Lean is for Wimps

by Lorin Pace & Iris Guerra

In the new era of all things lean, fat gets a bad rap. Even the terminology is loaded; in the U.S. we are facing an obesity health crisis like nothing we have faced in our nation’s history. Of course no-one would want to be ‘fat’ when the term has such a negative connotation. But when did ‘fat’ become the only alternative to lean? What about medium or athletic builds? Painting a picture of two polarized options and demonizing the other is a storied psychological tactic for building momentum around your own philosophy. For better or for worse, Eric Ries has done a great job of depicting epic failure as the product of the ‘other’ approach. And he has a point. It IS senseless to build a product no one wants, and no one is a better example of that than Ries himself (he did it!) and he knows how painful it is to pour your heart and soul into something that ends up being discarded. Ries would have you believe that not only can you apply the lean startup method to everything – but you should apply the lean startup method to everything.

One of the cornerstones of Ries’ lean startup method is the notion of the Minimum Viable Product (MVP). In Ries’ own words, “The minimum viable product is that version of a new product which allows a team to collect the maximum amount of validated learning about customers with the least effort.” It sounds like a helpful, leveraged approach, and it is, but we’d like to slap a warning label on this product:
  1. Don’t prioritize validated learning by gambling with key customer relationships. We found rather quickly that warm leads are absolutely critical for winning the business of large enterprise customers, regardless of how far along your product is. Warm leads with large enterprise customers in ideal segments are rare. Even if you have a brilliant concept, while you’re learning about what these customers truly value, you are exhausting much of their valuable time. Don’t expect them to hold their breath while you quickly iterate on the product that you figured out that they actually do want. They may not have the patience to re-engage with you. Had you been more prepared, you might have just landed a huge customer. 
  2. If you are constantly validating your gut, the guy who doesn’t may beat you to market. In the wake of the Bush presidency and the ultimate failure to unearth weapons of mass destruction (WMDs) in Iraq, the notion of the ‘gut’ is almost as unpopular as ‘fat.’ Trusting one’s ‘gut’ is synonymous with making whimsical decisions based on mood and temperament. The reality is quite different. The ‘gut’ refers to the part of our brain known as the ‘limbic system.’ The limbic system assembles powerful elements of memory and feeling and association that can distill complex patterns of information into a singular decision path. It can be very powerful and trusting such hunch-driven decision making has produced many of the greatest successes in the history of entrepreneurship. It might not work every time, but startups rarely do. Overly handicapping your gut with too many feedback loops can be just as risky as the alternative.

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