Can Type-As Learn to Love Lean?

By Krista Nylen

The definition of success at my first job was to create an error-free Excel model accompanied by a set of PowerPoint slides in which every textbox was perfectly aligned. It was both excruciating and satisfyingly perfect. Upon entering the world of entrepreneurship at HBS, I’ve been surrounded by more amorphous tasks that cause the obsessive angel on my shoulder to start screaming. In order to meet the lofty goal of launching a successful product, I’ve been taught to build something that isn’t right, to fail over and over, and to conduct customer research with full knowledge that the data will not yield the answer.  In my own experience as an entrepreneur, daunting undertakings like “obtaining product-market fit” and “developing an MVP” have at times sent my mind reeling. How do you measure success while continually encouraging yourself to fail? And how is it that I’ve seen case after case in which smart, driven entrepreneurs have failed (or have yet to succeed) even though they did so many things right.

I think that these reactions are very typical of the overly-analytical personality that often characterizes business school students. To date we have had the underappreciated luxury of receiving well-defined projects, with clearly set expectations that we know exactly how to exceed. But at the end of the day, I don’t think these feelings of confusion and frustration preclude a perfectionist from being an entrepreneur. Rather, I think it comes down to doing what we all absolutely hate: identifying the weaknesses that we have spent so long trying to avoid or downplay. After spending the last year working on my start-up, giftplum, I have forced myself to complete this exercise a few times, and I think I’ve gotten better at it over time. So far I’ve found that my team is good at developing a product with limited resources, but we haven’t been disciplined in understanding our target customer and thus we have had trouble communicating the value proposition and developing the appropriate GTM plan.

One useful exercise I’ve learned here at HBS is to continually ask “why?” until you get to the root cause of an issue (apparently it turns out that management is just about re-employing the annoying habits you developed as a 3 year-old). So when I tried to understand why it’s taken me so long to find my customer, I realized that when working as an analyst in an established firm, I was in the enviable position of already knowing my customer. It was my boss. He wasn’t shy or equivocal and every year he took the time to fill out a quantifiable customer satisfaction survey called my bonus check. When developing a product from scratch, you don’t know your customer. But because you know (and love) your idea, it’s very tempting to live with the comfortable yet delusional belief that you are the customer. After reading lots of cases about customer neglect and misunderstanding (think LIT motors) and at the same time failing to satisfy along this dimension with my own start-up, I now understand the seemingly obvious fact that my company should not be built just to cater to me, and, in fact, this approach has probably been my greatest weaknesses.  Acknowledging that I operate under this bias has made it easier to design lean methodology tests for my product, even if those tests expose major failures. I can force myself to showcase an imperfect product to a set of complete strangers, because my “measure of success” is understanding my customer.

In the end, I think that concepts like MVP and PMF are useful to entrepreneurs, but there is a risk that founders who are myopic in their search for success, can superficially apply these principles to their detriment. In my experience, the way to get around this (especially for those entrepreneurs with a proclivity for perfectionism) comes as close to therapy as you can get: when first launching a venture, you should get comfortable with your inadequacies in order to do something about them. 


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