4 Ways to Succeed at the Lean Startup Machine

I heard about the Lean Startup Machine onLean Startup Machine my first day of work at HubSpot, the day before the event was to start.  So of course, being me, I figured that rather than have a relaxing weekend and exploring Boston, I would jump right in and make this the first weekend in my new city. I also figured that this would be a). a good way to meet people, and b). my one chance to participate in such a workshop.
Initially I started this article with a description of what the Lean Startup Machine is, even what is the Lean Startup methodology, but I realized that this was pointless. There are tons of good resources that can describe them better than I, so if you’re curious you can check out the links at the bottom. I’ll only say that the Lean Startup Machine is a series of workshops and talks that take you through the entire process of building a business over the course of one weekend. I’m also including a sample schedule so that later references make sense.

Schedule

LSM Boston schedule

The other thing that I started out to do was to simply describe my experience, but I realized that my blog is for other people not just me. I’ll write all about my experience in my journal. Rather, I’m going to discuss my key takeaways from the weekend so that hopefully someone will find some valuable insight for the future. I would also mention that these insights, while they came out of the one weekend, are really generalizable to any startup following the Lean Startup methodology.

  1. Find a great team

    Team

    My team

    As I’ll mention later, the idea matters much less than the team. Your idea will continue to change over the weekend, but your team won’t. These are the people who are going to cause the success or failure of your weekend both in terms of your learning and succeeding at building your idea. After the opening talks, these are the people you will be spending all of your time with for the next two days, so you’d better like them.

    One thing to think about is how you will use the available networking time at the beginning. In the schedule, there is 30 minutes allotted at the very beginning for dinner and networking. I highly recommend using this to scope out potential team members. If you really take the opportunity to meet people and talk, you can get a much better sense for who you might want to work with.

  2. Elect a team leader

    This may seem obvious, but in retrospect, we should have thought much more carefully about our team’s organization. Since one of your teammates will be the person who originally pitched the idea, they can implicitly become the group leader since they have the clearest vision. I would warn against accepting this at face value rather than discussing group leadership directly, even if you end up electing that teammate as group leader.

    By discussing out in the open who your group leader will be, you can clearly establish leadership in the group. As I have learned the hard way on multiple occasions, you simply cannot be as efficient without a clear group leader. It is so easy to become sidetracked, especially when you get together multiple people who are enthusiastic about an idea. By having a clearly defined group leader, you have someone who can take charge of keeping the group on track without any resentment from others, which will ultimately ensure your productivity.

  3. Know where to find your target customers

    This can be a little tricky, as your target customer may change, but just remember that you have one weekend to interview as many people in this demographic as possible. We made the huge mistake of targeting teachers and parents of young children. While these people may be out in force during the week, it can be hard to find them on the weekend. When they do go out, young parents have kids in tow and are distracted enough without you trying to interview them. Because a key part of the Lean Startup Machine is interviewing people, you need to be able to find those people, so whether its through internet forums or parts of town where they congregate, know how to find your customers.

  4. Don’t be attached to your original idea

    There isn’t too much to say about this because the Lean Startup methodology essentially requires it to be the case, but some people definitely struggled with this so its worth a mention. When you are going out and interviewing people, it becomes clear very quickly that not everyone likes your idea, which is somewhat disheartening. On the flipside, however, even a couple people saying it sounds interesting can be enough for you to convince yourself to persevere. This is where it becomes essential to create hypotheses and stick to them. It is so easy to rationalize undesirable responses in your interviews. You have to set your hypothesis (‘5/10 people will give us their email address’), and even if you’re slightly under (‘4/10 people gave us their email address’), you have to pivot. There’s no looking back. And one thing you should look for when picking a team is how willing people are to part with their ideas, because that can be really hard.

Overall, I would highly recommend the Lean Startup Machine to anyone who is interested in starting their own company.  The Lean methodology really allows you to go from 0 to 60 in a matter of days, which is invaluable in the fast paced startup world. I also can say without hesitation that there were things that I struggled with before the workshops and continue to struggle with now, but having mentors available to teach you how to interview people or how to pivot your idea shows you how you can improve.

