Why Is Lean Startup So Hard?

by Giff on August 20, 2012

A few months back, I gave a tech-talk at Pivotal Labs on the reasons why people fail to implement lean startup ideas, even when they like the theory. I’ve been meaning to post the notes to the slides, so here you go:

When “lean startup” first came out, it was greeted by two erroneous responses:

  • “this is a roadmap to guaranteed success!”
  • “thanks Captain Obvious, but we already do this”

However, lean is not:

  • asking customers what they want (or if they think your idea is cool)
  • simply slapping the term “MVP” on your release
  • trying a new idea every 10 minutes
  • doing things cheaply

So how do I think about lean, especially at the early stage?

  • you frame your business as a set of hypotheses
  • you get out of the building (and your own head)
  • you ruthlessly challenging your ideas via focused experiments
  • you figure out the lightest, fastest way to build confidence in your idea
  • you prioritize validated learning over product and growth
  • you run fast iterations that end with validation, not acceptance
  • you measure progress and factor that data into your decisions

All of which are tactics to de-risk your innovation ambitions with maximum efficiency.

So why is it so hard to do?

1. Split personality issues

It is really hard to balance the reality distortion field with ruthless questioning. You need tons of confidence to attract teammates and capital, and yet somehow you need to be massively humble and challenge yourself vigorously.

2. “Don’t take away my fantasy”

Vision is fun, and it is what drives us as founders and innovators. No one likes learning that they are wrong. It is human nature to procrastinate bad news. When you are happily designing and building product in the ivory tower, your vision is going to be 100% right, your customers are 100% happy (because there are none), and your business potential is untarnished. Heck, you can sometimes get a higher valuation from investors if you haven’t actually hit the market (although usually only previous-exit entrepreneurs can pull that off).

And of course, there is also the fantasy of being Steve Jobs, listening only to your gut (nevermind the incredible amount of resources and talent that Jobs gets to throw at a problem).

3. “I am already an expert in my domain”

This is a tricky one. Domain expertise can be a critical edge for a startup. Unfortunately, too many domain experts view their knowledge and experience as proven facts, not hypotheses. If and when you are innovating, you have to be willing to question what you know because you are creating a new context by the very nature of innovating.

However, it is hard to admit that your expertise can also be a liability. The critical thing to remember is that innovation means that you are guessing.

4. Lean is not about funding or growth

Our industry lionizes getting funded. A funding event is considered success, and can give an entrepreneur rock star status for at least a little while. That can be a good or bad thing for a startup depending on how well they capitalize on it vs get distracted by it. The key thing to remember is that funding gives a startup needed oxygen, but it is not the same thing as true success.

VCs want to see growth, but don’t always question how sustainable or meaningful it is. Lean discipline can fall by the wayside as companies try to manufacture growth, rather than use lean to focus on fundamental progress, non-vanity metrics, and sustainable success.

5. It “distracts” from building product

Too often the entrepreneur is demanding “build my shiny thing!” However, lean values learning over product.

It is natural to hunger for your vision, your solution, to be realized right away. In many ways, lean says “be patient, be incremental, be real”. Patience is hard. And to the software developer, shipping product can feel like progress but we all have to remember that it is not.

(This point #5 is the most dangerous to me because I am a “maker” by nature. I love to design and build things. It’s fun to build first, and then later see what happens. Of course, the bigger the vision, the more you can convince yourself to build. Lean startup brings me useful discipline.)

6. Fear of a false negative

The startup world thrives on “survivor bias” stories. But startup-land is like an iceberg, and as dangerous. We see a few successes sticking up above the water and try to copy their actions and their perseverance. We ignore the vast volume of startups under the water who failed regardless of their perseverance and vision.

People often succumb to “all or nothing” product design. In other words, why bother testing something partially-done because it will inevitably fail? The answer, of course, is so that you can learn. The second thing to remember is that if you need all the pieces of a puzzle to fall into place perfectly in order to spot and then achieve success, then the odds are seriously stacked against you (even more than normal).

7. It’s messy

Lean startup takes scientific-method methods, but it is not pure. Variables will be tough to isolate. Results data will be unclear. Sample sizes will be small. It is easy to say, “since I’m having to use my judgement and gut anyway, why bother with all this testing?”

8. It’s uncomfortable

With lean, you are putting yourself, your ideas, your reputation out on a limb. You are shoving yourself in front of customers knowing you might fail. Ultimately if you are being rigorous, there’s nowhere to hide.

9. There is no rulebook

The first rule of lean startup is that there are no rules to lean startup. Every innovation has its own context. Priorities and tactics will differ hugely. That makes lean startup difficult to grab onto and run with.

Final Note

Ultimately, there is a lot of human psychology that fights the effective and continual adoption of lean startup, but the counterbalancing forces are fear of wasted time and a deep respect for how hard startups really are. But some people might need to get burned once or twice first before they really realize it.

