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Lean Startup "Marketing Bullshit" (giffconstable.com)
46 points by hshah on May 16, 2010 | hide | past | favorite | 29 comments

I personally find Steve Blank has some interesting things to say and Eric Ries not so much, comparitively. The latter seems to be trying to turn a simple idea (combine agile engineering practices with Steve Blank's "customer discovery/validation" idea") into a consultingware "movement" with kool-aid conferences and such, just as with all business fads. The jury is still out on the eventual success of such efforts.

The nearest analogy is the whole "Agile" movement. There was a useful/interesting kernel of ideas but it was soon overrun by scammy consultants (e.g the hwle "Scrum Master" certification scam). I suspect "Lean Startups" are on the same path.

I do think Mr.Ries has some (mildly) interesting things to say, but (and this is probably blasphemy for at least a subset of HN readers) my "marketing bullshit" filter is on at high when I read or listen to him these days. I believe that the whole "lean startup" movement is in its early stages of being overrrun by scamsters so there are still interesting ideas there.

So yes, (imo) at least some part of the "Lean Startup" (the phrase is copyrighted by Mr Ries btw!) stuff is marketing BS. As always you as the consumer of such fads have to use your intelligence to discard the marketing fluff and find the useful core. And every fad generally has a (sometimes tiny) useful core.

Caveat Emptor. Useful idea, especially as it applies to methodology salesmen, irrespective of whether said methodology applies to sw dev (agile) or building/running a business ("lean startup").

I believe that Eric's heart is in the right place and he truly wants to help more entrepreneurs. I don't disagree that born-again evangelism and "scammy consultants" is an unfortunate side effect of what is going on.

While people will like or dislike my op-ed as they will, I'd just like to say that in writing the blog post, I had no such motives (consulting, that is) -- I'm just another startup guy trying to build a company.

I do agree with the other commenter that there is a new set of "buzzwords" floating around, like MVP, product-market fit, pivot, etc. These phrases emerge as shorthand.

But still I do believe that these authors are more rigorous, more into measurement and results, and more down-to-earth practical than the kinds of biz-consulting blowhard that turned everyone off business speak in the first place.

" I'd just like to say that in writing the blog post, I had no such motives (consulting, that is) ".

I never said you did (just in case it wasn't clear :-)). It is obvious you honestly believe that there is a lot of valuable insight behind the "marketing bullshit" enveloping the "lean startup" buzz.

I don't agree (or at least I don't agree about the ratio of hype to substance, but that is all right, differences of opinion are good).

I do think (as I indicated above) that Steve Blank's books and blog posts are worth reading as are some of Eric Ries's early blog posts (before he got onto this "evangelism"/paid conferences kick). I am not claiming they are stupendously new insights but definitely worth reading and thinking about.

I think 700$ "lean startup conferences" (http://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=1179623) are very like 700$ "I will teach you to be rich" scams. People who are really rich don't go around holding seminars on How to Be Rich and charging people money for those.

I believe you could get much more value from reading patio11 's posts here and on his blog, Paul Graham's essays and mixergy interview transcripts of startup founders than attending these vague conferences (unless you are into heavy duty echo chamber networking), thus avoiding paying good money to be initiated into "A New Era of Enterpreneurship that is dawning" [ from the marketing spiel at http://www.startuplessonslearned.com/2010/03/new-conference-... ]

Is there something to the "lean startups" idea? Definitely. Is there a lot of borderline scammy hype right now (in other words a lot of "marketing bullshit") around those ideas? Definitely.

Not that Eric Ries et al need validation from me, but I nearly went to that conference. (The timing just did not work for me.) You think $700 is a lot of money? I was getting ready to buy a plane ticket across the Pacific. I thought it was likely to be cheap at the price, given the quality of the novel insights Eric Ries et al have been writing about.

Take Minimum Viable Product, for example. It is similar to 37Signals "do less", but it doesn't end there: you're eliminating parts of the product which don't provide value, but you're also strategically deferring parts which do provide value until you've got a handle on the big business risks. I think that is a pretty powerful idea. Hugely powerful.

