December 11, 2013

Lean Startup: Highlights, photos & takeaways

Steve Blank at yesterday’s Lean Startup conference. Blank developed the Customer Development methodology, which launched the Lean Startup movement. (Photo by JD Lasica)

Insights from founders, execs & Lean practitioners

Target audience: Startup teams, founders, innovators, product managers, business executives, social business strategists, educators, Web publishers.

JD LasicaOver the years I’ve attended or spoken at scores of conferences, across the country and on four continents. Lately I’ve been drawn to startup conferences like Launch (the next one is coming up Feb. 24-26) and TechCrunch Disrupt.

Monday and Tuesday I attended my first Lean Startup Conference, at San Francisco’s Masonic Center and Fairmont Hotel on Nob Hill. Here’s my festive Flickr set.

The Lean Startup movement, inspired by author and Stanford professor Steve Blank and popularized by Eric Ries in his book The Lean Startup, is, in Wikipedia’s words, “a method for developing businesses and products [to help startups] shorten their product development cycles by adopting a combination of business-hypothesis-driven experimentation, iterative product releases, and what he [Ries] calls ‘validated learning.’ “

Can these lessons be applied to your business?

Here are some highlights I caught on stage and in the breakout sessions in between interesting conversations in the hallways.

• “The bottleneck is always at the top of the bottle” — Intuit president Brad Smith channeled the great Peter Drucker quote.

• Smith on the philosophy at Intuit: “We are the world’ s greatest thief of great ideas. If you stole it from us, you stole it twice because we got it from someone else.” Bravo. You can’t copyright or trademark an idea.

• Christie George talked about Lean Impact social good principles and noted that social change sometimes takes a long time. Only 4 percent of the public supported interracial marriage in 1958; 50 years later, that figure grew to 86 percent.

• Patrick Vlaskovits: Penicillin, which saved more than 100 million lives in the 20th century, didn’t “go viral” when it was discovered. It had to be rediscovered some years later before it began to be widely deployed and embraced. Just because something is great — even monumental — doesn’t guarantee quick uptake.

Reid Hoffman, the co-founder of LinkedIn turned venture capitalist, shared some smart and pithy observations to startup teams in his short time on stage. At Eric’s request, Reid claimed ownership of what has become a startup maxim: “If you wait until you’re not embarrassed by the first version of your product, you’ve waited too long.”

• Hoffman to startup founders: “Figure out the money, or you’re dead. If don’t get distribution, you’re dead. If you’re not thinking about your product, you’re dead.” But, he noted, each startup has a different playbook or growth strategy on how to achieve all of that. “There’s no single playbook,” he said.

• More Hoffman: “I have yet to see anything that’s truly viral that isn’t free or at least has a free component.”

Wyatt Jenkins, VP of product at Shutterstock, urged startup teams to go big and not focus only on those 1 percent improvements. “If you only test small changes, you’ll never take a big swing.”

• More Jenkins: “Growth is a series of experiments.”

• Daina Burnes Linton: “Create opportunities to learn from your customers on day one.”

• Dan Milstein, co-founder of Hut8Labs: “You should stop working if you’re not working on the most valuable thing for your startup.”

Testing, testing

Testing — a key ingredient of Lean Startup principles — was a mainstay of the two-day conference (which wraps up today with a series of workshops.)

“Ditch the meaningless wins and go after the big visions with systematic validation.”
— Andres Glusman, Meetup

Andres Glusman, VP of Strategy and Community at Meetup, gave perhaps the best-attended breakout session in a talk about “How Validation and Vision Co-exist.” (Andres was on a panel I moderated at Blogworld Expo in 2010.)

Glusman recounted how Meetup went about executing “a design-driven vision” through a series of “iterative tests to validate or invalidate the vision.” For instance, two years ago anyone who wanted to launch a new Meetup had to go through a five-step process that “had all the charm of a tax form.” A developer came up with a prototype that looked nothing like Meetup’s website or design, but after a series of tests and iterations, it led to a much simpler experience.

“Beware the small win,” Glusman also warned. “Whenever someone says, ‘This will only take a day or two,’ you should be wary,” because it may take resources to support over the long run and drain from time from more important tasks.

In other words, he said, “Ditch the meaningless wins and go after the big visions with systematic validation.”

Check out to get Meetup’s “playbook,” particularly this presentation on Lean Usability.

Download the speakers’ presentations on the conference website.JD Lasica, founder of, is now co-founder of the cruise discovery engine Cruiseable. See his About page, contact JD or follow him on Twitter or Google Plus.

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