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Why Lean Startup is Flawed – Tallwave

Over the past several years, The Lean Startup has become the crying call of all entrepreneurs. Nearly everyone you talk to has read the book and can recite the concepts. While The Lean Startup introduces several great startup principles, it also has some flaws. Without understanding these limitations, entrepreneurs could end up building products that are only incremental improvements over existing products. At worst, they could end up building products that dont solve a real need and ultimately have no chance at success in the market.

Lets review the basic Lean Startup process:

Lean startup says:

The Lean Startup claims that if you build, test and then refine or pivot along the way, you will build your way to success. But there are inherent flaws with this thinking:

1. STARTING WITH WRONG ASSUMPTION

The first inherent flaw of Lean Startup is that it assumes you are starting with the correct assumptions. These assumptions can be tied to both the problem you are solving, as well as the best solution. But what if these assumptions are wrong?

Lean Startup assumes that if you start with five ideas (for example), one of these is correct and worth pursuing. This assumption presents a big risk in and of itself. You could be overlooking an even bigger problem to solve, or leaving out possible solutions that may be better than the one you are pursuing.

Lean Startup also emphasizes speed throughout the process. Speed to test your ideas, speed to move forward if you validate your assumptions, or speed to pivot if you ideas arent ringing true. While speed is crucial in startups, speed doesnt matter if you are testing the wrong ideas or focused on the wrong problem. No amount of speed will get you to the right answer.

Speed can be especially troublesome when you are starting out. Entrepreneurs may inadvertently eliminate potential paths and overlook a better solution, or overlook undiscovered needs, which have the potential to lead to even more innovative solutions.

How do we fix all this you ask? Keep reading. Well get there.

2. USERS DON’T KNOW THEIR OWN NEEDS

This may seem strange, but its true. Typically users dont understand their own needs, which means they cant tell you what to build to solve them. How is this possible? Often times users are too close to the problem to see it. They get to used to living with or around the problem that they no longer recognize the opportunity for a solution.

Theres a well known Henry Ford quote that demonstrates this idea perfectly: If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses.

Humans are really good at adapting to their surroundings and resetting their expectations. Heres an example- have you ever cracked your phone screen? At first it looks bad, and may not function properly. But with time you start to develop workarounds to accomplish tasks, despite the cracked screen, and after awhile the cracked screen feels normal. You dont realize that your behavior has changed or that youve developed workarounds to compensate for the broken screen. Its not until you fix the screen or get a new phone that you realize what a profound effect the cracked screen had on your actions or how ugly your previous screen looked.

This same adaptability and compensation applies to countless everyday situations we encounter. Often times we become so used to a problem and grow accustomed to some sort of workaround that we dont see the big picture, causing us to overlook the underlying need that isnt being solved. These situations are what entrepreneurs should be looking for. These situations are the true opportunities for innovation.

3. STARTING WITH THE SOLUTION

The Lean Startup principles encourage entrepreneurs to start with their best guess of a solution, and then test and validate or pivot from there. This method encourages entrepreneurs to start with the solution they envision, rather than starting by having empathy for their users and engaging in discovery. Known needs are known because other have tried to solve for them. This can inherently inhibit true innovation, as entrepreneurs focus on making incremental improvements to existing solutions to known problems.

THE UNTENABLE ECONOMICS OF LEAN

The Lean movement was built for technical founders. That individual or team that can pour their own time, in the form of equity, into the development of their MVP. But most start-up entrepreneurs are not developers. Most start-ups are launched by non-technical entrepreneurs, working with software and mobile development shops, to create their first iteration. For the non-technical founder, MVPs are economically deadly.

Consider that your typical MVP is anywhere from $50,000 to $250,000 through a third party or an inhouse dev team. Given youre sure to pivot at least once, youre looking at a big bet that your first idea is right. Add to the dev cost your initial go-to-market costs: website, PPC campaign, email marketing, etc, and youre cost of failure is massive. It’s so massive that most good ideas simply never become more than that. Ideas.

So for those non-technical founders, you need an entirely different approach to your business, which we get into below.

How do you avoid the flaws of Lean Startup?

The most important way to avoid the flaws of Lean Startup is to develop empathy for your user and identify user needs before you start developing solutions. Unfortunately, many entrepreneurs dont fully understand or appreciate this process. Here are some tips to get you started:

  • Start with the user, not your ideas. Don’t jump right into sharing and testing your own idea. Instead, seek to listen to your users and understand their goals, ambitions, frustrations, and challenges. The goal isn’t to test and validate your own ideas, but rather to understand their needs and pain points.
  • Keep it casual, encourage stories. The best nuggets usually come from casual conversation, when users feel comfortable sharing personal stories. But in order for this to happen you need to build rapport first. Sharing information about yourself is one easy to do this. They may be future customers, but they are still people. And people need to feel comfortable enough with you to share their stories of frustration.
  • Listen for emotion. If you spend enough time with your users and focus on understanding their pain points, you will begin to hear emotion. When you do, don’t be afraid to gently dig deeper. Often times the most revealing and insightful information comes from digging two or three layers deeper. For example, if someone tells you “I was embarrassed to do this”, ask why it was embarrassing for them. What were the circumstances that made it embarrassing?
  • Find contradictions. Often a sign of a need they don’t fully comprehend/recognize or behaving in ways they dont even realize.
  • Embrace prototyping. Prototyping is the secret weapon for teeing up a world-class MVP. It avoids the biggest issues with Lean, and provides a tangible way for you to see how users really react to your concept. And its the preferred way for non-technical founders to develop an idea before committing development dollars. Google Ventures has invested heavily in rapid prototyping for their portfolio companies, and we embrace it heavily for our own portfolio companies and clients. Even a non-technical founder can develop compelling prototypes with simple, cheap tools like Keynotopia and Invision.

Lean Startup is a great methodology, but its not perfect. And while you dont want to delay getting to market, spending some time upfront to understand your users and their needs can pay off in the long run. Think of it as slowing down briefly so you can go faster later. It can mean the difference between building a truly innovative product that users love, an incremental improvement of an existing solution, or worse, a product that is dead in the water before you have a chance to pivot.

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