Saturday, September 3, 2011
The elixir for eternal youth! - for the Startup
Winston Churchill once said that we can depend on the United states to do the right thing - after they have exhausted all other alternatives. The same can be said for the startup company in cutting edge fields - they have to keep trying so many different options on the various product features, target market segments, pricing, technology architecture, and so on before they hit upon the right formula. And since companies will not have the necessary resources to try out the various permutations and combinations, most of them fail before they achieve success; unless they are phenomenally lucky.
But Eric Ries in his book `The Lean Startup' shows that it doesn't have to be so. He explains that startups cannot use traditional planning an management tools because their product and customers are unknown. So, what else? Here he comes up with his Lean Startup Methodology - which is a scientific approach for creating and managing startups. Since the product and customer are not known, startups needs to develop a process of "validated learning" through which they can learn to build a sustainable business. This is different from learning through failure - which is a very expensive and wasteful process. Startups need to have a "Build-Measure-Learn" process and get continuous feedback from the market, so that they can decide whether to continue with the current plan or `pivot' into other directions. Eric shows the various ways a startup can pivot: Zoom-in pivot, Zoom-out pivot, Customer segment pivot, Customer need pivot, Platform pivot, and so on. Eric also explains how the normal metrics which he calls `vanity metrics' fail to show how a startup is performing and he comes with solutions of defining new metrics for the startup which takes into account the continuous innovation that a startup should perform. I loved the concepts of `MVP' - minimum viable product and `power of small batches' which allow companies to be agile and experiment quickly without committing too much resources.
Over the last 25 years of my career, I have been involved with over 20 startups in various capacities - Founder, Investor or Advisor. Though every startup has been a different challenge, there are many commonalities that run across them. And the doubts that plague each one of them are the same - are we doing the right thing? are we making progress? should we presevere with what we are doing or change strategy? The `Lean Startup Methodology' is an excellent tool, which I wish I had known before. It is not that some or most of the things that Eric mentions have not been executed by me or other entrepreneurs, but we lacked the scientific approach and process that would have enables us to plan and manage better.
We look at successful startups and often feel that those winners just happened to be at the right place at the right time. With many real life examples Eric shows it is not just luck. The successful ones were able to manage the startup well through many of the principles explained in the `Lean Startup Methodology' - whether consciously or not. Further, after you move past the startup phase, how do you continue to get the company to innovate and be agile? How can large companies foster entrepreneurship? Can the smart startup maintain the spirit of entrepreneurship? Eric thinks so and lays out his thoughts of how that can be achieved.
Some caveats on the book though - please note carefully how Eric defines the entrepreneur and the startup. There will be many businesses and organizational structures that will not match that. It does not mean the `Lean Startup Methodology' will not work for those - but it will have to modified and fine tuned. Similarly Eric's experiences and the examples he quotes are mostly from the high tech fields and hence the learnings may not be exactly applicable for many traditional industries. Lastly, the book assumes that the Startup is good in execution - which from my experience, is not often the case. The management team in most Startups will have many gaps - some of which they are not even aware of - which leads to serious problems as they try to execute. However there are many other books and large number of consultants who can help the startup to solve those problems.
If you are an entrepreneur or involved with a startup in any capacity - this book is a must read; you will not regret the investment of the time and cost. I commend Eric Ries for making a significant contribution to the field of scientific entrepreneurial management.