Friday Aug 26, 2011 by Jared Chung - Founder, Starfish
I started using lean before joining the Lean Startup Challenge so I wasn’t expecting to learn too much from the competition, but, even so, I learned more about my startup in the first two weeks of the Challenge than I had in the previous two months.
Going lean is hard. When I say "Lean", I’m not talking about just building a company – I’m talking about getting out of the building, relentlessly focusing on performance, and pivoting like lightning. And when I say "hard", I’m not talking about sleepless nights – I’m talking Stanley Goodspeed on his knees in a warehouse at Alcatraz stabbing himself in the chest with a syringe. Lean Startup requires that you confront all of the most uncertain parts of your business model up-front, based on the realization that uncertainty is the greatest foe of a startup. Uncertainty is stupid. You’re smart.
Joining the Lean Startup Challenge (LSC) was a great way to get feedback, support, and a little healthy social pressure to accelerate my startup’s war on uncertainty. And these benefits are universal - there’s nothing uniquely lean-friendly about my startup (called Starfish, my startup makes it so you don’t have to use the same username/password/email combination online over and over again – think of it as bitly for email addresses combined with a username/password wallet).
How the LSC helps contestants isn’t a mystery; its power comes from its focus on transparency. As contestants, we share some critical information for LSC judge review every week: our business models, our hypotheses, our performance metrics, and a weekly blog describing the inner workings of our business' development. I'm not going to lie and tell you it's easy: opening the kimono all the way for the first time takes a healthy shot of courage and a good long look at the face in the mirror. But this transparency is incredibly valuable. Sharing real performance metrics (typically AARRR) encourages a focus on the parts of the business that really matter.
In addition, many of us have elected to voluntarily share openly with our peers. Most of us share our metrics and blogs with the whole LSC community. We also share our latest challenges in the weekly Thursday LSC Q&A sessions at VentureCafe, or through the LSC Forum on the LSC website. I saw a great example of this peer-to-peer sharing early in the competition, when Brant Cooper came to run a workshop on business ecosystems. In that session, Brant ran through the entire ecosystem for Localocracy with its founder Conor up on a whiteboard with all of the LSC contestants in attendance. Ash Maurya did something similar during a session on the lean canvas with Brian from SociabO (lean canvas is an approach to showing a business model in a consolidated form which is handy for logging pivots and visualizing uncertainty). The open sharing really sets LSC apart from many other competitions. There’s more camaraderie among the contestants than I expected and I’ve received some great assistance from other contestants.
For my part, in these first few weeks of the LSC, I’ve rapidly moved closer to my goal. At times I have had to take creative and dramatic actions to achieve truly significant performance improvements, as in week 3 when I re-hauled Starfish’s marketing campaign to cut customer acquisition cost by more than half. At times I have had to find creative ways to rapidly collect customer feedback, as in week 1 when I interviewed Red Line riders at Charles/MGH, or in week 4 when I quantitatively measured the pain point on 150 Mechanical Turkers. In the past few weeks, I've confirmed several product-fit hypotheses, locked in some good marketing strategies, improved pricing, and realized that a bunch of things I thought were good ideas actually were not.
The LSC’s solid structure, and the positive social reinforcement that comes with it, helped me remain disciplined in using the lean methodology with my startup. These things come in handy when you’ve got to do something tough that you know is good for you. I could have ignored the contest, and I’m not sure I’d know as much about my business as I know now. And ultimately, that's the best outcome I could have asked for from the Lean Startup Challenge.
Jared Chung is the Founder & CEO of Starfish, an email privacy startup and a former McKinsey Engagement Manager. You can read additional posts about Jared's experience with his company as part of the Lean Startup Challenge by clicking here. You can also follow Jared on Twitter (@jaredchung) by clicking here.
Editor's note: Jared is a contestant in the Lean Startup Challenge and his opinions are independent of the lean startup program leadership. To find out more about the Lean Startup Challenge, go to http://www.leanstartupchallenge.com.