Getting to "yes" in a world of "no"…

The biggest shadow hanging over nearly every business book is the ghost of unwarrantable universalism. Which is a fancy way of saying that, whenever any business writer claims “Methodology X worked for me, so it will work for you [despite the fact that your situation is almost certainly completely different]“, you know that pretty much every bullshit warning bell in your head should go off.

To be precise, this is because every single business success story is a particular historical narrative (i.e. of what actually happened), not a general scientific template (i.e. of what might happen in a hypothetical business): and in fact, given the terrifically small number of startups that achieve success with a high-growth development curve (often with numerous strokes of luck generously helping them on their way), such rare businesses are almost all outliers in the business landscape. Yet the temptation to post-rationalize all that ‘outlieritudinosity’ and to promote the particular approach you took as being a universal entrepreneurial path to success is apparently overwhelming: for if bookshops were taxed on the number of glowingly-confident head-shots of cashed-out entrepreneurs they had on their shelves, they’d surely all fold within a day, mmm-hmm?

As far as Lean Startups go, Eric Ries is a smart, sharp guy, one who is amply self-aware and reflective enough to know all the above… but he still persists in making universal claims. Using one of his favourite Lean techniques (the “Five Whys”), we might therefore probingly ask a series of five ‘Why’ questions, aiming to get to the root of this issue rather than getting mired in the surface details.

Firstly, why is he so certain that his consulting recommendations for startups (which in turn were built largely on his personal experience at a single company, IMVU) are well founded enough to drive a global ‘movement’?

I suspect the answer is that Ries is mainly talking about Internet businesses with a framework you can use to carry out rapid customer experiments. Even though he used to talk the Lean Startup up as an extension of Steve Blank’s Customer Development, Ries’s book actually seems to have pivoted round to the quite different idea that the customer doesn’t know best, but performing lots of A/B experiments on them helps you learn from their aggregate behaviour what path to follow. So, Ries’s certainty seems to stem from his experience at IMVU using the process of engineering statistical experiments on microtransactions (even if the early-pipeline currency is ‘attention’ rather than ‘dollars’) to learn genuine data about its customers, and his belief that it was this process that led to its success.

But why (the second why of five) does he think his personal experience at IMVU just happened to give him a unique view of startup business truth? From his account, IMVU made plenty of mistakes early on and was manifestly not customer-led or even really customer-engaged: Ries’s eventual epiphany seems to have been the realization that his company was in a position to use tech to improve itself, not just its product. And so the answer to [why #2] would seem to be that Ries’ view of the Lean Startup was as something that uses tech to institutionalize a kind of ‘customer awareness therapy’, i.e. that numbers from experiments can help your company ‘Get Real’. Essentially, it’s a tech answer to a social awareness problem that enabled IMVU to drop its stealth-mode conceptual baggage and get on with the real business of engaging with people and satisfying their needs with avatars that don’t walk. 🙂

But why (3/5) does Ries think his particular tech solution is a universal solution to the social problem of customer development? I suspect the honest answer would be that this opinion came from his background as a CTO: the answer he developed relied on appropriating tech tools to develop knowledge of IMVU’s customers. He was apparently amazed to find that the tech tools he just happened to have in his hands already were able to help his company get what it wanted, and this amazement has somehow driven his quest to help other people use their own tech tools to get what their companies want. It’s the joy of techs: a kind of engineer empowerment exercise.

But why (4/5) does Ries think engineers should be empowered in this way? Again, given that he started as an engineer and that most of his effort over the last few years seems to have been involved outreaching to countless other engineers, it seems that his Lean Startup movement is actually just a collective business land-grab by software engineers. By trying to reduce social problems to technical problems, the idea is to turn everything into an engineering exercise, a conceptual business structure where you don’t need to know about product or marketing or PR or personal relationships, your customer experiments will (eventually) tell you all that, by way of pings on a learning metric chart. As a result, it’s resolutely anti-theoretical, and indeed anti-pretty-much-everything-that-isn’t-engineering: even his “anti-waste” angle is supported only by a few carefully selected narrative tales of the unexpected. Does he have any real data to back up his assertion that non-Lean-Startup businesses are wasteful? What he manifestly fails to mention is that Lean Startup development often takes a lot, lot longer: sure, you may waste less physical resources, but you can end up wasting a vast amount of time to do so. Time never really gets factored into the economics equation: it’s somehow assumed you have plenty of it. (Errr… no, you don’t].

But why (5/5) waste all this effort on driving what is essentially a business land-grab by engineers? The biggest universal claim implicit in Lean Startup is that startups only need engineers: and that reeks to me of a parochial engineering-centric mindset being extended far beyond its genuine validity. I suspect what Lean all comes down to is that Eric likes engineers, and wants them to prosper: but surely promoting his particular experience as a universal way of running startups is a bit of an extreme way of doing that?

Really, should you lean on him?


Comments on: "Applying “Five Whys” to The Lean Startup itself…" (5)

  1. The Lean Startup is a bandwagon movement, started by a very clever person. His first failures are very obvious business lessons which could have been taught rather than discovered the hard way. The latter half of the book invents methods for fixing the shortfalls.

    • Matthew: …or do they fix the shortfalls? Arguably what he’s trying to do is engineer round the need for having empathy with your customers… you know, the /them/ you’re supposed to do lots of experiments on. As such, it’s a very corporatist take on starting up, that kind of goes against a lot of human nature (assuming your address book includes plenty of people who aren’t engineers). It would take a lot more than an IMVU case study and a load of unfunded engineers going “Lean-Ra-Ra-Ra” to convince me that he’s hit the startup bullseye here. 😦

  2. Surely all practical knowledge is anecdotal and, therefore, an unwarranted step from the particular to the universal. All advice in this “genre” (Tom Peters, Charles Handy, Seth Godin etc. etc. etc. ) comes with an implicit health warning. And anyone with any experience of the world will apply salt as a matter of course.

    Should we hold that against Ries in particular?

    So his models come from the software industry. OK. But someone else’s advice will come from banking, or food retail or oil or the military. Each with some parallels to your business but each with its own idiosyncrasies as well.

    One thing you can say in favour of Ries’s bias is that more and more things are getting automated and so more and more of our world “is made of software”. Software processes are replacing other kinds of process that were embodied in administrative or managerial practices or hardwired into physical machines. In this world, improvements in software are often more effective than improvements in other areas.

    You’re a coder yourself. You probably know your Mythical Man Month etc. You know perfectly well that software doesn’t benefit from heavy bureaucratic management. But that exciting and effective software usually does come from small, enthusiastic, “agile” teams.

    So, if software is becoming an increasingly important factor in business. And software thrives under agile conditions, it would follow that business in general will probably benefit from agile.

    Disclosure : I’m a software guy myself, so I’m totally down with the land-grab programme.


    • Phil: if you can turn your company into a pure B2C software company based on (literally) millions of online microtransactions, I do think there’s a lot to be said for his whole Lean Startup methodology: but he explicitly goes way beyond that, which isn’t really supportable. Somewhere along the line, the health warning seems to have fallen off the box. 😦

  3. […] As far as Lean Startups go, Eric Ries is a smart, sharp guy, one who is amply self-aware and reflective enough to know all the above… but he still persists in making universal claims. Using one of his favourite Lean techniques (the “Five Whys”), we might therefore probingly ask a series of five ‘Why’ questions, aiming to get to the root of this issue rather than getting mired in the surface details. Applying “Five Whys” to The Lean Startup itself… « Funding Startups (& other impossibilit… […]

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