Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Learning against my will. Oh, and there was this Lean Startup Conference thing...

Sometimes this learning thing isn't all it is cracked up to be.

Take today's example. I found myself down at the Miller Business Innovation Center to watch their local webcast of the Lean Startup Conference happening this week in San Francisco. I was all set to settle in, have a couple epiphanies, and then I'd be able to knock off for the day with a new "I learned something" badge earned.


I put at least some of the blame on Alistair and the Salt Lake Agile Roundtable gang. It was from them that I picked up the habit of a) always be ready to articulate at least one learning moment from any learning event, and b) actually write down your learning moments so they are reinforced at the moment they are strongest.

I knew I was in trouble about 5 minutes after the first session started. It was Kathryn Minshew - "Getting Users Out of Nowhere". Normally I'd coast through topics like this with my mental cruise control on. Not because they were not interesting or relevant. They are. But that's not an area I've often been at a loss for ideas, so I hadn't pursued learning more.

Well, you know the universe loves moments like this. Or at least the universe that I inhabit certainly does. Since I'm a fan of Norse mythology I can picture with amazing clarity Odin sharpening up Gungnir while Thor is off to the side giving Mjolnir a last bit of polish while glaring in my general direction.

Ok. Maybe it wasn't Gotterdamerung. But what did happen was that a part of my brain that doesn't like the mental cruise control slammed on the brakes and said "Hang on! Did you hear that?!?"

In this particular case it was Kathryn's discussion of how to become your own PR machine. Upon hearing that I dutifully recorded the "aha" moment (yes, it's below if you really want to know). With that aha safely recorded I patted myself on the back and prepared to settle back into cruise control.

Never got there. That same part of my brain that slammed me out of cruise control said "What if she said something else interesting before this?". Muttering vague obscenities under my breath I called up my mental playback department to find out if there had been anything else interesting that I had missed the first time through.

And of course there was. The other tidbit was about making it insanely easy for others to engage in word of mouth advertising for you.

After admitting to myself that I had let a learning moment actually slip by there was no chance that I'd be able to descend back into mental cruise control. I was saddled up for the full ride.

And what a ride it was. I recall actually being irritated by the end of the webcast at the audacity of the conference organizers to schedule that many impactful sessions in a row. What ever happened to tossing a few stiffs in there so you could have time to wander over to the mental dressing room to see how well the new ideas fit?

I'm glad to say my irritation was short-lived. Yes, the learning experience had a lot to do with my mood alteration. So did this parting shot from my mental brake-slammer:

 "Gee, you're not getting OLD, are you? Only OLD people stop learning"

In case you thought you were going to get out of this blog entry without having to hear me blather on about the actual things I learned (or re-learned), think again.

I will give you this warning. Context counts in learning moments. If you don't have a shared context for the new idea it will not have the same impact. I'll do my best to convey context but I can promise you that whatever I have to say will be no substitute for you to have your own learning experience from these presentations. Hopefully they will be posted publicly at some point so you can if you missed the conference.

What I learned (or re-learned) today from the Lean Startup Conference:

