Getting to "yes" in a world of "no"…


…how would they make films?

First of all, they wouldn’t do anything so consciously planned as write a script – oh no, that would be far too deterministic and control freakish. Only an MBA trapped in the early 1970s would start with a plot treatment, let alone a shooting script, right?

No, the #1 thing Lean Startups would do is to “get out of the building” to meet lots of film-goers (customers), form tentative hypotheses (themes), and try them out – excuse me sir/madam, we’re planning a remake of George Méliès’ iconic (1902) “Le Voyage Dans La Lune“, does that sound great to you? No… well how about “Thelma & Louise 2“? Yes, we do know they both died at the end, but… oh, OK, then. Finally, what about “Cats Wearing Dresses Beat Dogs With Sticks“? It’s just a working title, but… sorry? You do like the sound of that? Oh, OK… thanks for your feedback!

Oh, and we’re thinking of casting Colin Firth? Keanu Reeves? Paris Hilton? Oh, you really like her, do you? That’s great. Thanks again!

So, having pivoted and iterated several more times for good measure, they’d then take their well-researched title to film production companies, who would say – OK, but how are you going to write the script? You can’t get filmgoers to write it for you, that would be just plain idiotic. Aha, they’d reply, but we’re Lean and customer responsive, and our customers are always right, so we are indeed going to ask them to write all the best lines which we’ll then stitch together, iterating in the edit suite until it works. Having A/B tested our home page three hundred and fifty eight times, we’re now certain that this will end up with the biggest viral coefficient since Jaws. Everyone’s going to talk about it, it can’t fail!

There’s a pause, as a sudden cold draught ripples across the room (even though it’s in Malibu): the film production guys look warily at the Lean Startup film schmucks and say – even though you’re even bigger schlemiels than we first thought, maybe-just-maybe you’re on the money here. And that’s not because of but in spite of this so-called ‘Lean’ bass-ackwards way you’re going about this. So, just this once, we’ll put the money in, see if you can make a big success of “Cats Wearing Dresses Beat Dogs With Sticks” starring Paris Hilton as a psychopathic catwoman leather fetishist going on a bullet-time Hong Kong martial arts quest to revenge the death of her pet mouse Iggy…

* * * * * * *

…of course, you probably already know that the above isn’t entirely fictional . The 2006 film “Snakes on a Plane“, despite having languished in production limbo for over a decade, got built up into an Internet sensation with many lines of (often foul-mouthed) dialogue suggested by enthusiastic pre-release fans actually added to the film. Samuel Jackson’s most famously quotable line was subsequently ‘dubbed-down’ for US TV into the hilariously Puritan “Enough is enough! I have had it with these <monkey fighting> snakes on this <Monday to Friday> plane!

But none of this is actually a tribute to Customer Development, Lean Startups, or indeed Lean in any way. It was all basically an Internet marketing stunt by New Line Cinema, to see if they could get film-goers to ‘pre-cult-ify’ what was no more than a B-movie – they had already wrapped the shooting, but then came back to add five more days of the (largely potty-mouthed) dialogue suggested online.

However, despite all that hype and fuss, the film still “only” grossed $62m worldwide, which for New Line made it a bit of a disappointment. In fact, it turns out that the key demographic who really, really wanted to watch the film was young teenage boys, who found themselves unable to get into the now-“R”-certificate movie (restricted because of all the, ummm, boisterous language added). So the whole exercise may have actually served to lose New Line Cinema money overall.

To be honest, the Non-Lean lessons I learned from this whole story are very much like the ones I learned from my own startup. Pre-adopters may be vocal and loud, but they’ll happily encourage you to overfocus your efforts on their particular corner of the world, rather than on your real customers. If you take Lean too literally, don’t be surprised if your startups end up as a Web 2.0 version of “Cats Wearing Dresses Beat Dogs With Sticks“.

Like searching for a ring swallowed by an elephant, you’re likely to hit a glint of gold eventually, but don’t be so sure that every bit of feedback that passes your way is of immense value… 😉

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