Inside the #lsmsf Lean Startup Machine

For the first time since snowboarding for a living, I once again love my job as an Agile coach. Sometimes I wonder if working with transforming large enterprises would be easier if I invested some time working with younger people attempting newer concepts in smaller companies. I got my first chance to test that theory the weekend of 16 Jan by joining The Lean Startup Machine in San Francisco. The picture to the left links to a book we were all given as homework to read for the event. While I did skim it, along with the Lean Startup Machine page as well as browse the lean startup circle Google group I was still incredibly surprised by how the weekend played out. It was a great time of learning by doing and now that I’ve had (maybe too much) time for reflection I thought I would include a brief retrospective on the time spent. I’m using the “Temperature Reading” activity out of the Agile Retrospectives book.

Appreciations

  • The presentation by Brant Cooper and Patrick Vlaskovits encouraged me to take a deeper look at their book during the weekend.
  • Shelley Chang really convinced me that she had a well thought out idea and her proposal immediately made me want to join her group.
  • Our team got some great help from Janice Fraser with the questions to ask potential customers. Janice and Susan Alexander did a fantastic job modeling what a good interview would look like.
  • The Twilio space was a great place for this kind of an event and it was nice of them to let us trash their place for the weekend.
  • Thanks to Eric Ries for popularizing the Lean Startup concept and for the very down-to-earth presentation to get things started on Friday night.
  • This could go on for awhile and thanks to Trev Owens, Ben Fisher and Josh Horn for founding the Lean Startup Machine and bringing it to San Francisco.
  • I appreciate Vince Lacey, Jason Ho, Roshan Khan, Vincent, as well as Susan and Shelley for spending the time together figuring out if we could turn OutFitters from some assumptions in to an MVP.

Puzzles

  • Where were the mentors on Friday night? And Saturday night as well?
  • Why are people so enamored with Dave McClure? At least it gave us a cheerleader joke for camaraderie throughout the weekend.
  • Is a weekend enough to gather enough data to validate assumptions, even when “getting out of the building” to talk to prospects?
  • Have any successful startups been formed out of a weekend?
  • How could the learning taking place throughout the weekend be amplified?
  • Is there a better way to reinforce the lean startup framework that everyone, including mentors, can follow?

Complaints with Recommendations

  • Even with a schedule mentors were late and unavailable and suddenly there might be three or four talking to a team at one time. Besides demanding to stick to schedule, how about having teams approach mentors when the team is ready? More like a clinic where the doctor is “in” with published office hours.
  • It was feast or famine, with no mentors around and then speaking to three or four and all of them had wildly different advice. One would say go do customer development while another would say building a product was the most important while another would say it’s not worthwhile to proceed without a solid business plan. Once again maybe the clinic approach may help to match teams with specific issues with the mentor best available to address the problem. I saw more than one team in a tailspin from contradictory advice. It may also help to make sure each mentor is briefed on the format and there’s some agreement among them as to what advice should be dispensed.
  • Most teams hit a wall some time around Saturday evening and we were all walking around dazed having invalidated some assumptions, built some sort of prototype if only on paper, collected data by interviews, surveys and other means and could really use some help. It’s one thing to get teams started and quite another to coach them through specific issues being encountered. This would have been a great time to have found a mentor, had a clinic or to have had a check in where all teams gathered to debrief what they’d discovered. Instead it was when everything felt chaotic with very little structure apparent.
  • Our team was eager to go and build product and it took some convincing to get out of the building. We could have done a better job coming up with activities and a schedule. I would have liked to use the pomodoro technique for the weekend.
  • Stop saying pivot all the time! Sometimes it’s just adapting and not a total change in direction. It would be good to read the book and to really understand the concept.

New Information

  • People will tell you what you think they want you to hear. Random sampling is tough and digging for the truth even tougher.
  • It’s easy to believe your assumption is invalid. And to proceed with it anyway.
  • Small teams and new ideas are just as complicated to deal with as big corporations and status quo. It must be a human condition.
  • Collaboration and Agility are not default behaviors and take a lot of practice to get right.
  • Just because the name Lean is plastered all over an event and information readily accessible, doesn’t mean all the people joining really know what that means.
  • Paying attention to what (at least one) the judges were looking for would help the chances of winning.
  • Lean startup is not like a hack-a-thon. NOT producing code is important to keep down waste.
  • While I knew it would be intense and I was prepared to be surprised it was more invigorating, fun and enlightening than I thought it would be.
  • It’s possible to iterate and increment on an idea for a weekend and come out with an MVP that actually takes in revenue.

