Lean Startup Workshop Review

Photo by Dammit Jack

Eric Ries is on a nationwide tour for the next couple of months, and I was lucky enough to attend his Lean Startup Workshop right here in Boulder. If you're not familiar with Eric's work, he's a serial startup founder who's made it his mission to save the world from the avalanche of tech companies that fail. At the start of the workshop he brought up a wall of well-known web 2.0 company logos, with all the dead ones marked. It was sobering, but what really drove him crazy wasn't that most failed tech startups never had a single paying customer!

The Customer Development process is aimed at solving that problem, and Eric started us off with a little taster by splitting us up into groups to write down a description of who we thought the customers of the workshop would be. We then took those descriptions and tried to turn them into yes/no qualifying questions that we could use to distinguish customers from non-customers.

After that I had a chance to quiz Eric about one of the underlying assumptions of the philosophy, that market risk is far more important these days than technology risk to software startups. This wasn't true in the dot-com era, it took millions of dollars and obscure technology to build an interactive website, and a lot of the startup world has been slow to adapt as things have changed. As he put it, democratizing technology means the technology risk is reducing.

This is a bitter pill for me to swallow in some ways, my background is tech-heavy so it would be to my advantage to have more technical barriers, but as an unfunded startup it's also amazing how much I can accomplish on a shoestring budget these days.

Eric spent the rest of the workshop doing a fireside chat as we went through his slides. My favorite part was the cringe-inducing video of Ali G pitching his 'icecream glove' to VCs. I defy any entrepreneur to watch that and not feel a twinge of recognition. What I got out of the talk was a much stronger grasp of the customer discovery process. He spent a lot of time talking about their experiences at IMVU, as all the pesky teenagers using the service prevented them getting in touch with who they thought their real customers were, stay-at-home moms. Of course the punch-line was that their real customers, at least at first, were those kids and they had to learn to build the business around them.

One of his observations was that there was no substitute for bringing in customers and having a face-to-face chat with them about the product, the bandwidth is massively higher thanks to body language and other subtle clues. The same goes for this workshop, compared to reading Eric's writing. We had a chance to ask questions and to watch Eric jam on a topic, really getting across the experiences that drove him to his conclusions.

A lot of my focus has been on the metrics side of the process, maybe unconsciously because as a techie that's a lot less threatening than spending lots of time meeting people! The workshop helped me take a wider view of Customer Development, but it did also make me wish there were more tools being shared for some of the common techniques. I've posted some code to generate a simple daily metrics email, and it sounds like Eric might be working with KISSmetrics to produce an A/B testing framework, but there's still a lot of us reinventing things like a NPS popup and recording system. I'm hoping to put some of these components into the Lean Startup Wiki over the next week.

I'd highly recommend this workshop to anyone who wants customers for their startup, it's a great way to learn both from Eric himself and from the like-minded people who'll be there with you. Check out the wiki or Eric's blog to see if there's going to be one near you.

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