Book Notes: Running Lean

by Derek on October 2, 2012 · View Comments

Running Lean by Ash MauryaRunning Lean, by Ash Maurya, is an extension of The Lean Startup, offering a down-in-the-weeds look at how a smart guy builds product using the Lean Startup methodology.

As was the case with The Lean Startup, I found this book to be a well-organized refresher of material I’ve already poured over elsewhere, specifically: Ash Maurya’s blog (which is fantastic; add it to your Reader), The Lean Startup and The Four Steps to the Epiphany.

In this case, however, it’s not a book I recommend you run out and buy; instead, I’d suggest checking out my book review of The Lean Startup, reading my thoughts below, and spending some time visiting the links provided.

The Lean Canvas

One of the key principles that Ash introduces early is that your product is not the product, a scalable business model is the product. To help evaluate your entire business model, he introduces The Lean Canvas, an evolved version of Osterwalder’s Business Model Canvas.

Lean Canvas

The image above does a lot of the talking, but the idea is that you can capture the essential hypotheses of your business model… all on one page (like Ash, I love single-page working documents). From there, it’s all about testing your hypotheses (via customer interviews, product experiments, advisors, etc – more on this below) until you arrive at a business model (and a product) that works.

Overall, I think the concept is spot-on and his post on the topic is a great read.

Before You Build Anything, Spend Time With Customers

The Lean Canvas is a great place to start when you’re exploring different business ideas; next, and before you build anything, Ash recommends you get out of the building and talk to potential customers.

>> Brief aside >> I couldn’t agree more… I have been consistently amazed by what customers come up with. My favorite analogy came from Steve Krug, who said something like: “they’re more likely to point out that your house is missing a roof (major feature) than the living room walls are the wrong color (minor feature your team has been debating)”. I have seen this in action, several times – in one case, a simple research project suggesting we should have built a different product – and am fast to recommend this path when talking to young startups.

Where this book excels is in providing a step-by-step guide to how these conversations could be conducted (based heavily on Steve Blank’s Customer Discovery model). There are two key interviews you should conduct with customers (have each one several times) before you build anything:

  • Problem Interview. Your goal is to talk to potential customers about their problems (i.e. NOT about your solution). You want to understand: (a) who are the early adopters (b) how bad is their pain and (c) what do they do to solve this problem today. Here’s a post from Ash that covers the ‘Problem Interview’ in great depth.
  • Solution Interview. Once you understand the key problem, it’s time to have customers help you discover the right solution. In this interview, you demo/visualize your solution and validate that it will solve their problem.

Ash even goes as far as to provide interview scripts in the book – a great resource, in particular, for those new at interviewing. As with any methodology, though, it’s less important to follow the steps and more important to apply the principles.

With all this talking out of the way, this brings us to the point where you’re ready to build a Minimum Viable Product (MVP).

Lean Product Development Process

In the first run through the process, the goal is to create a minimum viable product that tests your riskiest product hypotheses. In subsequent runs, the same principles apply but instead of creating an MVP, you’re making incremental product improvements to test your follow-on hypotheses.

Either way, you’re running experiments to vet falsifiable hypotheses (e.g. simplifying the signup flow will lead to a 20% improvement in our activation rate). Here’s what forms the basis of an experiment:

  1. Understand the problem. And state it clearly. Now, this could be a business-model-level hypothesis from your Lean Canvas (e.g. core customer problem is that audiobooks are a pain to manage from their mobile device) or a product-level hypothesis (e.g. our activation rate is too low to sustain our business).
  2. Define the solution. This is the meat of any product development process – it involves wireframing, prototyping, customer testing, (iterating), designing, and delivering the proposed solution.
  3. Validate qualitatively. This isn’t required with every release, but the idea is that you take the finished product and review it with customers in-person. This is something we didn’t do at Zeo, but that we should have.
  4. Verify quantitatively. Once deployed with real customers, use innovation accounting, cohort analyses and split tests to determine which experiments are driving real value to your business.

Now rinse & repeat until you have product/market fit, and a business model that is clicking. Here’s a great post that covers how Ash uses this process to drive his company.

Other Gems

Finally, to wrap things up, here are some other thoughts I found helpful in the book:

  • Hack to find problems worth solving: go deep in a vertical and surround yourself with other passionate people; if you’re looking, you’ll see problems and existing alternatives they’re currently using.
  • My first hands-on introduction to Continuous Deployment. I’ve heard about it, talked about it, even been around it, but I didn’t learn some of the underlying principles the way Ash lays them out. Here’s a presentation he gave on Continuous Deployment that covers much of the same material.

Though I didn’t recommend running out to get this book (particularly because of its overlap with materials that I read in the past), I did enjoy the read and hope I saved you some time with this post.


Book Notes: The Lean Startup

by Derek on September 29, 2012 · View Comments

The Lean Startup

The Lean Startup offers a well organized and case-illustrated look at the principled approach to rapid & efficient new product development that underlies the Lean Startup Movement.

If you have already poured through Eric Ries’ blog, read The Four Steps to the Epiphany, and attended Lean Startup events, you’ll already know most of what you need to without reading this book. Regardless, I’d still recommend it as a nicely distilled refresher.

Here are the important things I (re)learned…

Key Principles

The underlying premise is simple: your (product) ideas are actually hypotheses that need to be tested in the real world (i.e. not with your mom).

