Lean Startup vs. Visionary Entrepreneur

At the risk of rehashing an argument, there is an ongoing misconception that creating a company under a lean startup approach is incompatible with a big entrepreneurial vision. Paul Higgins recently published an article in Entrepreneur Country Magazine based on his blog post again suggesting that the lean and big vision were incompatible.

Some of the reasons were worth thought and response:

Customers Don’t Know What They Want

Henry Ford doesn't want to build a faster horse, and neither do lean startupsHenry Ford allegedly once said, “If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses.”

So if customers can’t be trusted to know what they want, what hope is there for building a company on ‘lean principles’ through experimentation and constant customer feedback?

This quote is often thrown in the face of the lean startup advocates, but it is hugely misunderstood. No one in their right mind says you should do what the customer tells you to do. You don’t go out and build faster horses…instead you listen for the real need.

Customer: My horse doesn’t go fast enough
Entrepreneur: Why do you want to go faster?
Customer: It takes a long time to get to the supermarket.
Entrepreneur: Aha! No need for a faster horse…the key is faster transportation. Or alternatively, some sort of home shopping network powered by a series of interconnected tubes.

Don't ever build what the customer tells you to build. Build what the customer needs. Click To Tweet


Early Adopters aren’t the Late Majority

Proponents of ‘lean’ would say that having a vision – as Ries calls it, a “true north” – doesn’t stop you testing user behavior in small batches. Twitter’s use amongst friends and family in its early days was said to be wildly addictive…

But I’d argue that no user experience within a small, like-minded group of Twitter fans can prove much about the likelihood of it becoming a global communication and publishing standard.

Admittedly, the only thing that’s going to conclusively prove that a product can go global is going global. So I would tentatively agree with the second statement, but that says nothing about the value of early testing in a sample population.

The point of early user testing is not to prove that you're 100% right, but to prove that you're not 100% wrong. Click To Tweet

Twitter is a great example of this. Had the founding team not tried Odeo’s podcasting concept and flailed, they never would have bothered with Twitter. Evan Williams and Biz Stone would have perhaps continued to build and build for years before releasing to customers and figuring out it was a waste of time.

Releasing the product early, while they still had time and cash to try something new, allowed them to succeed after what could have been a catastrophic failure.

Early user experiments should be designed specifically design to fail. Click To Tweet

The harder they are, the better. Then if you still see some sliver of an early adopter community saying, “Hey…this thing is cool…” now it’s time to buy a year’s worth of ramen and buckle down for some work.

So if you’re going to do a lean startup, go out there are build a test you can fail. You learn nothing by creating a test you know you’ll pass.

Discussion (3 comments)

  1. kelley boyd says:

    I have a funny story about that – building what the customer wants vs. needs – once i was meeting with a prospect and he told me he was going to spend $1M on a new backbone for his facility – it was a big facility but still…having qualified him thoroughly I pointed out that his problems were not getting his servers to talk to one another – but rather his end users talking to the servers in the data center. His last mile was old school and he needed new devices that would support a faster speed in a star config on each floor – and maybe each department. We redesigned his solution giving him fatter pipe on the floors which is what he needed. I remember him well – he called me “little lady” when he announced what he was gonna do, and when I spoke back – I said Well, Bubba – I am not sure that is gonna fix your problem…nice guy – good illustration of what you talk about here.

    1. Tristan says:

      lol….That’s pretty awesome. Never too old to be a chauvinist. 🙂

  2. aurastel says:

    A bit of history about Henry Ford. In the early part of the 50’s, Ford wanted to build the perfect car, designed and build based on market- customer research during thousands of customer interviews. He name the car after his son Etzel.
    The car was designed and build at great cost and launched. It looked like a huge space ship on 4x wheels and drive as if you guide a battle ship at sea. It was the worst investment of any car company (besides deLoren) even and still hold the record. It was a huge lesson for all car companies.
    Ferdinand Porsche designed the famous Porsche sports car. The most sold and successful sports car ever. It was unanimous rejected by the market at first with the general opinion it was an ugly car and who needs it! Porsche persisted and he was right.
    A reminder out of the fashion industry: Do you think any of the designers are listening to women as to what to design? definitely not. To quite Lagerfeld:” I tell women what to wear not the other way around? All I know is that women want to look good. That’s all I need to know to do my job!
    It is such people who drive and build brands and markets. They are true leaders and people simply follow.
    Another start up example is the handbag MCM. Michael Cromer, the creator said: “i tell women what to buy and not the other way around.”At first women rejected his bags. Who needs a signature bag as we have already the LV’s and Gucci etc. Michael was right. It is still a 100 Million Dollar business even after up and downs and 35 years in the market. All Michael knew is that women want to carry handbags. That was the need. But there was really no need for another brand.
    So much for history.

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