I was fortunate enough to compete in the Lean Startup Machine during Boulder Startup Week 2012. For those that don’t know, Lean Startup Machine is 3-day workshop for entrepreneurs and startups that want to learn the “lean startup” methodology as inspired by the book, “The Lean Startup” (by Eric Ries). Think of it as an innovative crash course on accelerating customer development.
I did not go in with a team in mind, or even with a fully formed idea. Yet, I was fortunate enough to have an idea that ended up in the top 10, and ended up becoming the team leader to pursue my idea. I did not win, and the teams that did win definitely deserved it. Afterwards, I spoke with many of the mentors and judges to learn more about what I could have done better.
I wanted to share the top 12 things I learned at LSM Boulder 2012 should you ever decide to participate in the Lean Startup Machine:
1. Engage Your Community: Very early on, I began engaging the LSM community through the LSM website. It was a great way to get to know everyone ahead of time. I can’t tell you how many people recognized me as soon as I walked into the door. Given all things equal, in the early voting round, it’s a lot easier for people to vote for a person they already met, than a person they never met. The site is also a good way to see how other people think, and what skillsets they bring with them, especially if you don’t plan to pitch or if you don’t have a team. I approached the LSM the same way I always approach any kind of networking: have a genuine interest in every person you meet.
2. Pitch Early (and Often): The LSM site has an “ideas forum” where you can pitch ideas. I posted several ideas, and tried to see which one had most traction, good and bad. It also gave me an opportunity to fine-tune my pitch for the idea. The one with the most traction was the one I pitched, and I ended up being in the top 10, and became team leader as a result. In the end, it’s a competition. There’s no reason not to pitch. You literally have nothing to lose by pitching. A pitch doesn’t always lead to a win, but not pitching always leads to losing. You lose the practice of pitching. The only way to get better at pitching is to always be pitching. Always be pitching.
3. Choose Passionate People: This really pertains to team leaders more than anyone else. Everyone there will be skilled and knowledgeable. Pick people who seem 100% onboard in helping you make your idea successful. I don’t want to pick out a specific team, but I can tell you that it is apparently very common for members of teams to try to hijack a team leader’s idea with their own idea. One team I know of literally split into two because of this. This wastes a lot of time. Yet another reason why it’s important to get to know members before the actual event. If you don’t gel, it might be best if those team members created their own team rather than drag your idea down.
4. Don’t Reinvent the Wheel: The purpose of the weekend is to learn the lean method, not to reinvent. You haven’t even learned it yet, isn’t it a little early and arrogant to think you can reinvent over a weekend? There were teams that went round and round on trying to agree on terminology, methodology, semantics, and had different interpretations on how to use the canvas. Wasted a lot of time. Don’t reinvent the wheel. May also go smoother if everyone just agrees to use the leader’s interpretation of the canvas, even if its wrong. If you disagree that much, create your own team. Stop fighting, find a way to move forward. Ask your mentors on how to use the canvas. Ask for clarification rather than trying to explore the existential meaning of what it means to “pivot” for hours and hours (literally happened). Focus your energy in working through the process and making it work rather than trying to reinvent it. You can reinvent once you’ve gone through the whole process and have a full picture of how it works.
5. Don’t Get Lost in the Details: The point of LSM is not to create a fully formed company and develop backend support over a weekend. The point is to validate/invalidate customer development assumptions as quickly and as cheaply as possible. Hence, the term a MINIMUM Viable Product (MVP). If you focus on perfection, you’ll never make progress.
6. Get Out of the Building: You will not validate or invalidate a single thing sitting in a room debating assumptions, terms, and processes. Get out and start interviewing real people in real time. It’s the only way to get a lot of deep information in a short amount of time. Your mission should be to validate/invalidate as many assumptions as possible in the shortest amount of time. The only way to do that is to get out of the building as soon as possible, as often as possible, and to talk to as many as people as possible.
7. Be Resourceful: The LSM team will provide a lot of great tools for you to use: use them. They will give you access to amazing mentors: ask great questions and let THEM talk. Most importantly, be very creative in how to get your validations/invalidations. You won’t have a lot of time to create full-blown products, or time to interview a million customers. Be resourceful. Work with the constraints and tools you have instead of working against them.
8. Embrace Time Constraints: When they say your pitch has to be 50 seconds, they mean it. When they tell you “it’s time to get out of the building,” they mean it. When they tell you to only present your results in 5 minutes, they mean it. Don’t complain about how in the “real world” you would never do it with these time constraints. If you get hung up on that, you will never get out of the building, and you’ll never validate/invalidate anything. Which means you’re going to waste a lot of time. Don’t waste time. Again, work with the constraints you are given.
9. Think Big: Don’t be afraid to pitch a big idea. Don’t be afraid to set a high standard. Instead of getting $1 from 20 people for your MVP, try $100 from 100 people? Better yet, a $1,000. As long as it’s somewhat in the realm of reality, take a chance. For all you know, our assumptions about what the market will bear might be all wrong. As long as you’re not in la-la-land, why aim low? You can always negotiate down the price. That’s an easier sell than negotiating up in my personal experience. Validating small assumptions with small metrics doesn’t really validate/invalidate much. That’s why you have to make and test risky assumptions on as many people as possible as fast as possible.
10. Prove It: In the final judging, of course your idea has to make sense, and of course you have a good idea. However, after talking to several judges, the most important criteria were that the winning teams validated/invalidated as many assumptions as possible AND presented a good idea in an articulate way. Making money also helped. If you have a great idea but you haven’t validated anything, how much confidence should the judges have in your idea? Focus on your validations, not just your ideas.
11. Less is More: When presenting, keep your words to a minimum in your slides. Keep your narrative tight. Concision is key. Use images rather than words. There really are three things that your presentation needs: your original idea, a narrative of your validations, and our final concept. It’s that simple. Everything else just fills up time. May be throw in a one really WOW slide of your sales. Or a team slide. But you have to get those three things into your presentation.
12. Show Respect: There were teams that shared their dirty laundry in front of groups and even in front of the judges during their presentations. As one judge said, “We’re not just investing in the idea, we’re investing in the team.” Even if your team didn’t get along, there is absolutely no need to reveal that to the judges. Thank your team for working through the process, and for trying their best. And remember, you chose your team, so no need to blame them. If you can’t lead your team, which you chose, how confident will the judges be in you as a leader if your idea? Also, be respectful of the mentors’ time. Don’t waste it by arguing with them, or showing off how much YOU know. They are there to help you work through your validations, not the other way around. Don’t waste your time or theirs.
In summary: explore, absorb, learn, and apply. The lessons of LSM can be applied to real world problem if you know how. I already applied what I learned at LSM with my clients and even on my own business. What you get out of LSM will greatly depend on what you put into it.
If you participated in Lean Startup Machine, or Boulder Startup Weekend, I would love to hear your comments.