Tag Archives: Lean Startups

A Year in the Life of an Entrepreneur

Most entrepreneurial retrospectives are written at the point of success. Once you’ve made your millions it’s easy to be introspective and say where you went wrong. I haven’t got to that point yet, but I will. I’m one year into what I hope I’ll spend the rest of my life doing. If you’re about to jump off the same cliff then maybe you’ll find some of this useful?

Don’t Give Yourself A Year

My wife and I agreed to a one year runway in which to find a repeatable business model. This is far, far too long. In hindsight, we should have said three months or even just one. Given a whole year to do something, you’ll spend most of it doing the wrong things. The fear of failure is a very powerful driver. That’s why people study harder the nearer they get to an exam. Without that imminent risk of having to pack your bags and go home, you won’t push yourself enough.

Don’t Go It Alone

Ideally, this would be a co-founder – someone equally invested and equally in fear of the game ending. But there are plenty of other alternatives if one can’t be found. I have two sets of people that I rely on. Firstly, a number of superb, brutally honest advisers and, secondly, my wife. You need people, who you respect, who can beat you up on a regular basis and really challenge you about what you’ve done today / this week / this month. The reason you need these extra people is covered next …

Recognise Your Abilities

Your technical, sales, business or marketing abilities are as nothing compared to your ability to lie to yourself. Left to your own devices you will convince yourself that:

  • users need that feature
  • it’s not ready to ship yet
  • it’s OK to code all day
  • you need to build a platform for X

You cannot see the lies you tell yourself. Let someone you trust help you recognise that.

Assumptions Will Kill You

The reason Lean Startup is so essential is that it requires you to confirm your assumptions. Not with yourself or someone on your team, but with your customer – someone who might actually pay money for your product or service. Here’s one of my biggest assumptions:

Early on I had a prototype application that, essentially, worked. Trouble was, it was slow and wouldn’t scale to more than a few users. I assumed that nobody would pay for that version because it wasn’t quick enough. What an idiot. I never tested whether people would be happy for the product to email them when complete or even if it ran overnight. Bottom line: I could have had revenue from as early as February.

The Wrong Location Can Be Hard

We don’t all live in The Valley or within walking distance of Silicon Roundabout. In today’s global economy it’s always been possible to work remotely and run a successful business. The problem with start-ups is that you need a network around you. Companies are formed, founders introduced, investors intrigued and future users ignited by face-to-face meetings. I live just outside Cambridge which holds an admirable number of events. However, London is where it’s at and it costs me £50 every time I ‘pop’ in. This is not impossible, but it soon ads up. So, if you can, consider making your geography easier.

Know Who Your Customers Are

I have spent a lot of time talking with the wrong people over the past year. This is in no way disrespectful to them, it’s just that they weren’t my customer. For far too long I concentrated on the technology of my product and spoke with those who understood it. This was wrong. Figure out who your customers are as early as possible and spend a disproportionate amount of time engaging them.

Work Hard

I hope this goes without saying? However, it took me a long time to re-jig my working hours for maximum effect. For months I struggled to work evenings before I made a change. We have two young boys and, after stories and bedtime talks, I was falling asleep myself. Now I start work at 5am every day. It means my evenings are shorter and I watch significantly less TV but, hey, make the choice. You can, genuinely, work 14+ hours a day for prolonged periods.

Give Something Back

I was surprised how early it’s possible to give something back to the startup community. Part of being an entrepreneur is learning to learn fast. Within weeks I had some knowledge that some of my peers didn’t. Because we’re all trying to do something unique we all have experiences we can share – almost immediately. I mentored at Startup Weekend Cambridge in March, less than three months into my free-fall, and it was a hugely rewarding weekend. BTW: you’ll find that you can critique someone else’s ideas much more honestly than you can your own!

Attend Lean Startup Machine

Seriously. Go. Now.

I went to the London boot camp in September and the results were astonishing. Being forced to step far outside your comfort zone for 2 days was the best money I’ve spent all year. After the event I came away with a defined, validated customer segment and problem. The next London event is on February 3rd 2012 – you won’t spend better money.

Finally, I look forward to meeting more of you in 2012. I love being part of this pay it forward community and I believe that what we’re all attempting to do can have profound effects on, well, everything.

