Lean Startup “Marketing Bullshit”

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Venture Hacks‘ daily email delivered an enjoyable post by Sean Fioritto called “Steve Blank is my hero“, exhorting the Hacker News readership to pay attention to Blank’s philosophies. Sean’s explanation of resistance jumped off the screen at me:

“if you can’t see through the halo of marketing bullshit to the nuggets of genius underneath…”

“I sometimes worry that the Hacker News crowd has their marketing bullshit filters turned up a little bit too high and they’re missing what I think is the beginning of a new wave of entrepreneurship.”

Sean points out something important, and he’s not the only one who worries about this issue. If I criticize Eric Ries for anything, it is for leading too often with technical topics of lesser importance in an effort not to lose all the engineers in the room to this knee-jerk “marketing bullshit filter”.

Well, let me get blunt here.

If that’s you, get off the engineering-purity high horse. Ignore marketing and customer development at your peril. An engineer starting a company is now a business person. Your startup won’t live or die based on whether you ship code once a day or once a week. It will live or die based on whether people actually give a damn about your product.

Crack jokes about MBAs all you want, but guess what, you are getting your own kind of MBA as well. You are just getting yours in the field, in a trial by fire, and you have a tenth of the time to learn. (no, I didn’t go to business school)

Marketing Bullshit?
Blank, Ries, McClure and Ellis are remarkable bullshit-free zones. There’s no talk of “tipping points” and “best of breed”. You don’t hear jargon like paradigm or maven. Lean startup is about validation, critical thinking, measurement, and speed — all while preserving vision. Where’s the BS?*

(*granted, the word “pivot” gets used nauseatingly often. A CEO sneezes and it’s called a pivot right now.)

I ask myself if perhaps this reaction is driven by fear. Fear of SALES. Many engineers start their career in organizations where sales is considered a demanding, unreasonable, ignorant, over-compensated enemy. We live in a culture which belittles sales. The word evokes connotations of manipulation, snake oil, and spin. Hell, the cheesy image at the top of this post was the top result for “salesman” on istockphoto. But that is not good sales — that is a *myth* about what “sales” means based on common bad experiences. The reality is that we are *all* salespeople, any time we want someone to do what we want them to do.

Don’t let your opinions be dominated by myths. There’s already too much bullshit myth-making around startups in general that leads people astray.

Lean Startup Early Adopters
Now, perhaps I’m reacting to a myth as well – a myth about a solid percentage of HN readers tuning this stuff out. Among folks I know, it is engineers and product managers who have embraced lean startup the most enthusiastically. I think it is easier for marketing and strategy folks to dismiss the conceptual framework as something they have always done, although that is usually a false assessment and a superficial reading of what lean startup is about.

Reaction Types
[On to a related but different topic…] When it comes to “lean startup” ideas, I see several types of negative reactions out there.

Anti-bandwagoners – They dislike the “born-again” enthusiasm, which is understandable, but overreact in their negativity. I say, you can better express your individuality by thinking through lean startup concepts with a clear, critical mind — neither fanboy nor dismissive.

Nitpickers – They spend more effort debunking the various “game-of-telephone” misinterpretations of “lean startup” in the blogosphere rather than seriously thinking through how the core ideas can impact their business. Or they get caught up in the words (lean vs fat) rather than true meaning.

Self-congratulators – They read lean startup concepts looking to pat themselves on the back about what they are doing right rather than harshly challenge themselves to figure out what they are doing wrong. I say, do the opposite: use lean startup concepts to gut-check where you might be screwing up. Get self-critical, not congratulatory! Death to complacency!

Originalists – They deride lean startup as something people have done for years, and so marginalize the movement. Originality is not the point. Helping more entrepreneurs be effective is the point.

Exceptionists – They think that naming a few examples of hit-and-hope startup successes debunks the whole conceptual framework. I say, isn’t it easier to acknowledge that customer development, faster cycle times, and rigorous validation just make common sense as good things?

Dogmatists – Rule makers or rule takers. The former want to define “lean startup” with precision and rules. The latter are desperate for a step-by-step rule book that guarantees success. Sorry, but life isn’t that easy. Lean startup ideas are a conceptual framework and you have to fit the ideas to your own context.

In Conclusion
I think Blank and Ries are preaching good stuff — stuff I wish I had fully comprehended 15 years ago. I doubt this post changes anyone’s mind, but I felt like writing it anyway. To anyone bullshit-filtering out the business side of lean startup ideas, I encourage you to bullshit-check yourself and your own myths and assumptions as well.

Previous posts by me on lean startup

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Some comments on Hacker News related to this post point out that the buzzwords and probable growth of “scammy consultants” *does* create the need for a bullshit filter.  I don’t disagree that buzzwords exist like MVP or “product-market fit”, which serve as shorthand for concepts, but I stand by assertion that the authors I mention are remarkably practical and grounded.  I also agree that with the popularity of a movement will come negative side effects, but encourage folks not to throw the baby out with the bathwater.