I've talked on the Business of Software forums for literally years now on how important polishing the first five minutes of interaction with your product is, but it never occurred to me to get that five minutes out before building the rest of the product. The story about spending 6 months to make the IMVU IM client being wasted because no one downloaded it, and how you could have gotten the same information without actually coding the IM client simply by putting up a download button and having nobody click it, was a lightbulb moment for me. Hey, wait a second: instead of building the whole product and then optimizing the living daylights out of the first five minutes, I can build the first five minutes and see if that knocks socks off. If so, then invest in building the rest of the product. (If not, figure out why it isn't knocking socks off and recalibrate. I'm not sure I like "pivot.")

This was hugely influential in my choice of Appointment Reminder over a notebook full of other ideas for my next product. There are probably a few decent ideas in there (amidst a lot of drek and random scribblings), but Appointment Reminder was the one that had an obvious opportunity for a very compelling demo implementable in a few weeks. And I think it will work fairly decently for me.

Heck, I think I stole three ideas just from watching the videos.

"You think $700 is a lot of money?"

Sure it is, for the differential in the information you can get by paying it and attending the "New Age Of Entrepreneurship Dawning" seminar vs reading, talking to people who actually run startups today, reading HN and so on. Obviously there are people who think otherwise.

Doesn't change my views on the essential marginal value of Ries's offerings and "insights" vs Steve Blanks' originals. As to extracting lessons for startup experience, one can do that from any startup story without buying into the whole "lean startup" filter.

"Take Minimum Viable Product, for example. It is similar to 37Signals "do less", but it doesn't end there: you're eliminating parts of the product which don't provide value, but you're also strategically deferring parts which do provide value until you've got a handle on the big business risks. I think that is a pretty powerful idea. Hugely powerful."

Sure. Why do you need to pay 700$ to understand that idea? Sure you could pay. It is your money. I am just saying I wouldn't. And I don't believe in "I will tell you how to get rich" type seminars. If you have the money to spare Mr Ries has (had?) a $180,000 for 3 days of wisdom sharing deal too. (http://www.startuplessonslearned.com/2009/08/introducing-lea...). On that thread I defended his right to price his wares any way he wanted to. I still do. I am just saying I don't think it is worth that kind of money, which is a different thing.

As I said, Caveat Emptor. Listen to opinions. Then do what you will with your money and time.

Your missives on the value of the conference would carry more weight had you actually attended it. The majority of the presentations were from people actually running startups -- exactly what you recommend.

Conferences like this will help bring structure to a concept that continues to be quite amorphous. Scammy consultants have a greater ability to flourish when there isn't someone or something guiding what the term means. You may quibble with the marginal value of Eric's insights, or disagree with his fees, but I would hope you'd agree that his is trying to bring people to together to consolidate these ideas and concepts in a wholly transparent way. Kudos for that.

For what it's worth, I have the same sense as you describe -- that there's something consultanty and vaguely scammy about the Lean Startup movement (like there is about most software "movements") -- and for the same reason as you, namely pattern recognition from having observed these things in the agile space. The main lesson I learned from the latter is that the people selling consulting about how to build working software were, with some exceptions, not particularly able to build working software or run successful software projects themselves. They were like music teachers who couldn't play the instrument; their skill was in talking convincingly (and expensively) about how the instrument should be played. Their customers would frequently get very enthusiastic and shiny-eyed about what they'd heard, but it never seemed to lead in the end to better music being produced - only more talk about it. (Edit: and lots of ideological you're-doing-it-wrong thinking.)

I have seen no good answer as to what the leaders of this movement have actually done to justify authoritative stature on the subject of startups. (Steve Blank is an exception, but he also doesn't seem that directly involved.) The combination of that and the veneer of consultanty slickness is a real red flag.

I'm all in favor of people in the startup world trading great ideas and war stories. But the whole consulting thing, with its jargon and processes, its conferences, speaking engagements, and most of all its high fees... I think that model is broken and we'd be better off without it.

We're talking about the same conference that was broadcast live for free on justin.tv right?

