Tim Cheadle

Tim Cheadle

Engineer, Designer, Maker

Lean Startups Are Like Science

I work with a lot of startups, and most of them these days aim to be a “lean startup”. The only problem is that folks always seem to misunderstand what a lean startup is or how to apply the techniques. Ultimately, a lean startup is no different from any other business. You need to find a balance between sales, marketing, bookkeeping, customer development and building your product. The right balance depends on your product, your personality and your staff.

If you’re spending all of your time building your product, you’re likely ignoring what your customers have to say. You’re probably building exactly what they don’t need, resulting wasted effort and missed revenue.

If you’re spending all of your time talking to your customers, it’s likely not providing a very clear focus for what you need to build and deliver. Are you sure you’re asking the right questions? Running a lean startup doesn’t mean letting the customers make your decisions for you. It means building something they value and want to pay you to use. As the old Henry Ford quote goes, “If I had asked my customers what they wanted, they would have said faster horses.”

I achieve a balance by acting like a scientist. I treat my business and my clients’ businesses as a set of scientific experiments. Don’t just test things randomly and see what happens; use the following process:

  • Build a Hypothesis
    Come up with an idea about what product customers want and would pay you to have.
  • Design the Experiment
    Build the product and focus on launching it, not perfecting it.
  • Run the Experiment
    Launch quickly. Put the product in front of customers as soon as possible.
  • Observe the Results
    Collect customer feedback and watch their use of the product. You’ll integrate this data into the next round.

Rinse and repeat. Every time you repeat this process, you will have a more refined idea of what your customers expect, and an idea of what they might like but haven’t asked for.

Notice that I’m not spending all of my time in any one of these steps. In reality, they’re all happening in parallel. Also, in a successful business this process never actually ends. So long as you have customers, you have improvements to make.

(Adapted from my original post on LessEverything’s blog, which was itself adapted from my Quora answer on the same topic.)

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