Before this past weekend, my understanding of the lean methodology was fairly vague. I had read a few articles speaking to different advantages of the process, and I had a general understanding of how it worked. The lean methodology was pioneered by Eric Ries. For those of you unaware, the Lean Startup Machine is a weekend workshop focused on teaching participants how to validate their ideas through customer feedback. It’s a process to prove whether or not your product/service will actually help people in whatever capacity it is meant to, using minimal resources. The workshop was not exactly what I had expected and there were even a few surprises.
The workshop opened at the Notman House, a startup café located in downtown Montreal. The incubatorFounder Fuel is run out of there as well. It kicked off with an icebreaker, giving everybody the opportunity to meet each other. I usually feel “icebreakers” are somewhat childish, but it definitely helped to relax everyone in the room. From there, we went into some detail on how the workshop was structured, the weekend schedule, and then the fun part — pitches. Everybody in the room had the opportunity to pitch an idea, but it had to be in the form of a problem requiring a solution. From there, we went on to build teams comprised of 4-6 members.
Each team was provided with a work area and the Lean Startup Machine canvas. The canvass acted as our idea board. Any assumptions or applications of our service were to be noted. The canvass was what really showcased the science behind the lean methodology. Any assumed problems were formulated as hypothesis’, accompanied by the assumed solutions. Our idea was Patio Finder, a mobile service providing the locations of the closest patios to you (or as they like to say in Montreal, terraces). Our little think tank elaborated on that idea and came up with our hypothesis, then hit the street for some direct customer feedback.
One of our assumptions was that people cared about having sunshine or shade available at those patios. The motto at LSM is “get out of the building”, encouraging you to go talk to customers and get real feedback.
Day Two brought on a quick breakfast and review of our results from hitting the streets the night before. The program mentors always assume that initial assumptions about your product/service and the existing problem it solves to be false. They were right in this case, so what we had to do was pivot and redirect ourselves. People didn’t care about sunshine or shade, they cared more about the ambience on the patio, quality of the food/drink, and the different promotions and deals offered. After reformulating our hypothesis, we hit the streets again to test out whether or not our new problem was an issue for our target market.
A few speakers were lined up after lunch. Of the speakers, there were three that really stuck out. Alistair Croll, the first, gave a compelling presentation on the importance of analytics. He gave examples of different ways he interpreted specified metrics to identify problems within his own startups. To me, giving a personal example is always the most effective mode of hitting home to the crowd. It suddenly makes everything completely relatable, rather than just sticking to the generic theory, which is available online in most cases. Historically, the analysis of analytics hasn’t exactly been a strength of mine, but after seeing detailed displays on its importance to the well-being and future direction of a company, it’s something I am going to spend some serious time revisiting.
The next speaker that stood out was Jed Berg. Jed had worked with Reddit from the earliest stages, but left and currently works for Netflix. According to Jed, Reddit has been using the lean methodology from the get go. He spoke about how they went about doing this through varying modes of product testing to uncover whether or not the newly inducted features would take off. Funnily enough, he said that a lot of the time they wouldn’t even develop these new features, they would just test the click-through rates to see if there was actually any interest from the public.
The final speaker, the one that really made the biggest impact, was Patrick Vlaskovits. His presentation flowed with examples of what has and hasn’t worked for him. He was definitely a diehard fan of the lean methodology, and attested to how it has been successful in his ventures. There was one statement that truly stood above the rest and it hadn’t been touched on beforehand; parallel testing. He told us that we needed to attack the problem from multiple angles, not only to be efficient with time when doing market research, but to help actualize what the underlying problem was without missing anything. Another point he brought up was off-brand testing. This is done by creating a fake website/application that uses whatever feature you’re looking to introduce, then sharing it with the public to get feedback. This is predominantly used for more aggressive features/changes, but definitely useful in practice. Beyond his presentation, Patrick was a great help during the remainder of the workshop. He walked from table to table, assisting each team in breaking down their problems and interpreting their research.
The day ended with reflection on the data we had collected and how we were going to apply the results. We had finally validated our idea by proving that there was a problem and by iterating a clear solution. We were ready to start getting the word out.
My team met up a little bit earlier to go over what we wanted to do that day. We put together a splash page and orchestrated a marketing plan for all available social media outlets. From there, it was time to hit the streets and start promoting Patio Finder. We spent about four hours on the streets talking to people and trying to get them to sign up on our website. Everyone on our team was personable, so talking to people didn’t impede us in any way. We used more of a “spray and pray” method on the streets, rather than directing the brand solely toward our target market. Luckily, there were a few festivals going on in Montreal, flooding the streets with people we could promote to.
Each team collaborated after the final day of work and presented their progress. It was fascinating to see how the different team ideas had evolved in such a short period of time. With Patio Finder, we found that most people didn’t have any interest in signing up for a service that didn’t currently exist. They wanted something to actually test out, something that they could download directly from the App store while we were talking to them.
There was a panel of judges to ask questions in order to decide which team had most effectively used the lean methodology. The winner was unhaggler.com, a website providing contracts for freelancers. They had received order confirmation on a few accounts, showing that they had a viable solution to their proven problem. A few cold beers and closing remarks followed, giving a nice end to the intensive weekend.
WHAT I TOOK FROM THE WORKSHOP
Lean Startup Machine was an excellent experience. The mentors were extremely helpful, shedding light on different pieces of the puzzle that I hadn’t seriously considered. Personally, I’m not one to follow a highly structured program such as this, but there is a lot of good I got from the process itself. I learned that the human ego can be blinding and binding. Diving head first into a venture requires a completely open mind.
The idea you begin with will endure redefining transformations. The true way to receive validation for that idea is through some form of currency, whether that is monetary, a solidified user base, letters of intent, etc. The only issue that I had with the workshop was that currency isn’t always easy to obtain in such a short time frame. A lot of it can be sheer luck, based on the people you actually talk to, and much is dependent on how you go about marketing your brand. We were expecting to collect currency mainly through direct marketing, which definitely took many individuals out of their comfort zones. This was a good thing, and despite the negative attitudes of certain people, everyone came out unscathed.
Direct marketing is seldom employed, let alone referenced, when looking at web related companies. Talking face to face with a potential customer strays from any constraining bias that may exist on different web platforms. Human interaction offers little to no time for overthinking, just straight answers. A real focus in my startup has been centered around our marketing strategy, with heavily involved direct marketing campaigns. In my opinion, how you market a brand is inherently the most important step of the process, vital to the business structure as a whole. An entrepreneur can never be complacent and needs to explore every available avenue of exposure.
I would seriously suggest that any entrepreneur unsure of the market for their idea, or even the idea itself, to go to one of these workshops. There is a lot of good that one can take from the lean system… it is a MUST. The time, resources, and heartache saved by using this method are incomparable. It is a process that aids you in mitigating risk. Any entrepreneur needs to constantly test themselves and their products/services in an effort to better their mindset and knowledge levels. Startups are in a constant state of change and continued process innovation is of the utmost importance. “If you build it they will come”, only plays out in the movies. Build something that strikes people, something that they truly need. Your brand needs to be supercharged, and going lean provides a feasible means of hitting that mark.
There is no doubt that down the road I will be translating some of these processes to fit varying product releases for my own startup. Beyond the workshop itself, there was a lot I learned from the trials and tribulations of every entrepreneur in the room. People are far and away the best learning resource, and this was a great opportunity to take advantage of that.
I want to send out a big thanks to the Accelerator Gazette for the opportunity to attend. I would also like to thank the Lean Startup Machine mentors and program administrators for a fantastic weekend. You can contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow me on Twitter @ryspeers.