After lots of friends and colleagues pushed it as a must-read, I finally read a (now very) dog-eared copy of Eric Ries’ The Lean Startup. In it, Ries suggests that startups need a different, more agile mechanism to create something from nothing – a suggestion that is poignant, so very true, and often missed in the frenzy of business plans, networking, and idea-swapping that forms the stuff of entrepreneurial cultures.
Given what we do with aspiring entrepreneurs here, I could not help but see how Ries’ philosophy parallels (or perhaps, forms the subtext of) the human dynamic for entrepreneurs. So much of what entrepreneurs battle against does not come from the marketplace, but from themselves: their egos, insecurities, fears, and hopes.
To the point, here are some of Eric’s manifestos and and how they translate to our particular emotional contexts:
1. Validated Learning
For companies, this notion manifests in how we expect to test something in the marketplace, get feedback, and derive its value to make it better. This is so critical for individuals as well.
But in order to learn, we need to immerse ourselves in the industry or the sector we aspire to be in. This often results in our working with folks who assume that the idea has to be fully baked, or a paid job, before we can start doing the “thing”.
Case in point: A woman we were working with complained about her job and stated a desire to work with children. Consequently, we advised her to go work with children today. Not once she had a teaching certificate; not once she had a job; today.
So, go volunteer. Call your neighbor with kids. Start doing the thing. Validate your learning without expecting it to be a clean home run (or a paid job) before you can start.
2. Actionable Metrics vs. Vanity Metrics
When we start something, put our name on it, and broadcast it on Facebook, we are entering a point of no return for our reputations. If companies run the risk of anchoring on vanity metrics, then for individuals, the risk is 10x that – for their very lives and reputations will face the possibility of embarrassment. “You did what?? I thought you were a lawyer… when did you start an online tutoring business…”
These transitions can seem so overwhelming and scary for people, to the point that the consequences of failure seem too emotionally dangerous to risk failure at all. In that vulnerability, we are likely to claim success where there is none, limit our downside by never really going for the big win, or – worst of all – never even get started.
It takes a strong support structure for you to first launch your ambitions and then to honestly judge your progress against actionable metrics, thereby identifying success or failure honestly and proudly. But that is what successful entrepreneurs must do.
3. Kanban (hypothesis testing)
Perfection is the enemy of progress, both for startups as well as for yourself.
In a manufacturing context, Kanban is a capacity management system that focuses on optimizing the right end product. For startups, it’s about setting up a system to manage the input of ideas with an intentionality about what you are working with, how you are testing the idea, and what you are choosing to jettison or move forward with based on action metrics.
For individuals, Kanban is all the more important, yet also all the harder. We all need a system to honestly evaluate and track the various ideas in our head; we also need to have the fortitude to know when to move an idea forward (based on validation) and when to scrap it.
Most people looking for a career change have 4 alternative ideas as to what they would rather do. These often range from opening a restaurant, to traveling, to starting a tech company. So, what’s your Kanban, or your personal system, to validate and test these various ideas? How will you know if you are making progress towards one goal? Your capacity has limits too – and the pursuit of too many good ideas is ultimately the pursuit of none.
4. Viral Engine of Growth
The virtuous cycle for companies occurs when they make something that, apart from the investor reaction, elevator pitches, and marketing hype, actually – no kidding – works really well! Word of mouth is the primary growth engine for companies, and people will promote products and businesses when they feel that those companies are really good at what they do.
Yet its simplicity is often missed. Companies often try to reverse engineer what the market needs into what they should be doing – and that is the wrong starting point. Just because there is a need for a Chipotle on the corner does not mean I should be the guy to open it. For individuals, the viral engine of growth comes when we hit our sweet spot by aligning our authentic selves with what we are good at, and putting that out into the world. People will recognize it as excellence and spread the word.
As such, the work for you is not about looking externally for ideas, but looking internally for inspiration.
5. The Five Why’s Process
In his book, Ries described the 5 Why’s process of an opportunity to discover what is really going on in companies. For example, let’s say the projected growth trends for April were not what we expected. The conversation might start along these lines: “Why didn’t we make the numbers?” Because customer retention dropped… “Why did customer retention drop?” Because we changed the renewal process… “Why did we change the renewal process?” Because the sales director told us to… “Why did he make that decision without other input?”… and so forth.
With individuals, this is powerful and necessary work, even though it may at times appear to be “off topic” from the regular conversation about being an entrepreneur.
I had a conversation with a client last week along these lines. The premise: He was in “professional agony” and wanted to start a leasing business, but said he couldn’t yet. “Why can’t you start now?” Because I don’t have the right degrees… “Why do you think you have to have certain degrees?” Because that’s what leaders in the field have… “Who are the leaders in the field?” It’s this guy, this guy, and this girl. “Do they have those degrees?” I’m not sure… “Why else aren’t you starting?” I’m waiting to hear back from an angel investor… “Why do you have to wait to hear back?” Because they will give me funding… “How will you use the funding?” To acquire customers… “Can you start talking to customers now? I guess I could… “Why are you holding back on that?” I don’t want to be embarrassed if it’s not baked… “Do you think your idea is not a good one?”… and so the cycle goes.
Next time you look at your progress, or lack thereof, and think that it is because of someone or something else, try going through the 5 Why’s with a friend. Brace yourself; you’re going to learn some profound insights through that process.
To all my fellow fans of the Lean Startup methodology, I suggest you take a page out of Eric Ries’ playbook and look inwards to find what might be impeding your progress. While we enjoy thinking about the work of businesses, the work for entrepreneurs really begins with us. Community, accountability, and a good plan that starts not with the business but with you – these are your best assets.