February 24, 2010

What Lean Startups are NOT

The Lean Startup movement isn’t terribly new, but the level of hype is reaching pretty significant levels. The contrarian in me is always a little wary when anything gets overly hyped.  To be clear, I really really like the concepts of the lean startup and customer development.  I’d recommend any entrepreneur who isn’t familiar with this to at least watch some of Eric Ries’ talks about it and try to internalize Steve Blank’s book.  However, I find that when lots of people start pontificating on topics like this, some parts of the message get lost or the framework gets portrayed incorrectly as some holy grail. Below are a few half-baked thoughts on what I think The Lean Startup is NOT (btw, I’m lumping the customer development methodology and Lean Startup Methodology together).

1. The Lean Startups Is NOT One-Size-Fits-All

I get a little worried when I see too many diagrams of work flows emerging around a particular methodology. I think discussing best practices is generally a good thing, but too much emphasis on the process sometimes fools folks into thinking that it’s a magic formula.  I think the principles of Customer Development and the Lean Startup that are the most important things, and the process is more of a guide. Common sense and independent thought should prevail over workflows and formulas.

2. The Lean Startup is NOT Static

The reason that #1 is important is because the Lean Startup isn’t a static thing. Steve Blank and Eric Ries both often discuss how their thinking is evolving as they think about how their principles apply to different types of businesses and get feedback from folks who practice these principles. Industries and technologies shift as well, and some of the tried and true principles of the Lean Startup will eventually change or major limitations will become well understood.

3. The Lean Startup Is Not a Substitute for Vision

This is my most important point.  Emphasis on creating Minimum Viable Products and finding Product Market Fit I think can be pursued at the expense of thinking hard about a company’s vision.  It’s true that some big companies can/have emerged from iterating and pivoting into new markets (Groupon is my favorite example).  But I think some really big and hairy opportunities can only be addressed if one really does the work to understand the problems and players and have a strong point of view of what could be possible.  I think from there, you can utilize Lean Startup Principles to connect the dots, and the dots may lead somewhere very different (thus, vision evolves as well).  But I think both are required to build industry transforming companies.

For example, I’ve talked a lot about what I see as a huge opportunity in the education publishing industry. I am 100% convinced that we are going to see a massive company emerge in this sector in the next few years.  And it will be a company that completely changes the way students learn and how content is consumed.  But it’s a complicated industry with lots of disparate players (an oligopoly of publishers, Professors, different kinds of educational institutions, Students, device makers, etc) and not one where you can do serious damage without some heavy lifting and crazy vision and conviction.

I’m interested to hear other peoples thoughts on this!  Also, I want to give a quick shoutout to David Vivero and David Cancel, who prompted these thoughts from some recent conversations.

Rob Go is a Senior Associate with Spark Capital in Boston, Massachusetts.  This blog post was originally published on February 19, 2010.  You can find this post, as well as additional content on his blog called