10 Lean Startup Machine Tips and Tricks

Lean Startup Machine Tips and TricksI was at Lean Startup Machine in New York last weekend. (LSM is a 48 hour excursion into lean startup techniques created by Trevor Owens to push your boundaries and help you learn something about your business model.) I was so impressed by a post by Cindy Alvarez that Trevor distributed, 10 Things I’ve Learned, that I decided to blatantly copy her and create my own top ten list specifically for attendees of the event.

Unfortunately I’m a terrible editor. So here are…

21 Lean Startup Machine Tips and Tricks

  1. Problems don’t exist. You can’t go out and talk to a problem. Focus relentlessly on people.
  2. Cash in hand beats bullshit on slide. A pretty powerpoint isn’t impressive. Go get a real customer to hand you money.
  3. If your teammates don’t buy in, then test fast and let reality convince them. You’re not going to win by arguing, you’ll just wind up working alone.
  4. If your MVP can’t prove you wrong, then it can’t prove you right either.
  5. Ask questions like a child. Why? Why? Why? Why? Why?
  6. If you’re working on your own idea, your ego is blocking your view of the customer. Listen to your teammates. They have a better vantage point.
  7. Post-its are your friend. One idea per post-it. Use thick pens to constrain the amount you can write. Write so that your team mates can understand it.
  8. Your goal should be to learn a skill. If you came just to win the competition, you’re wasting your time.
  9. Bring your own supplies: Sharpies, post-its, masking tape, drafting dots, voting dots, computer, a snack, whatever. Don’t assume the organizers intuitively know everything you need. The guy who pulls out the basket of strawberries at a key moment of exhaustion wins.
  10. There is no such thing as a chicken and egg problem. There is a way to make it simpler.
  11. No one can see their own blindspots. Use your peers and mentors to find them. Don’t argue, listen and decide.
  12. If your target market has gone home for the evening, remember that the earth spins. Pick up the phone and call another time zone.
  13. Celebrate victorious failure. Invalidated an assumption? Group cheer. Killed the whole business idea? Bust out the champagne.
  14. If you’re debating a point for more than 30 minutes, shut up and vote. You’ll move faster by doing something stupid and figuring out that it’s wrong than by endlessly searching for the “right” decision.
  15. Watching the customer try and solve their problem for themselves is better than listening to them talk.
  16. If you don’t have a hypothesis you’re not building an MVP, you’re just building.
  17. Shut up. Listen actively to the customer. Listen to their gasps and sighs. Listen to their emotions.
  18. If the customer isn’t actively looking for a solution, then they don’t have a problem.
  19. Do user testing on your competition. Even if your competition is a hack / workaround.
  20. Mentors are there to challenge you, not tell you what to do. If you’re not willing to challenge a mentor then go home and send me a check for $10,000 while you’re at it.
  21. Beware the vanity metric.

Bonus Tip

  • Sell something to Trevor. He’ll buy almost anything.

Final Word

All in all, Lean Startup Machine is a great way to get your feet we with customer discovery interviews. It’s not the best place to practice a lot of the other lean startup techniques like smoke tests, concierge tests, and so forth, but occasionally teams really show hustle and manage to fake a product for some serious testing.

You should go to Lean Startup Machine if you want a crash course on how important it is to go out and talk to customers. You’ll leave with a great experience and meet a bunch of fun people. Don’t go expecting to know everything there is to know about lean startup.

[Update: The “Problems don’t exist” statement has proven to be the most controversial so I expanded it into a full post unsurprisingly titled Problems Don’t Exist.]

So…what should I post next? Tweet to tell me what to write:

Show me how to test product market fit!


How can I do lean startup in my friggin' huge company?

Discussion (18 comments)

  1. Mark Birch says:

    “If the customer isn’t actively looking for a solution, then they don’t have a problem”

    This is not necessarily true. In enterprise sales, I would often get “things work just fine”. However, you dig deeper and you almost always find an implicit problem. Some things are just not problems until you point it out to people. Sometimes people refuse to think of something as a problem until they actually see the solution. It is in that moment of truth that they realize that there is indeed something better.

    Do not fall into the trap of assuming no problem exists, especially if people say so. Oftentimes, you will find that they are wrong.

    1. Tristan says:

      I agree with your point in general, but not for a Lean Startup Machine. There’s just not going to be enough time or an opportunity to dig that deeply with enterprise sales on a weekend custdev hack.

      Also, I’d prefer to call that a luxury rather than a problem. But that’s not a disagreement on your point, just my preferred choice of words. I like to think of anything that isn’t an active need as a luxury because it implies a higher customer acquisition cost to me. You have to convince the person they need it.

    2. Trevor Owens says:

      I agree that you shouldn’t fall into the trap of assuming no problem exists, especially if people say so. But that’s because people can say there’s no problem, while still be looking for a solution or hacking one together. In my experience, people will never admit a problem if it reflects poorly on him or her ie. a manager not knowing the basic hiring practice & procedure. There’s still a signal but that person will disguise that problem as something else that does not reflect poorly on him or her.

      In the case of people having a problem but not actively seeking a solution yet, that has more to do with timing. There are many problems out there right now that people are fine to put up with, but in a matter of months/years that may change. It may also take social proof of the problem’s existence for people to start looking for a solution.

