Earlier this week, the Technology Strategy Board’s held its “Innovate11” conference at the Business Design Centre in Islington: but rather than traipse into town and lose a day’s work, I decided to stay working at my PC with the TSB’s live web stream burbling in the background. As you’d hope/expect, there were plenty of familiar faces on show:-
- The TSB’s Iain “Old Town” Gray as the cabaret host (or am I thinking of Joel Grey?)
- Amadeus’ Hermann Hauser and my old pal Alex van Someren
- Deyan Sudjic (director of London’s funky Design Museum)
- Will Hutton (who was plainly annoyed by the indifferent reception he received)
- Coalition business ministers David Willetts and Vince Cable.
Pretty much everyone on the stage stayed in character, with the notable exception of the wirily energetic Hermann Hauser, who I thought was on particularly fine form talking about the slightly surprising business logic behind Solexa’s success.
I must admit that while Alex van S was going through a fairly sweeping summary of contemporary VC pitching wisdom (e.g. Guy Kawasaki’s famous 10/20/30 maxim, i.e. 10 slides / 20 minutes / 30 point font minimum, la-la-la), I kind of zoned out for a while, musing about the whole challenge of investing in startups.
You see, the whole VC model is to invest in high growth companies early in their curve, so that you stand a chance of getting a few 10x “home runs” in your portfolio, to balance out the (sadly almost inevitable) duds that you’ll also pick up. In the overall business landscape, such high-performing startups are without any shadow of a doubt statistical outliers – so to my eyes, the VC challenge is surely to use nous and experience to search out exceptions to the rule, not companies who slavishly follow the rules. For all the adulatory press that has followed Steve Jobs’ recent death, for me the most telling stories have been the ones that point out how mainstream investment criteria would exclude him rather than reach him.
My point here is really that if VCs need to find exceptions to the rule, why do they now seem to invest so much time in building yet more rules for potential investees to follow? For example, Alex stressed that Amadeus never invests in one-man-bands, while other VCs love to talk about the shamelessly brutal “truck count” metric (= ‘the number of individuals in an organization that could be killed by a truck before that company becomes unable to function’) to emphasize the same point – that small is fragile. Yet I think a typical entrepreneur (a) has to do ten different jobs simultaneously just to get by (and I suspect that’s pretty much always been true), and (b) builds up a network of partners, suppliers, mentors, advisors and indeed customers all helping him/her to get the job done. OK, there’s only one of me, but my network is an army sans frontieres, so what’s the metric for that? Set the [number of employees] field to  in Amadeus’ pre-funding application form and you’ll no doubt get filtered out straight away: ‘computer says no‘ *cough*.
Perhaps the bigger issue is whether VCs spend too much effort filtering for excellence when they should be looking for brilliance – there’s a big difference between the two, as my old school housemaster Mr Tarrant used to say.
Anyway, going back to Innovate11, while listening in to the design panel’s protracted noodlings I was struck by how very similar the kind of design-led approach the participants described (customer-focused, iterative, uncertainty-based, etc) was to the whole Lean Startup thing. And the more I’ve thought about it since, the less I can see any obvious differences.
So here’s what I now think: that for Lean Startups, treating everything as if it were a design process is claimed to be the best way of doing business. Furthermore, below this top-level approach there lies an implicit set of (what I personally think are actually fairly corrosive) claims:
- that design-driven iteration is vastly superior to principle-driven architecture;
- that what other people (particularly customers) know is vastly more important than what you know;
- that it is more practical to fix what didn’t work than to predict what should have worked; and
- ultimately, that it is better to cope fast than to manage well.
For me, the biggest irony of all is that for all Lean’s claims of being a scientific “methodology”, it is built around an inherently anti-science design loop, predicated on what looks eerily like a postmodernist dismissal of Enlightenment knowledge. Why would a Lean Startup need any PhDs or even (*spit*) MBAs, if its development starting point is always going to be one of ignorance?
Pointing this out doesn’t make me a Lean “hater”, it just means that I think I can see Lean for what it really is. Which is to say that, contrary to what is normally claimed, Lean is not about saving money, avoiding process waste or even about learning-focused development, it’s simply the claim that strongly iterative design-based development is the best strategic choice best for all startups. Which isn’t really supportable, IMHO.
As such, I see Lean as arguably just an overreaction to the long-discredited “if you build it they will come” business strategy, which I think overbiased startup discourse in quite the opposite direction (i.e. towards PhDs and MBAs, and towards big science over iterative design). Personally, I try to follow a more blended approach, fusing big science and iterative design within the constraints of a shoestring budget – it may not be fashionable, but it works for me.