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Resources:

Lean Startup Methodology

The Lean Startup by Eric Ries

This is the book that coined the Lean Startup methodology.  Definitely worth a read.

How to Build a Startup by Steve Blank

This course on Udacity is a great introduction to the Lean Startup methodology taught by one of the greats.

The Lean Startup Machine

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The Two Week Slump

As far as I can tell, this is something that everyone experiences.  When you first have an idea, you are so excited.  You have the motivation and energy to work on it constantly and initially you make rapid progress, but eventually this ‘honeymoon period’ has to come to an end.  For me it took about 2 weeks.

In fairness, I have had some personal issues in the last week that kept me from working as much or writing blog posts, but I find that the motivation simply is not there in the way that it was a week ago.  Although it is still early and I don’t know what will happen into the future, I wanted to report my findings.

Reasons for the slump:

  1. Hard work.
    If you’ve ever heard someone say that starting a company is a lot of work, they’re right.  As a CS major at Princeton University, I came into this with the impression that I understood how to do hard work (20 hour theory problem sets), but a startup isn’t like that.  You are never done with your work because there is no right answer and therefore work follows you around constantly.  There is also a huge amount of trial and error because you can’t just look up the answer.
  2. Too much work.
    If you’ve never heard this before, investors tend to dismiss startups with only a single founder.  I ignored this warning sign and struck out on my own.  While I am not going to give up and start again, I promise you that next time I won’t be so naive.  There is simply too much at a startup for one person to do.  In the past few weeks I have been trying to balance all of these things: planning, market research, social media, product planning, product development, accounting, legal, etc.  Its a lot to manage and at this point I don’t have the money to hire people, so you need a co-founder who is invested enough in your vision that they will be happy to work for equity.
  3. No results.
    This shouldn’t be a surprise, but its hard to get any results when you don’t have a product.  While this may seem trivially obvious, it does lead to a severe lack of motivation.  When you see clearly the fruits of your labor, it is easier to see light on the road ahead.
  4. Gritty details.
    As part of the product development process, there are simply things that are a pain in the ass that suck but you have to do them.  While you can avoid these initially by getting other things done, you must face them eventually.  If you have any tendency towards procrastination, these are the little things that trip you up and keep you from getting things done.  Whether it is making that one phone call or writing content for that one page on your site, this can create a substantial mental block.

The obvious question now is: where do I go from here?

I am in the middle of this now, so there is no way I can give an informed answer, so instead I will look at what steps I am planning to take based on my research, and at some point I hope to do a follow up on this post to see how all of these different techniques worked.

  1. Surrounding myself by motivated people.
    Currently, I am working in a co-working space called Tigerlabs where there are many other startups.  This is invaluable because other peoples’ success is helpful at inspiring my own.
  2. Keeping a strict schedule.
    I find that this is extremely important for me to get work done.  If I don’t make myself get to the office by a certain time, I’ll never get nearly as much done because it is so easy to procrastinate.
  3. Setting goals.
    When I don’t know what to work on, I get lazy.  I’ll do lots of little tasks that aren’t necessarily relevant to my ultimate goal.  A couple tools that I find helpful for this are PivotalTracker/Trello (project management) and Producteev (to-do list).  This can also involve setting deadlines, which may be helpful.
  4. Motivational reading.
    It may just be me, but I find that other peoples’ success stories are quite motivational and inspire me to keep working.  I like startup blogs (I don’t have any favorites) and my two favorite motivational books are The 4 Hour Work Week and The Millionaire Fastlane, both of which are both inspirational and have some useful information.
  5. Staying healthy.
    I know that I feel better and more productive if I stay in shape, so I try to make a routine of going to the gym every day before work.

Hopefully with time and making use of these strategies, I will be able to overcome this slump and move forwards.