Saturday, 16 October 2010

What are you scared of?

Finding yourself stood in front of Eric Ries can be somewhat daunting. You have the opportunity to ask a question to, arguably, the leading light in the field of Lean Startup. As soon as you start speaking, though, the guy stood behind you in the queue starts getting restless. So, you better make it a good one!

I was unable to attend the Business of Software in Boston last month so was excited to see that Eric was doing a whistle-stop talk last night at TechHub, London. After a, not too inconvenient, train and tube journey I found myself in a vibrant room packed with budding entrepreneurs. The 'formal' part of Eric's talk was mostly content that I'd already seen online, so no major surprises there. What always makes these events unique, though, is the interaction with the people that turn up. The Q and A hand-raising session was very busy but I did manage to talk with Eric afterwards. Here's what I asked him:

Imagine you're back at IMVU circa 2004, but this time you know what you know now. You've created a Minimum Viable Product for just one Instant Messaging network that's already getting good traction. Geoffrey Moore would have probably suggested that you capture your beachhead in that first IM. Would you agree with that or would your next move be to create an MVP for each IM?
As is often the case in this field there was no short, definitive answer! What follows is paraphrased.

Eric: "What are you scared of?"
Me: "Uh, nothing. I'm an entrepreneur creating a startup - by definition am I not fearless?"
Eric: "No. What's your biggest fear?"
Without any prepared answer for this one I said "Well, probably someone else copying us". Eric rocked back, head shaking "No." I got the impression that he hears this 'wrong answer' often.

The gist of Eric's response was that I needed to look at my assumptions. I'd assumed that because my product 'works' for one social network that it will automatically be greeted in the same manner on all the other networks. The way you reassess these assumptions is to do more measuring against hard targets e.g. I'm currently at 10, I think I can get to 20 by time t. If the increments are 10, 12, 14... you're probably gonna make it, but if they're 10, 11, 11.5... you might have a problem. Testing your worst fears early is key.

MBAs are seen as a hindrance in the startup world, but the remainder of Eric's lesson to me did seem to cross a chasm into this territory. The basics of the Lean Startup are pretty straight forward: iterate through 'the loop' as quickly as you can and learn what works. Simple. Once you get into the guts of it, by talking with Eric, it starts sounding a whole lot more complicated. If I wanted an MBA I would have studied for one. I like my vision of the startup as having less politics, less overheard and, by extension, less rigor; but, again, this is an assumption.

I am, however, extremely grateful for the way Eric makes you question all of your assumptions - sometimes to the point of your own existence!

So, what is my biggest fear? After some considerable thought I think it's that people won't like what I do. I fully agree with Eric's observation that the best way to utterly deject developers is to have them spend time and energy creating something only for it to never see the light of day. Lean helps us avoid wasting everyone's time and for that, alone, it is worth pursuing.

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