Kathryn Minshew (The Muse) - Acquiring Your First Users Out of Thin Air

  • "Ask for word of mouth from your customers and make it insanely easy to do". It was the insanely easy part that got me thinking.
  • "Tell a good, clear, easy-to-report story". When you're working with bloggers / news outlets to get your message out stories are much more effective than data or marketing statements. Those stories should whenever possible relate to current events / trends
  • (Regarding her advice to offer to write posts / articles for blogs and news outlets) "Harvard Law Review rejected my offered stories for a year before they accepted one. Persistence matters.
Alexis Ringwald (LearnUp) - How to Build the Product When You're Not the User
  • Her team spent 5 months visiting people in unemployment lines learning what the people there needed.
  • Having a "Contact Us" button was not enough - they built a way to stay engaged with their users.
  • The whole team recently took a field trip to Mendota, CA (39% unemployment) to continue to learn about what was and was not working.
Daina Linton (Fashion Metric) - Work With Customers Before You Write Any Code
  • Initial idea (having a fashion expert available to advise when shopping) wasn't what people needed. By using open-ended questioning they learned what was needed for Men was a way to help them find clothes that actually fit.
  • By using a Concierge model (human in the loop) as opposed to building applications they were able to go from validating the new idea to confirming a return rate of 0% on shirts sold via their fitting model. 
  • Their initial product consisted of a web site that offered a better shirt fitting experience. Only call to action was to ask for permission to have a 10 minute phone conversation about what they needed.
Christie George (New Media Ventures) - Funding for Lean Impact
  • Applying the principles of "Fail Fast" and "Fail Forward" to social challenges means that real people are failed. Make sure the failure stays where it has positive value.
  • Social change takes a long time (interracial marriage as an example). Social startups can accelerate those feedback loops only so much.
  • Social funders (charitable organizations) are very risk adverse. Need to find a way to incentivize risk.
  • Create a culture where the truth is incentivized (example given was Unreasonable Institute's practice of reporting their investment decision failures).
Ari Gesher (Palantir) - Preparing for Catastrophic Success
  • The hard things to deal with are getting real estate and leadership. Both require at least a 6 month horizon. Only the leadership part is interesting (his words in the presentation).
  • Want internal leaders? Pick your leaders, then give them a few people to lead immediately. Support them with a forum that they can discuss their challenges and problems. Then let them lead.
  • In the midst of growth is no time to build command and control leadership. Leaders need to be communication nodes, facilitating communication for their teams, coordinating with other teams.
  • Culture is an emergent property of the people you hire. Thinking "Will this person fit the culture" is not as important as thinking "How will this person enhance the culture"
  • Indoctrinate culture from the day people start. Don't leave it up to chance.
  • Final thoughts - "If it hurts, you're doing it right"
Steve Blank (Stanford / Berkley / Columbia) - Evidence-based Entrepreneurship
  • Steve scared me a bit. His presentation centered around the fact that there are now actionable metrics around startups, which on the surface seems a good thing. But there's no lack of cautionary tales of metrics gone wrong...
  • Startups are not smaller versions of companies. They are temporary organizations that exist to find a scalable business model. Only when they find that model can they become "companies"
  • His template for a startup is a Business Model Canvas + Customer Development Lab + Agile Engineering and Dev methodology
  • His Lean Startup class at Stanford is experiential - you will talk to at least 100 customers during the 10 week course.
  • NSF approached him to put together a class for the NSF. That grew into a metric framework to observe the progress of teams
  • Having that metric framework allowed Steve to come up with the "Investment Readiness Measurement" - a means of determining what pre-funding stage a startup was in. Modeled off of the NASA Technology Readiness Scale
Nikhil Arora & Alejandro Velez (Back To The Roots) - Using Kickstarter to Run an MVP
  • After starting with a "Grow your own mushroom" home kit they decided to bring an aquaponics idea to market - a system where fish waste was used to grow a small herb garden. Turned to Kickstarter to fund it. Had $248,000 in funding within 30 days.
  • They learned along the way the cost of rushing to market (faulty pump, unclear packaging). Their lesson learned that it was less expensive to deal with those things before rushing to market, not after.
Keya Dannenbaum (ElectNext) - Learning to Be and Organization that Pivots
  • One of the most common statements about entrepreneurship is "Follow Your Passion". It's wrong. She followed this up with data about the effect of emotional "passion" (it burns out) versus dedicated practice. Out of the two, practice is what matters, not passion.
  • Their first MVP took 18 months to develop, and it is no longer in use. Their second took 6, and their third took a few weeks. Only the third has proven a repeatable revenue model, and the only "Product" is Google docs and an email address database.
  • But those first two products are not failures. They were vital practice for their team to get better at what matters as a startup. Previously there was a lot of fear associated with pivots. Over time the pivots became something embraced - it meant progress towards a goal.
John Shook (Lean Enterprise Institute) - Lean Startup--From Toyota City to Frement to You
  • John started off by following the lead of the MIT research team that spawned the Lean Institute. He wanted to work for a Japanese car manufacturer to learn their management methods. Only one would hire him - Toyota. At the time he was the only westerner working at a Japanese auto plant.
  • His statement about Lean to the whole group was powerful. "This (Lean) is a Learn By Doing process. You learn by doing it. With respect to everyone here, attending conferences and reading books will not get you there".
  • In 1 year the factory selected for the joint GM/Toyota venture went from last in quality to first (UAW rated)
Brad Smith (Intuit Software) - Lean Leadership Lessons
  • This was by far my favorite session. Of course I am defining "favorite" as "The one story I'd most like to find out if they are full of BS or really meant what they said".
  • Creating an innovation culture was a deliberate effort and takes buy-in across the whole company. The function of management is most importantly to "Find a way to get to Yes".
  • They host an annual incubation week - teams are allowed to work on anything they see fit, company has resources deployed to assist them (legal, etc).
  • Their projects are classified into three tiers - Horizon 1 (immediate revenue generators), Horizon 2 (Established business model with actual customers needing to be curated into a full offering), Horizon 3 (The idea/MVP area)
  • Their team cultures are different based on their tier of product. And they encourage that to be the case.
  • Most interesting to me was the acknowledgement that the Horizon 3 products require a more risk-tolerant environment to thrive, and Intuit delivers it to them.
  • Hugh Molosti is their primary idea guy over the years and has a 7 figure incentive package to keep him from going anywhere else. What other company is that proactive in keeping their best idea people?