

    How did you know you had enough data to get to that conclusion? I think I’ve got a problem, as I see people complaining about it. I still don’t know who is gonna pay for that. This is my situation right now.

    But I’m really asking how do you get conclusion on ALL aspects, one by one, proving yourself, it’s time to move on.

    Thanks,
    Shlomo

    • kevindewalt December 11, 2012 at 12:21 pm #

      Short answer: I STILL really struggle with this issue, “to persevere or pivot”. I’ve asked the best minds in the business this question and don’t have a clear answer yet. So don’t be hard on yourself, we ALL struggle with this and just the fact that you’re considering the question is great.

      Long answer: In each of these cases I had specific hypothesis about the business. I tested them and they failed my tests. So I was faced with a decision where I had incomplete data and had to rely on help from others to get me through it. I’ll give you an example:

      –on the Health Savings Accounts my hypothesis was that people were faced with the challenge of managing the paper receipts and tax reporting associated with these new accounts. So I put an ad on Craigslist and interviewed ~20 people and asked them how they managed their HSA. Most went like this:

      Me: “So, how have you been been managing the receipts and paperwork from your HSA to maximize tax benefits?”
      Them: “Paperwork? Taxes? I just give them my card and the doctor takes out the money.”
      “Oh, that stuff. I just throw it in a shoebox.”

      The test failed, people didn’t have the problem I anticipated.

  3. Georgann April 7, 2013 at 4:08 pm #

    I critically enjoy your posts. Thanks

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