Hopes & Wishes

  • I hope the Lean Startup weekend becomes a regular event in San Francisco.
  • I hope that awards are also given out for the best mentor as well as best team next time.
  • I wish that some of my clients would participate in one of these. What an amazing amount of learning!
  • I hope that I can help make this a regular event and that my services would be seen as a valuable addition to make the next weekend even more better.
  • I hope I keep in touch with my team and that they carry the idea forward.

5 thoughts on “Inside the #lsmsf Lean Startup Machine”

  1. “would be easier if I invested some time working with younger people …”

    Ok, I know that statistics show that lean startups tend to skew towards a younger population, but your statement here engages in age bias. Be careful about this – there are plenty of agile, engaged and energetic entreprenuers over thirty. Age bias is no less offensive than racial or gender bias (and is just as illegal if you’re an employer!).

  2. Hi Darnell,

    I’m very sorry if you found my comment offensive that I might desire to work with younger people from time-to-time and I absolutely agree with you that there are plenty of engaged Agile entrepreneurs over thirty. There are also plenty of people in large enterprises who are under thirty. I guess what I was wondering is- what would it be like to work with younger people in smaller organizations and newer concepts so that as the people, concepts and organizations mature and grow the culture of Agility would all ready be in place? Would that help transform our world of work more effectively than undertaking the effort to help people see a better way of work /after/ they’ve been seasoned in traditional, structured work processes? I also think about working in research and academia. I have this suspicion that people are being taught differently than when I was in school and that there may be a more hard-wired collaborative nature in younger generations. Research I see in brain science http://www.alcenter.com/what_is.php and books like Mindset- http://mindsetonline.com/ have me believing that. So I was seeking out a situation like that and while there were plenty of people at the event over thirty I sought out a group of younger folks and came to the conclusion that working with them was as complicated as any other group of humans. I am trying to admit to my mistake in “New Ideas” and that maybe the kind of collaboration we ask with Agile for may not be a natural state for all of us people. How lucky for those of you for whom that is true! I’m still practicing and have a long way to go, obviously…

    Is this helpful?
    -Aaron

    1. Hi Brant,

      Thanks for reading this and leaving a comment. I can understand questioning where the revenue will come from. When considering the Lean idea that anything we do that doesn’t deliver customer value and earn revenue is waste if we haven’t proven how our concept will make money… it’s just difficult to balance that against all the other suggestions being provided by the mentors. I found it to be difficult to try and take in all the suggestions, especially if seemingly contradictory, and still have a semblance of team cohesion. Lots of chaos, very little structure and I don’t know if that’s a good thing (or not).

      -Aaron

  3. Hi Aaron,

    Excellent post. This is exactly what LSM needs to become better and add more value.

    A couple of quick thoughts:

    “* Is a weekend enough to gather enough data to validate assumptions, even when “getting out of the building” to talk to prospects?”

    Yes and no. Some ideas will get strong validation, and some won’t have enough time.

    “* Have any successful startups been formed out of a weekend?”

    Great question. But I don’t think that is the goal.

    “* How could the learning taking place throughout the weekend be amplified?”

    Even better question! Maybe do a follow-up call with teams afterward? But I’m all ears.

    “* Is there a better way to reinforce the lean startup framework that everyone, including mentors, can follow?”

    What does that mean? Could you unpack that for me?

    Last thing I would add, and I mean this with no snark whatsoever — is that when you write:

    “it’s just difficult to balance that against all the other suggestions being provided by the mentors. I found it to be difficult to try and take in all the suggestions, especially if seemingly contradictory, and still have a semblance of team cohesion. Lots of chaos, very little structure and I don’t know if that’s a good thing (or not).”

    Yes, it is difficult and yes, you have just described a real start-up operating environment. The de facto condition of an entrepreneur getting advice from multiple sources is one of confusion. C’est la vie. There is no sword that will cut through that Gordian Knot – other than your own judgment.

    It is impossible and IMO undesirable to have all mentors interpreting your data the exact same way and then recommending the same exact approach. This would be the case if Lean Startups were a deterministic formula — but it ain’t. If LS is to prove useful in the real world; it simply cannot be.

    If you want to chat about this over the phone, hit me with an email. Thanks.

    -Patrick

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