When you view your ideas through that lens, applying the scientific method (which has been in use for thousands of years) seems like the obvious approach:

“The overall process involves making conjectures (hypotheses), deriving predictions from them as logical consequences, and then carrying out experiments based on those predictions to determine whether the original conjecture was correct.” – Scientific Method, from Wikipedia

And so, during the early stage of a startup – before you have reached product/market fitlearning is the essential unit of progress (i.e. not necessarily growth).

Faster Learning

“The ability to learn faster from customers is the essential competitive advantage that startups must possess.” -Eric Ries (p193)

If I had to condense Ries’ recipe for faster learning, the result would be these 3 keys:

  • Small batches/experiments – don’t get stuck in the Large-Batch Death Spiral where “the product just needs these few more tweaks before launch/update” and expectations grow with the size of the update; ship incremental changes continuously and learn what’s working (and what’s not) sooner so you minimize the amount of time, money, and effort you invest that turns out to be waste.
  • Actionable metrics – metrics are actionable when they demonstrate clear cause & effect; Ries advocates picking a handful of metrics that (a) are consistently/repeatably influenced by your product efforts and (b) drive value to your business (e.g. Startup Metrics for Pirates). Coupled with cohort analyses and split tests, these metrics can show you the way.
  • Learning milestones – it’s easy to get lost in day-to-day optimization, so it’s important to have target milestones for your actionable metrics that might trigger the “Pivot or Persevere” conversation – i.e. should your business change strategies to achieve the vision you’re after, or are you on the right track.

The magic of learning is that it’ll help you converge on an optimal solution, even if you start off headed in the wrong direction. And the faster you do it, the sooner you’ll get there.

Personal Takeaways

About halfway through the book, I wrote the following blurb in the margin:

“How do these principles apply to my life? What would I do if I ran my life like a lean startup?”

It’s an interesting little thought experiment – and I’m still ruminating over the implications of treating my career and lifestyle as hypotheses – but, for now, I thought I’d settle on a few of the lessons that Ries offers that spoke to me…

  • A disciplined team can experiment with its own working style and draw meaningful conclusions. Discipline is an advantage in startups and in life. I’m working on cultivating more of it, and suspect it’ll be a journey that lasts a lifetime.
  • You can tell you’re pivoting in the right direction when the results get more productive. In the context of this book, Ries illustrates how pivots can drastically change the actionable metrics in a startup. In life, I think you see better results when your duty overlaps more with the things you love.
  • Innovation muscles take time to build. To me, this is good news. Innovation (and entrepreneurship) involve muscles that can be trained, just like many other skills in life. This is another nudge to get me moving on a side project of my own, so I can continue building these muscles.

So, all-in-all, a solid book worth reading (especially if you haven’t read The Four Steps to the Epiphany). Thanks for reading the review!


Book Notes: Crucial Conversations

September 20, 2012

I think you should read this book. Let me tell you a quick story on “why”… Respect Amidst Chaos For the last 4+ years, I worked in a startup. Despite all the things we did (usually faster, better & cheaper than originally thought possible), I was most impressed by the team. I had never been around [...]

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Book Notes: The Design of Everyday Things

August 26, 2012

It appears on almost every product manager’s list of must-read books and it was certainly progressive for its time (it was originally published in 1988), but The Design of Everyday Things (DOET) was not one of my favorites. It fell into the category of “books that should be blog posts” for me… so, to save [...]

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Putting An End To Procrastination

August 17, 2012

Last moth (after putting it off, putting it off, putting it off… past the sign-up deadline) I managed to eek my way into Leo Babauta’s Unprocrastination Course, a course about behavior change and building a better machine to get more things done that actually matter. Here’s what I learned… Most Important Lessons 1. Build awareness: [...]

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A Working Hypothesis

March 11, 2012

As part of my quest to be more intentional with my time, I’m testing my hypothesis about work that I will love… My hypothesis: become a world-class, startup product guy. World-class. Dream big. Startup. I’ve lived at one for the last four years and – despite the lack of balance, the ups & downs, the [...]

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A Better Machine

February 24, 2012

I over-commit. Constantly. GTD has been HUGE in helping me get more done, but learning how to get the right things done – figuring out what to focus on and commit to - is a different story. One symptom of this problem: every time I decide to add something new to the mix (from pomodoros to blog posts, morning [...]

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Stages of Change

February 21, 2011

Two long weekends back to back… Heaven. The last one was for relaxing, this one was a chance to get moving again. One bit of fun I had was sitting down to put all the things I’m working on onto paper. The goal? More awesome. Why? There are a few reasons why I did this [...]

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A Work In Progress

October 5, 2010

That’s me in a nutshell. It also happens to describe everything that’s going on around me (i.e. life), including this BLOG. 4 posts in as many months isn’t really helping me (a) learn how to write more good or (b) share good ideas & fun times. So, consider this post a fresh start… For the [...]

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Book Notes: Getting Things Done

May 25, 2010

Agreements. “I can do that for you.” “I should have that next week.” “We should meet up!” I make lots of them, and they keep me busy. But busy != productive, and I break lots of my agreements as a result; having a leaky ship isn’t fun for anyone on board. “Getting Things Done” is [...]

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