Is Lean Flawed? The Case of Aardvark

By Glen Thrope

To someone thoroughly schooled in the lean startup methodology, the case of the mobile question-and-answer service Aardvark is somewhat disconcerting. The Aardvark team executed lean hypothesis testing about as by-the-book as anyone possibly could. In developing their concept, they avoided falling in love with any given idea and instead evaluated each using a predefined set of criteria. They used smoke tests to cheaply gauge interest in their different proposals. They employed mechanical turks to build cheap MVPs and avoided writing code for as long as possible. They coupled A/B tests, user studies, and short development cycles in an effort to constantly improve their product.

And yet, Aardvark’s final product was underwhelming. The dynamic between the service’s question askers and answerers didn’t quite work. User growth was decelerating, and doubts remained surrounding the potential for future monetization. Though the product was ultimately acquired for a hefty sum, Aardvark fell far short of the original ambitions of its founders.

All of this begs the question: Does the case of Aardvark represent an indictment of the lean startup methodology?

A panel of product managers at Harvard Business School’s “Launching Technology Ventures” course recently addressed this question. The general answer provided was that no, Aardvark does not represent a flaw of Lean, but rather demonstrates the need to supplement Lean with vision. Lean will never get you to a company like Instagram, one panelist suggested – that takes a brilliant and opinionated view about the future. Perfectly executed hypothesis tests in service of a lackluster vision will lead only to a leanly executed failure.

But wait a second. What is this thing called “vision”? How does hypothesis testing get me one of those? In reality, Lean is largely designed to mitigate the impact of founders’ subjective views of the future, replacing those opinions with MVP tests and hard data. But aren’t these subjective views exactly what we mean by “vision”?

Eric Ries, the academic patriarch of the Lean camp, does dedicate a chapter of his book “The Lean Startup” to vision. But he says essentially nothing about where that vision comes from, instead taking it as a given from the outset: “[T]he overarching vision rarely changes. Entrepreneurs are committed to seeing the startup through to that destination. Every setback is an opportunity for learning how to get where they want to go.”

In the end, the Aardvark case does point out a hole in lean startup methodology. As the HBS panel suggested, Lean is not an all-inclusive instruction manual on how to build a successful startup. Though it can be a useful tool for executing on a high level vision, Lean offers little in the way of guidance when it comes to developing that vision.

Where, then, does this vision come from? I think the answer lies is an unscientific jumble of intuition, creativity, experience, and a bit of zaniness – in short, the imagination. Lean in many ways underplays the importance of imagination, and yet the case of Aardvark reminds us that it is absolutely critical.


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