5 Lessons Learned in a Lean Startup

In honor of both the Lean Startup Circle Meetup on Thursday and the Lean Startup Machine coming this weekend, I'd like to share a few lessons I've learned in the past year as I've served as Customer Development Manager at oneforty and been actively learning the Lean Startups methodology.  

 

5 Lessons Learned in a Lean Startup

1) Don't ask what people would pay for. They lie. 

Yes that's right. Even Honest Abe wouldn't have told you what he'd really pay for if you showed him a web app and asked what he'd pay for on top of what you showed.

Customers are terrible at explaining their problems and understanding the root issue. As the saying goes, the one certainty for a patient seeing a psychiatrist is that what the patient says is cause of their problems is never the actual problem.

Even I have lied. I was talking with Chris Keller about his awesome tool Followup.cc, which is an email reminder system, and I said, "I would pay to be able export all of my reminders to my Google calendar."  Chris wisely also looked at engagement and based much of his pricing system on number of reminders, but he also put the calendar export in his paid version.  I am now a paying customer of Followup.cc but have yet to actually use the Google calendar system.  

Did I intend to lie? Of course not. But it just goes to show the mindset you can get in and how far from the truth it can be. Don't ask people what they'd pay for.

2) Nothing beats getting a customer to actually pay for something.

There is no better validation for your business than getting a user to actually pay for something.  Despite the true value of your time, few people actually account for this. That means they are actually quite likely to be willing to use your free product, while having no intention of ever paying for it.

Paying also moves you beyond the realm of being a favor; friends, acquaintances or just nice guys, no one will pay for your product unless it really solves a pain or strongly interests them.

As an added bonus, once someone pays for something, they have expectations. That means that their feedback will be stronger, because they gave you their money and now expect that you will deliver on what they hoped they were buying. This feedback is priceless, as building something that satisfies them can be built into the repeatable process that goes into a sales funnel.

3) You have to learn the customer's language.

You may call your product anything you want but if it and the language you use to describe it doesn't resonate with your customer, you're unlikely to move forward.  You need to understand your customer's language and make your product speak that language.  

The best way to do this is to look at what words your customer uses to search for the problem you're solving and, of course, the customer development interview. Remember, your customers should be doing 70-80% of the talking in your interviews.

4) A customer's stating a problem is more valuable than a customer agreeing with a problem you present.

One of the key tenants of Lean Startups is that you're solving a customer's pain.  Often the question is if what you are building is a so called "Vitamin," which is nice to have, or you've created a "Pain Pill," which they definitely need.  

One indicator of which side of the Vitamin/Pain Pill coin your product is on is how the problem that your product solves is surfaced. If in the middle of your interview (before you pitch your solution) the customer talks specifically about the problem you're trying to solve, you have a much stronger indicator of pain than if you ask them if they are experiencing pain in the area you believe is a problem.  

Now, this does not mean that someone who doesn't come right out and say your problem isn't a potentially valuable customer. However, when you're looking for those early adopters (aka- earlyvangelists) you should be thinking about who most desperately needs your solution and that is likely people who have the problem you're trying to solve on top of mind.

5) Be precise in your Hypotheses.

So you think you have a product solution that is the greatest thing since sliced bread? Great. But who is it for and how does it solve a key pain for them?

One of the risks in creating your lean startup is that you forget to get specific on your hypothesis. Don't say "this is for doctors"; say "this is for pediatricians in suburban environments that have small, private practices."  

The reason you need to be specific is to avoid false indicators. If you don't make your hypothesis specific, than you are very likely to talk to a wide range of people. When talking to this wide range, you may not find the interest you would otherwise if you specifically went after a specific group.  You could end up talking to a bunch of chiropractors and surgeons and never realize that the reason there was no interest in your product wasn't that it's not a great idea solving a problem; no one was interested because you weren't talking to the right people.

 

 

There's a seemingly endless amount to learn about Lean Startups, so no matter what stage you're at just remember: Stick with it, Be patient and Don't be afraid to ask for help.  There's a great community on Twitter (look for hashtags #LeanStartups and #CustDev), many awesome blogs (Eric Ries, Ash Maruya, Dan Martell, David Cancel and many others) and of course great events (Lean Startups Circle) to help.

 

What tips do you have for lean startups?