I just finished reading Ash Maurya’s Running Lean. Its one of those rare books that has lots of great content packed in only about 200 pages. The book is an easy read and flows like a magazine article or a nicely written blog post. Its a must read for anyone trying to start a business or anyone trying to go work for a startup.
Eric Ries codified the lean startup principles in a book titled: The Lean Startup. Ash Maurya, in Running Lean, takes the next step to translate philosophy to a more tangible set of actionable guidelines.
Practice Oriented Self-Help Guidelines
Running Lean is a self-help book for entrepreneurs. Like most self-help books, it provides a few pointers and guidelines to what must be done to move toward success. In this regard, the book is no different in intent than a self help book about losing weight, making friends, being happy, or becoming rich. Unlike a plethora of self-help concept books though, Ash Maurya focuses on practice and advice that can be applied. He presents a step-by-step process and a formula to enhance your chances. By the time you finish reading this book you have a list of action items to be applied to your own startup.
Many self-help books have the essence in the first 40 pages and the rest of the 200 odd pages that follow are simply continued explanations of this basic idea. Running Lean starts with thought provoking advise on the very first page and continues to remain fresh till the last one.
Know Your Customers & Their Problems
A large number of products are built with a solution in mind. In geek led startups, many of these solutions are purely motivated to satisfy a techie’s itch. I am one such person perhaps! I have been building a lot of things for years because it simply presents a great technology solution. A prime example is a time tracking software I wrote a couple of years back. It is clean and sophisticated in terms of code but I wasn’t able to make a business out of it. On hindsight, I did not invest in learning enough about the customer needs and was a bit confused about its monetization possibilities by the time I was ready to go to market with it. I wanted to sell it to everyday but didn’t sell to anybody and abandoned it prematurely.
I would surely use the lean startup methodology and speak to my potential early adopters first if I had to rebuilt that product today. I would meet these prospects in person and ask them questions with the objective of understanding their requirements.
Knowing your customers and their problems is the most important part in being successful. Steve Blank calls this customer development. His book Four Steps to the Epiphany is another must read for entrepreneurs. Running Lean is a detailed guide to how to reach out to customers and what questions to ask at each phase of your startup lifecycle. Ash Maurya recommends
(a) Problem Interview (to understand the problem and the customer’s needs),
(b) Solution Interview (to validate that your proposed solution solves the customer’s problem), and
(c) MVP Interview (to make sure your minimum viable product addresses the customer’s problem and the customer is willing to pay for it)
as three important times to connect with customers. He generously provides detailed examples from his own startup experience with CloudFire, making the recommendations way more than mere philosophical musings. I wrote a problem interview meeting request email today to one of my prospects, using a format I saw in the book.
‘Maker’ vs ‘Manager’
A techie founder of a startup can be torn between his simultaneous attempts in developing his software (maker role) and meeting his customers (manager role). Running Lean provides some guidance and proposes maintaining a balance between the two roles of a ‘maker’ and a ‘manager’. You must read Paul Graham’s Maker’s Schedule, Manager’s Schedule for a valuable viewpoint on conflicts between these roles.
I can completely empathize with Ash Maurya’s schedule of coding during early mornings (when most others are asleep) and talking to customers in the afternoon. However, I am unable to define my own priorities as clearly as I believe he presented it. My current startup is a small setup comprising of my co-founder with management experience, 5 developers, 1 designer and I. I am deeply involved in software release, bug fixes, feature planning, continuous deployment, product definition, and project management. I also spend time talking to potential customers, potential investors, potential hires, and partners. The long list doesn’t end there. I also spend time on miscellaneous other things like accounting, legal compliance, branding, and keeping my team motivated. Outsourcing many of these tasks would be great but is expensive for a bootstrapped startup. Despite reducing waste and staying focused on an MVP, a founder probably needs over 30 hours in a day! Running a startup is a grueling experience and I don’t believe there is an easy way to maintain balance among the multiple roles a founder needs to play.
Don’t be a Feature Pusher
This segues to the most important part of the lean startup methodology. Build a minimum viable product, better known as an MVP. Its very easy to get sucked into a features arms race with yourself. Lean MVP means build less but a good geek or an awesome visionary is often about doing more in less time. You see the disconnect! In my opinion, founders who are not expert makers or super efficient managers ironically do well in this regard. They quickly reconcile with building an MVP because it seems more palpable to them. The uber geeks and the smart managers struggle. Their MVP is often not minimal enough. Silicon Valley especially loves uber geeks and if you are one of those, then there is a decent possibility you may get funded without even a proper plan in your hand. This often can be a curse cause you start building a rather bloated SVP (Supposedly Valuable Product).
The book talks in detail about user life cycle management, from acquisition to referral. This is a topic close to Ash Maurya’s heart and relates to his latest startup, UserCycle, which is trying to address the problems in this space.
Actionable metrics should be at the heart of every business. Vanity metrics are useless. Retention and repeat usage matters.
All startups in their early stages should care a lot about their early adopters. Most startups are founded with a grand dream of addressing a global problem and reaching out to a diverse set of consumers. In reality though, you should feel very happy if you even get some traction in your neighborhood. The emphasis on building relationship with early adopters is highlighted in this book. Its a very valuable piece of advice.
Don’t Agree with Everything
Running Lean is a very inspiring book and I love Ash Maurya’s style of writing, full of honesty and personal examples. However, I must say that I couldn’t agree with every single part of the book. Lean Startup addresses a lot of issues but it does not consider issues related to
(a) distributed startup teams (they are increasingly getting common now),
(b) skewed skill sets (many startups are founded by geeks only who understand little beyond code!),
(c) acquired tastes (despite over 100 million iPads in the market, a majority of the users are still pretty unclear on why they need it and what problem does it solve),
(d) regulatory influences (VOIP over the years), and
(e) new markets (consumption of local and healthier food).
Its much harder to define the problem/solution fit in these cases.
My Own Failings & What Next?
I spent most of the last year building a really great product, called doaround. It will be launched to the general public soon. We did some things really well and struggled on many counts as well. We did seek consumer feedback from the very beginning but could have been more scientific about it. We built a full featured VP and not an MVP. It took much longer and costed us a lot more.
What Next? The next time I am building a product for What Next Labs (Yes! thats the name of our company) I am running lean.