Three Reasons It’s Hard To Be a Lean Startup

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The Lean Startup methodology can help you get to market faster, but implementing it is not so simple. Here are three startup ‘gotchas’ and what you can do to address them.

Congratulations. You’ve got a concept for a product, and you’ve got a team of developers.

Now the clock is ticking… because you need to get to market and start generating revenue before your funds run out. What’s the best way to do it? The ‘Lean Startup’ approach is your best shot.

The Lean Startup is go-to-market methodology formalized in a book of the same name, by Eric Ries. Often confused with agile development, the lean startup combines some of the principles of agile product development together with lean manufacturing. From agile, it takes the idea of working in small batches to get feedback from users before going too far down the wrong path, and from lean manufacturing it takes the idea of exploiting valuable resources efficiently to minimize waste. The key difference between agile and the lean startup is that agile is designed to prevent building a product that doesn’t work, while the lean startup is intended to avoid building a product that the market doesn’t want to buy.

Many startups embrace the lean philosophy because it appeals to common sense, and at first blush it sounds simple to implement. Entrepreneurs embrace it because it minimizes the amount of time and investment needed to launch a viable product. Investors love it because lean surfaces fundamental issues early, helping flush out those companies that need help.

The lean startup methodology is simple in principle; it can be summarized in three iterative steps:

  1. Start by building the minimum viable product (MVP) a potential paying customer would find useful.
  2. Deliver the product to early adopters and the observe how the product is being used.
  3. Distill the feedback and make product modifications/improvements. Keep iterating until you reach a stage where customers are ready to plunk down money for the product.

The advantages of this approach are clear. By getting early feedback from real customers, you not only refine the product without wasting development cycles, you also gain a real insight into the customers’ pains. This information is critical for sketching out compelling marketing messages and a go-to-market strategy.

The benefits inherent in lean include the following:

  • You identify an addressable market segment that will buy your product on ‘day one’
  • You develop compelling value propositions for customers before you launch
  • You understand how customers want to buy your product from the get-go

So, What’s the Problem?

If the Lean Startup methodology is so simple, why do so many companies continue to develop a full working product, and only then go to market?

There are several answers, but the primary reason is this methodology depends on getting a lot of details right and that requires experience entrepreneurs often lack. To be successful with the lean startup methodology you need to be able to find early adopters for your product, understand how to measure their usage effectively, and then translate that into feature changes you need to make to improve the product. Here are some of the ‘gotchas’ where entrepreneurs get stuck:

  • How do you find early adopters? An early adopter is personality type, not a job title; these people can be anywhere but where do you find them, how do you identify them, and how do you get them on board?
  • How do you measure feedback? People don’t like delivering bad news so most testers will generally tell you they like your product. It’s only when you ask for money that you’ll understand that folks don’t need or value your product.
  • How you interpret the feedback? People are not good at telling you what they need. Asking them straight out doesn’t work. Asked straight out, people will generally ask for a list of unimportant features.

The upshot is that navigating the waters of the lean startup requires an understanding of how business works and being able to uncover unarticulated business pains.

Getting It Right the First Time

Overcoming these hurdles involves addressing the challenges head on; namely:

  • Making it easy for early adopters to find you instead of hunting for them directly
  • Asking the right questions to obtain actionable feedback
  • Uncovering the business pain workers are trying to relieve with your product

Here are some tips for addressing each of the challenges

Find Early Adopters

Early adopters are the 15% or so of the population who actively seek out technology to solve their problems. These folks are continuously on the lookout for new things. If you make them aware of your technology, they will usually find you. So, write relevant blog posts and announcements across a variety of channels, like LinkedIn groups, industry forums, industry events, trade organization newsletters, etc. Since these folks like technology, they don’t require polished marketing messages, they ‘get it;’ just make it easy for them to engage and start using your product.

Ask the Right Questions

Early adopters, like most people, are usually not good ‘authors,’ but they are good editors. So, asking them straight out what they think of your product won’t produce actionable feedback. Rather, you need to engage these people and understand what made them seek out your product in the first place. You are likely to hear that your product looked like it could be a better way to do some minor task. You need to dig deeper to understand the underlying issue related to the business, which leads to the final point…

Identify the Business Pain

What you are really after is how your product solves a business pain that customers will be willing to pay for. They won’t pay to replace some tactical tool because yours is a bit better. So, this third stage entails understanding the goals of the organization, what is important to the success of their business, and most importantly, what would demonstrably save them money, mitigate risk, comply with directives, or otherwise provide value for which they would pay.

Accomplished technology product and marketing expert, information overload researcher, award-winning technology and business writer.

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