Agile...was soon overrun by scammy consultants... (Scrum Master, etc.)

I've seen multiple movements in technology management. I've seen them start, grow, and fade out (they never die). I don't believe in certifications, and I'm a consultant.

I think you either don't understand the pattern of what goes on, or are exaggerating for effect.

"I've seen multiple movements in technology management. I've seen them start, grow, and fade out (they never die). I don't believe in certifications, and I'm a consultant."

None of which invalidates anything I said.

"I think you either don't understand the pattern of what goes on, or are exaggerating for effect."

Neither. I meant exactly what I said (and I do understand the pattern of what happened and is happening to agile - I was there seeing it happen) and stand by it. That said, I don't want this thread to degenerate into the "truth" of agile and our perceptions about it. My email is in my profile if you feel like following up.

Sent you the email.

I have no desire to argue the truth of anything. You made a blanket statement that tried to exclude a vast array of knowledge and people who attempt to learn and apply that knowledge. Defend it or not here, but I found it accidentally inaccurate or purposely misleading. It also applies directly to the point both you were making and the point the article was making.

Happy to take it offline. Write me an email and prove your case. But enough with the drive-by stereotyping.

"Sent you the email."

Haven't got it yet.

"You made a blanket statement that tried to exclude a vast array of knowledge and people who attempt to learn and apply that knowledge."

Rubbish. I said agile has a lot of scamsters, especially the "Scrum Master" folks. If you haven't seen these guys and how they proliferate you haven't been looking much.

I never said every single agile consultant on the face of the Earth is a fraud. I can't help it if you take offence or somehow think I was talking about you in particular.

If you want a clarification about anything I actually said (vs what you heard) write me. (Apologies to the rest of HN for this vapid detour/threadjack). I am done with this. Over and out.

The author is lacking an understanding of business jargon. Very little jargon was vacuous when coined. It is the endless repetition by the uninformed that renders it meaningless.

Ries is trying to change the way people think about startups, and as a part of that effort he is consciously promoting neologisms that capture the principles of the lean startup. I like those principles, I understand that he wants to create language to concisely express those principles to help grow awareness of his philosophy.

I think "Tipping Point"--which the author cites as true "Marketing Bullshit"--is a good analogy. The general public (people who hadn't read Complexity or Chaos) didn't understand complexity before Gladwell, and so the phrase "Tipping Point" was coined and used to capture the principle. It worked: pretty much everyone understands it now. It's just that the term "Tipping Point" is now slightly irritating to anyone who "got it" a long time ago, and it has been (predictably) misused enough to place it in the Business Jargon Pantheon.

That's how business jargon works. Just consult your Buzzword Bingo scorecard for examples.

Gladwell didn't invent that term 'tipping point'. I remember seeing it and using it long before his book came out, which according to Wikipedia was around 2000.

Please send me a link if I'm wrong, but I'm pretty sure he coined the non-scientific, or at least popular usage. I don't remember having heard the phrase tipping point before the book came out, even though I was fairly familiar with the idea.

I'm absolutely certain I heard "tipping point" long before gladwell - it's a pretty standard popular phrase. I don't even know where I heard it. It's a phrase like "the last straw (that breaks the camel's back)" tha thas been in existence pretty much forever...

Dictionary.com lists Gladwell in the etymology. However, Wikipedia's entry for "tipping point (sociology)" (which, to my knowledge, is effectively the same as Gladwell's use) says, "The phrase was coined in its sociological use by Morton Grodzins, by analogy with ..."

The page on Grodzins says, "He is known for coining the term "tipping point" in studies of white flight, such as The Metropolitan Area as a Racial Problem (1958)".

No doubt Gladwell popularized the phrase, but I don't think he coined it by any means.

Perhaps one could say that his book was a tipping point in the wider diffusion and knowledge of the term? :-)

I'm admittedly short on my knowledge of this newfangled "lean startup" notion. But, it sounds to me like the fundamental principle is "lazy product evaluation." Ie, instead of building anything up-front, go out, find out what people want, and build that, MVP, reacting to markets that you know, provably, to already exist.