      At Lean Startup Machine our ethos is, “put a bullet in your product if it is a vitamin, only build an addictive drug for your customers,” so from our point of view, Tristan’s comment is correct.

      1. Tristan says:

        I think there’s a valuable distinction in there somewhere that will take a four box chart to figure out. I just need to figure out the right axes.

    3. The Don says:

      “If the customer isn’t actively looking for a solution, then they don’t have a problem”

      What customer was looking to buy a telephone be Bell invented it?

      1. Tristan Kromer (@TriKro) says:

        However, people were indeed looking for better ways to communicate faster that letters sent via mule.

  2. Pingback: 10 Lean Startup Machine Tips and Tricks | @TriKro | Campus Entrepreneurship

  3. Jeremy Carter says:

    The first sentence of point one doesn’t make sense to me. Agree with second two sentences but that doesn’t mean problems don’t exist.

    Point number 5 is my favorite. It’s the most valuable in my opinion.

    1. Tristan says:

      Thanks, I agree with you that point one doesn’t make a whole lot of sense by itself but I stand by it. I’ll go into it in more detail on Thursday.

  4. KJ says:

    I also disagree with the assertion that “If the customer isn’t actively looking for a solution, then they don’t have a problem”

    This statement assumes that people, at all times, have a perfectly complete understanding of what they need, what will make their lives easier, and what they’re currently missing. The fact is, generally speaking, you don’t know what you don’t know. I didn’t realize there was a better method for organizing emails until Gmail came along and did it for me. I wasn’t actively searching for an email solution…I was trudging along like everyone else until Google told me I had a problem.

    There are lots of examples of companies solving problems customers didn’t realize they had so I don’t need to elaborate. I will say – having been through LSM (and having had a blast), I get the point you’re making. Namely, you can’t force customers into accepting a solution if they don’t believe they have a problem. But I don’t think this means you should prematurely abandon a project just because people tell you they don’t have said problem. Sometimes people need to be shown, not told.

    1. Tristan says:

      I totally agree with you (and Mark) that there are inefficiencies that are worth solving. I’m looking to make a distinction based on the cognitive awareness of the inefficiency.

      In the case of gmail, the pain point it initially solved was lack of storage space. It’s only later that they attempted to reorganize it and a messy impenetrable inbox has been a long held complaint of many many people for years and years. I started complaining when I hit 100 inbound emails a day.

      Google did at some point try to solve a “problem” about email that people didn’t know they had….it was called Google Wave before it was shut down.

      If the person you’re talking to isn’t trying to hack their way around “it” and has no pain point, that means you have to spend marketing dollars to make that person aware of the inefficiency and only then it may become a problem if you can convince them. It can be done, but that’s expensive.

      Alternatively you could do a customer segment pivot and find the early adopters who DO have a pain point there. That’s cheaper.

    2. Trevor Owens says:

      The statement is talking about early-adopters and not mainstream customers. For me, I didn’t try gmail until my friends were already using it and told me how awesome it was. I actually didn’t do a lot of email at the time so it wasn’t a problem I had, but I switched because my friends had it and it was a must-have for them. The early-adopters on the other hand, were people that had a high volume of email and were paying for storage. When Google made a large amount of storage free, it made it a no-brainer for these early-adopters to switch, even for the first version of gmail which was not as good as it is now.

  5. Phil Ives says:

    I think you’re missing problems no one had and no one was looking for an answer for.
    SmartPhones, iPods, Vitamin Water, Tablets, Pet Rocks 🙂

    1. Tristan says:

      Those are all luxuries. A pet rock isn’t even a solution to boredom.

    2. Trevor Owens says:

      I’m going to give some vague counter-examples since your examples are rather vague.

      Smart Phones – people were already using PDAs
      iPods – people had CD cases with dozens of CDs they would carry around in their cars
      Vitamin Water – there were already large companies creating nutritional vitamin supplements that dissolved in water
      Tablets – not sure which you’re referring to (do you mean iPad?)
      Pet Rocks – can’t really comment

  6. Susan Wilhite says:

    I’d amend or delete #9. Piles of colored Post-Its and thick sharpies are kindergarten art supplies in the hands of team members who can’t conceptualize qualitiative points and have no faciliation. Who’s going to roll up all those ideas and move the needle? Sure, these things can help (especially the strawberries) but there’s much more to this.

    1. Tristan says:

      Fair point.

      At the LSMs I’ve been to there are generally some decent facilitators and the LSM team themselves have a variety of skills to facilitate various discussion points. However, that too is not guaranteed.

      The general point I wanted to make is to bring your own tools of the trade, whatever those might be.

  7. Richard Bergstedt says:

    I am looking at getting serious about my start-up and wonder what your recommendations are for getting out the word quickly about your services.
    I plan on offering a variety of services and bringing together talent in the Sacramento market to address the business problems we uncover.
    Your thoughts would be appreciated. It seems that an MVP is mandatory to get started.

    1. Tristan Kromer (@TriKro) says:

      I wouldn’t recommend focusing on marketing until you have validated that you have found a problem worth solving and that your solution is actually solving it! 🙂

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