  • http://www.microsoft.com/bizspark Douglas Crets

    To #1. You don’t question yourself. you shouldn’t have to question yourself if you are doing the right kinds of questioning of the market, the product fit, and the market you are trying to disrupt. I don’t think lean startup is the Jesuit school of business. Doubt is not for the questioner of the self, it’s for the questioner of the job that needs to be done. 

    #2 Jobs didn’t just listen to his gut. That’s part of the marketing glint of Apple. He was a relentless questioner of the market, and a shrewd observer of people and how they use tech. That being said, I think the vision statement is exactly right. The vision is meant to be tarnished, which makes a team that can execute and scrum a mandatory requirement. 

    #3 You don’t have to be an expert, if your job as an entrepreneur is to question the object, ie the market. 

    #4 Agree, funding is not a metric. And sometimes growth isn’t a metric either. Irreplaceable is a metric. 

    #5 Facebook is facing this problem right now. Keep shipping needs to sit in a corner, while keep learning answers some questions.

    #6  – #9 I’ll buy it.

  • http://giffconstable.com giffc

    Re #1, not sure if we’re not saying the same thing.  I do think you should ask questions about everything. You should balance confidence and humility at the same time. You should question if you are making the best decisions, if you are managing your people as well as you can, etc. But as CEO you need to do it pretty privately (that’s just a reality). Getting seduced by your own reality distortion field is dangerous — I’ve seen it many times. It’s not about self-flagellation. It’s “don’t believe the hype”, even if dishing it is often required.

    Re #2, re: Jobs, it’s the fantasy, the mythology, of Jobs that is the most dangerous.

    The list, which is probably not written as clearly as it could have been, is born of real observations I’ve witnessed as people talk about lean startup but fail to actual do it.  

  • http://paddlinglikemad.com Marko Vasiljevic

    Great post Giff. I feel like you’ve really nailed a few things that I’ve been observing over the years, but just couldn’t put it in words as succinctly.

    One point that I disagree with is #9. I think that there are definite rules and methodology to be followed, it’s just that the volume of factors surrounding each product type is so big that the number of permutations gets overwhelming. 

    I believe that lean is 70% science and 30% art and it’s the art component that’s hard to grasp. It’s important for all of us to get the 70% that represents the science behind the approach discovered, catalogued and analyzed and I think that this is where most of the effort has been focused so far. However, I believe that the art behind the startup is the magical component that usually defines success. A great artist can sometimes get away with using very little science in her approach and with a bit of luck turn it into a successful business. 

    Knowing when to stop is art, having inspiration for creating meaningful and impactful experiments is art, creating something people love is art.

    Now, don’t get me wrong as I’m a big believer in the scientific approach. I think that lean methodology is an extremely efficient way of de-risking any innovation, but no cake ever reaches its full potential without the icing.

  • http://giffconstable.com giffc

    I think we probably agree re: #9. To restate my stance: there are fundamental principles to lean, but the tactics can widely differ depending on context. This can be confusing and overwhelming to folks, and I get confused too all the time: “am I testing effectively and efficiently right now? what am I missing?” I do view lean as quite challenging to implement, and as you put it, it can be overwhelming.

    Totally agree there is art, judgement and gut involved in this, especially in the very early stages but never disappearing.

  • http://twitter.com/farnsworthd Deborah Farnsworth

    All observations have a beginning and an end.   I am a preacher.  On good faith!  I think differences occur with notions, that are objectified from near the start, like you predispose about this.  You sound  sales, stocks and bonds without the pitch or chaddy chat.   I know!  Yes!   A lean should not be so objectivied……  This is what accounts for all differences.   Right.

  • http://twitter.com/lolbrighton Laurence McCahill

    Great article Giff. Particularly relate point 9 ie. context and priorities vary for each project. As we’ve found you can’t force a set process on every client. We’ve sketched out a visual to try to help clients communicate what is important for them before the project gets under way. Needs a better name but you get the picture http://spookstud.io/PaQR07

  • http://www.bottomlinesconsulting.com/ Lynda Colter-Bergh

    Love the article. I’m living this right now with a company that is very lean. I’ve recently experienced that testing phase. We forgot to account for the gray area. We felt that if we offered a different channel for distribution, it would either be embraced or rejected. Simple enough. Let’s test it. What we didn’t expect was that it was embraced, but the turn-around-time for action was two months longer than projected. So, it’s now up to us to adjust the messaging, the tactic, or the expectations. Running a lean start-up requires constant honing an navigational changes.

  • M

    This article completely misses what is lean. Lean != lean startup…

  • http://giffconstable.com giffc

    I agree that lean != lean startup. I explicitly use the phrase lean startup. So it makes sense that it doesn’t talk about TPS lean.

    I didn’t invent the phrase “lean startup”, nor do I love the baggage and misunderstanding that comes with both “lean” and “startup”, but it is a body of thought that a lot of people now understand, so the point of this article was to work with it.