At the risk of getting told I don't "get it", this sounds like a great way to build a very successful but horribly boring startup.

Vision is a critical part of a leanstartup and by no means is the fundamental principle "lazy product evaluation".

To quote an Eric Ries post: "Lean Startups are driven by a compelling vision, and they are rigorous about testing each element of this vision against reality."

The two most important leanstartup principles or teachings for me are a) I'm stupid and make really poor assumptions all the time. To combat that, I need to continually be validating my ideas against real customer feedback. b) Validated learning is the most important metric for progress. Ultimately my company be successful if I understand better than anyone else the lives of my customers as that in-depth understanding of their hopes and dreams and pain will enable to build and market products which speak to those emotions.

Your last paragraph has a lot of words but says very little. Can it not all be summed up as "talk to your customers?" Isn't this the foundation of any business? Does anyone actually advocate not doing so?

Obviously you need to be aware of the problems your customers face as a business.

But the notion that anything is the "most important" metric of progress reeks of classic silver-bulletism that plagues software engineering.

I also am not a big believer in "validation." You're never going to "validate" your ideas through customers. You're going to evolve your ideas through seeing people use what you build. But they're never "validated" or "proven right" through intimate customer feedback. Good ideas are "validated" over the course of years, often after much ridicule, resistance, and pain.

"Can it not all be summed up as 'talk to your customers?' Isn't this the foundation of any business? Does anyone actually advocate not doing so?"

I don't think anyone advocates not talking to your customers, but Steve Blank makes a bigger point than that.

The point isn't just to talk to your customers. It's that the CEO, the founders, the people with the control have to talk to the customers.

A lot of companies have the CEO, the programming team, and the rest of the decision makers relatively isolated from the customers, whereas the sales team is the one out there talking to customers every day.

This isolation still makes it look like the company is talking to customers (they have sales out there, every day, listening to customer feedback). But because the real decision makers aren't themselves experiencing the way the customers use their product, they'll never understand it the way they need to to keep making their product better.

'Talk to you customers' is a bi ambiguoud, and could be wrong. My reading of the lean startup thing is that you look at the numbers and metrics of what your customers are doing, rather than ask them what they want. If you're not sure what feature to add, don't ask people, and do surveys, do a half version of all the possibilities, and see what features your customers are using.

Well, 'talk to your customers' is a little different from 'listen to your customers and make sure you understand exactly what problem your product/service solves for them'. And I think the only difference between evolution (as you've described it) and validation is that seeing how people use what you build, and getting qualitative data on those users is emphasised, rather than something that just happens over time.

At a minor level, that could be making sure that the next feature you implement is the one that will make your software much more usable from their point of view, rather than the shiniest or most technically interesting to implement. (e.g. it doesn't matter if your mousetrap automatically telling your computer when it's caught something, if their local mice just aren't interested in $bait_that_works_best_in_bobs_house )

On the larger scale, if your customers are using your product to solve a problem you didn't expect, you can't optimise your product so it sells even better. If the largest user of your mousetrap is the gremlin-catcher's guild, then perhaps you need to look at building more gremlin-specific features, and changing your marketing a little.

And, of course, the simplest metric for validation is that if they ain't buying it then it ain't doing what they want enough for them to pay for it.

Disclaimer: I have never run a startup, let alone used these principles. They just seem to make sense to me.

Would you rather build a very successful & boring startup, or work on something super cool, with no clear way of turning a profit?

That's a good question, and I'm sure people go either way on this. I for one am definitely looking for success, but I try to find it by doing things I like and care about.

I'm comforted by Paul Graham's thoughts on this, namely that if you build something people like, you'll usually manage to find a profit somewhere.

Success is success. The details are secondary.

this attitude doesn't prevent successes, but it does lead to unnecessarily high failure rates

Here's a snippet from a HN submission currently ranking about as well as the Lean post:

"Introducing, Braintrust, my bootstrapped lean startup . . . Braintrust is hosted in the cloud, works in real-time, and provided as a SaaS offering."

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