From Flirting to Adopting: A First-Time Entrepreneur’s Experience with Lean Start-Up Methods

by Shavi Goel
As I begin to understand more about Lean Start-up tools, I decided to learn from someone who is making real-time, active decisions about using these tools in start-up. I spoke to Ashish Rangnekar, a first-time entrepreneur who co-founded the online test prep service Water Melon Express (WMX) in 2009. I first met Ashish last summer when he was raising Series A funding. I found it very exciting to speak to someone who is practicing what we are learning in the class, and hope you find it useful too.

I have presented our conversation in Q&A format. The exchange below is not a verbatim record, but it captures the essence of Ashish's experiences.

SG: How did you first learn about Lean Start-up methodologies? How did you think about using these tools as you started WMX?

AR: When I started WMX, I had heard of lean start up methodology through friends and general internet reading and Eric Ries’s blog. But in all honesty did not fully understand the concepts.
As I was building our first product for WMX, I did not try to forcefully align the product to notions of lean start-up either.
My objective in our initial days was to get to the market quickly and get ‘my version’ of MVP which was our first test preparation app for iphone launched through iTunes.
SG: How much time elapsed from the point you first seriously started thinking of Lean methodologies?

AR: After the First 2 months of launching our app, we started thinking about the overall business not just a single app.
I and my co-founder had developed our business plan along the lines of standard waterfall methodology. It started becoming very frustrating with the speed of process. Our developers were based in India and I felt much removed from the process. Once we discuss our immediate programming needs, developers will go into the caves for long time.
Honestly, there was period of 4 months when we were not lean. Our approach was to identify features and work towards implementing all of them.  Not surprisingly, we realized later some of those features were not used by customers at all.
With this, we began to get very concerned about spending all our resources (which were very much personal savings) on the right things. So it was very challenging period but it was then that we decided – continuous deployment model and iterative is important for our team and we want that in our company
SG: What resources did you tap into to learn more about Lean?
AR: I started actively researching lean start-up techniques. I read Steve Blank’s book and attended meetings with other people who were using lean start-up tools in their start-ups. I attended conferences and talks where Eric Ries was speaking.
I found meeting entrepreneurs particularly most helpful. Hearing from the Grubhub guys in Chicago was very helpful; they are big advocates of lean methodologies and helped me in understanding them.
SG: What is your definition of MVP? Please share an example.
AR: We defined MVP as – what will be the minimum thing customer will pay for and what are the hypotheses we want to test.

For example: when were developing one of our new app, we identified all the design and features the team considered good to have. There were ~15, out of these 3 were critical to customers for which they would have paid.  

But there were many features we wanted to test. So we built it around hypothesis we wanted to test which were
a) Users’ readiness to spend 30 min on iphone and take practice test,
b) Value of detailed performance analysis for our users

Eventually we worked and launched the new app with only 6 features, including the 3 which mattered to users and 3 which helped us test how much analysis will test-takers use.

I can tell you, now we think very much in terms of incremental features and test scenarios.

SG:  Describe an important pivot you have made and what was the ‘aha’ moment which led to it?

AR: As I look back, I think we have made 2-3 big pivots in last 2 years.
One of the most important pivots we made is linked to the business model decision.  Once we attained some scale we had to chose between becoming a B2B app developer for content providers versus owning our apps through an integrated platform. It was an important but a difficult choice for WMX.
The former model seemed easy to test and it required licensing WMX technology to the large content companies and then managing technology in the background for them.
In the spirit of lean start up, we tried doing the first model in a subtle way with a large publisher, though we did not exactly license WMX technology but we used content from the publisher exclusively. We discovered a few reasons why this model was not suited for WMX. Our product was not ready for the enterprise model. Also, in order to improve and accelerate our product we wanted access to customer data which is difficult to get from the large publishers. That was our ‘aha’ moment was very early on through practical challenges in working with large companies and knowing that access to primary data was long term requirement for succeed.
And hence we decided against B2B model instead to develop our own integrated test platform.
SG:  Could you please share one of the key challenges in adopting lean start-up methodology as a founder.
AR: The biggest challenge is the desire to have a perfect product. Once you release something to users and get a good feedback, you start feeling your product is best. The validation from market makes you feel this. You don’t want to release any sub-optimal product anymore, which is very contrary to continuous deployment. Rather than using a 2 week product release cycle, you want to launch a phenomenal product. 


I, too, struggled with this ‘FASCINATION with Perfection’ the beginning. When you start, you are thinking a lot about the product and you get emotionally attached. You want to feel it is best-in-class at all time.
SG At the outset, did you make an active decision NOT to adopt lean methodologies?
AR.  I don’t ever remember deciding not to choose lean methodology. It was a resource constraint that eventually pushed us toward lean.
One decision was to not adopt a common lean tool involved Pivotal Tracker, even when I knew about its advantages. Back in the early days, our development was outsourced from India and we were rushing to get apps out on iTunes. I wanted to start using Pivot Tracker. But we kept delaying the decision because it takes 10 days to set up and I thought I lacked that time due to launch pressures.
Now looking back, that reason doesn’t look good enough to me.
SG:  What are some lean start-up tools you have actively use?
AR: At WMX, we now use religiously use Pivotal Tracker. We leverage a lot of existing tools and platforms including Github (a social network for programmers which aims at collaborative development of software) and many Google apps. We are big on Cloud computing. We also adhere to a 2 week deployment – release cycle.
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About Water Melon Express
Watermelon Express ('WMX') is world's first cross-platform interactive educational apps publishing platform. WMX's content-agnostic publishing solution delivers interactive, social and adaptive educational apps on smart phones (iPhone, Android), tablets (iPad, Kindle), desktop (Windows, Mac) and web.

Within the last 18 months, more than 100,000 students across 20 countries have used our educational apps.WMX has worked with 6 educational publishers and created 66 apps for more than 8 subjects. 
They recently won the New Venture Challenge competition at Booth School of Business, University of Chicago. The platform was voted "most innovative and best-in-class test prep and assessment platform" at Education Innovation Summit 2010. They have been voted top 5 startups of the Midwest and selected as one of the most innovative companies in education technology space at Venture Capital in Education conference. 
You can check them out @ http://www.watermelonexpress.com/
About Ashish Rangnekar
Ashish is first time entrepreneur and co-founder of WMX. He is a mechanical engineer from India’s top engineering college (IIT Bombay) and currently finishing his MBA from University of Chicago (Booth School of Business).  

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