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Posted by on December 21, 2011 in Startups


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How to Ask for Feedback

Yesterday, the summation of 48 hours of very hard work was a pitch competition at Lean Startup Machine, London. I talked about what my team members and I had learnt about TweetPivot and Lean Startup methodology. Unfortunately, we didn’t win; but we did learn an incredible amount. To continue learning I asked for some feedback from the judges. Here’re my recommendations for how to do this:

1. Don’t ask what they thought

If you ask someone this question you put them in a difficult position. The feedback they give depends on how well they know you, your mood, their mood and whether they think you’re just looking for a boost. 9 times out of 10 they’ll say what they think you want to hear.

2. Don’t ask if they have any negative feedback

This is better than #1 but you still present the person with the same dilemma. They are very likely to answer ‘No, it was wonderful’. You’ve learnt nothing.

3. Ask them, specifically, for negative feedback

Perfect. You’ve explicitly given them permission to give you negative feedback. You can’t control how damning they’re going to present this, however, but you’ve removed the risk from them. If they say ‘nothing’, challenge them.

Positive feedback’s great, but you’ll learn much more from honest, negative feedback.


Posted by on September 19, 2011 in Lean Startups


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The Biggest Challenge Faced by Technical Founders

When someone technical decides to step off the cliff and become a founder of a startup there are always going to be challenges. Most programmers and developers believe that these will come from areas outside of their comfort zone – sales, marketing, taxes, fund-raising, design and even just networking! This is why the standard co-founders model partners someone technical with someone more ‘businessy’. The reality, however, is very different.

For me the biggest challenge I face as a technical founder is programming. To be more specific: stopping programming. For years I have measured my progress by ticking off features delivered, bugs fixed or user stories completed. It’s a well understood system and it’s easy to track, but that’s not what I should be doing. My job as a founder is to find a repeatable business model that will make money, and the only route to achieving this is via validated learning.

Here’s an example:

Earlier this week I was building some new server functionality for @photoPivot. I found myself working through the options of how and where to host a service and what type of communications medium was going to be the absolute best for this. Eventually I realised “Who cares? It doesn’t matter!”. All I needed to do was test my idea in the quickest way possible. Just stick it in a console app and off we go (sneakernet style!).

Now, this doesn’t mean that you should write bad, unmanageable code. You can still test your ideas in a way that isn’t going to back you into a nasty corner in the future. Just be a little pragmatic. Do enough to get it working, then step away. I know how difficult it is to know that you could make something better – it’s very hard to resist being the perfect craftsman. Once you’ve proven your idea then you can make it elegant; but why waste your time polishing something that you don’t know people want?

For technical founders, programming is chicken soup. On difficult days we find comfort there and, by the evening, we’ve convinced ourselves that, yes, we made good progress today. Don’t be fooled by these false metrics. Test your ideas quickly and build your company.

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Posted by on January 14, 2011 in Lean Startups


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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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Posted by on October 16, 2010 in Lean Startups


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If Klingons Wrote Software

I like Star Trek. Not in a uniform-wearing, funny handshake, cross-to-the-other-side-of-the-street-to-avoid-me kind of way; but I like it and I do seem to be able to remember a lot of details from it. For instance: when Klingons go into battle they assume that they are already dead. If they survive it’s a bonus and if they do actually die then, well, it was expected so no surprise. This is the way we should be developing software and it has a name – “Lean Startup”.

I’ve written a lot of applications targeting all manner of media and platforms – but they all had the same sentiment: “If we only get this right, everyone will buy it”. I now think this is wrong. What we should be thinking is “This is a pile of crap and no-one’s gonna buy it”.

“What?! You mean we should actual aim to fail?”


What I mean is this: if you assume that your software is probably worthless then this changes the way you write it. Your job now becomes “I’m probably gonna fail, so how do I fail quickly?”. Eric Ries talks about failing products not equating to failing companies.

So, your business plan becomes “I have a lot of ideas for products. One of them might succeed. How do I quickly discover which one that is without wasting time and money on those that no one is interested in?”

What does this mean in practice? Here’s a small sample list:

  1. Minimum Viable Product. Get it out there! It’ll be crap, but do it and do it quickly.
  2. Measure everything. How do you know which parts of your application people are interested in if you don’t capture that information?
  3. Smoke Tests. See how many people click on the fake ‘Buy It Now’ button. That tells you more than any theoretical pricing model or traditional market research.
  4. Pivot. You might have the basis of a great idea. Don’t be fixated on what you think it should do – listen to your users.

The Lean Startup movement has radically changed how I develop software and it’s not just for startups. Any project, even in the enterprise, that has a level of uncertainty will fit this model.

For more information check out Eric Ries’ blog.

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Posted by on June 8, 2010 in Lean Startups


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