This weekend I was able to attend the demo day for The Lean Startup Machine taking place in NYC. Which reminded me of the first LSM event I attended. The Lean Startup methodology has taken over the startup world for good reason. Since the release of The Lean Startup book by Eric Ries, it has become much easier to learn and apply the process. The books main goal is to to put you in a mindset of asking the right questions, then building a business around it in a cost effective way so you do not spend months or years building a product no one wants. Its a great way to validate or invalidate your assumptions in a quick way with data. Reading a book is great but applying the lessons is even greater and that’s where the Lean Startup Machine comes into play.
You Never Forget Your First
I first attended the LSM a few months ago as a participant. It was my first time attending this type of event but it would not be my last. The minute I walked in, I was nervous as hell. There were over 100 students and for the first time I didn’t know anyone there. That was the beauty of it, I don’t think I was the only person that felt the same way. I didn’t know anyone there but every one was there on the same mission. They wanted to learn and apply the lean startup methodology. All that reading I had done prior to the event was great but now the real test began. After an ice breaker and presentations on what to expect we quickly dove into pitching ideas.
I promised myself that this time I would join a team to work on my team communication skills and meeting strangers. So I didn’t pitch which in hindsight was a bad idea. I should have pitched an idea to work on my pitching skills and over come the punk in me. There were some great ideas, and of course some horrible ones. We were able to vote for the best ideas and eventually were able to join the teams that best resonated with us. Considering I love the edtech scene I jumped on a team whose main purpose was to help parents with baby sittings. It didn’t perfectly align with what I wanted to work on but it would give me the background needed for my own personal project.
One Heck of a Weekend (Canvas Style)
The whole weekend we worked on a canvas that the LSM had created. I loved it so much that I made my own at home, I cant wait until they release their canvas to the masses. The canvas helped us lay the initial foundation for our weekend business. Here we would list our problem hypothesis with a proposed solution. Next we would list all of our assumptions that would shape our business. We spent the weekend invalidating or validating those assumptions with the proper customer development. We went outside of the building, which is a big part of the experience, and spoke with potential customers.
The best way to create a business has to be by asking your potential customers the right questions. This is truly a daunting task for someone new to the game. You ask yourself a 100 times, what questions should I ask? This is NYC will someone just curse me out or will they think I am a nut? There were many negative assumptions running through my head as we began our walk to a park in Union Square. I looked over at my team, who seemed to have no fear at all! I had to suck it up and just work!
We immediately noticed a children’s playground and looked at each other with the who’s going to take on this playground look! Shit got real very quickly, I noticed a little hesitance so I volunteered to do it. Heck I had a 5 year old son, was married and didn’t look like the big bad wolf, I was perfect for the job. Or so I thought! I quickly learned that entering a playground with no child was a big no no. I wish the picture above would have been posted at the park’s entrance. Parents looked at me with a weird face, with their eyes they were telling me to get the hell out of there. That was the first lesson of the day for me. I knew my target market but didn’t consider some of their worries. Their biggest worry at the time was who is this guy in this playground that I never saw before with no child in sight. I tried my best to ask a few parents about our ideas, got a few answers and left as soon as I could. I learned that it was going to be difficult to sit there with a parent for more then five minutes because they simply did not trust me. When asking questions, if there is no trust the answers you receive might not be the best.
After interviewing about 20 parents we headed back to the bat cave and got down and dirty with the answers. We learned in a few hours that the parents on 14th street didn’t need our service. They were people with great resources and usually hired an in home nanny. Our target market was off. Most of the parents had sitters that came highly recommended from friends and other family members who they trusted. We also learned that parents were looking for emergency day care and/or relocation services. So we had our first pivot and worked on the new idea the rest of the weekend. We threw up our MVP, a simple landing page to collect emails which we later would attach a survey to the confirmation email we would send back to the client. We learned the basic about building landing pages in a few hours of experimenting.
Lessons Learned are Lessons Earned
We didn’t win 1st, 2nd or 3rd prize what we did win was the best customer development award. Which was great but it wasn’t all we would win. To me an award is a by product of a win. What I really won was the battle of learning things in 3 days instead of spending 6 months learning that my product would not work! I learned how to take an idea from conception and put it through the whole build-measure-learn feedback loop pictured below.
The biggest win for me at the event was learning how to get out of the building and asking the right questions. There is a science behind asking the right questions which I will detail in another post soon. I learned how I could best present a question without pushing for the answer I wanted. Sometimes people will answer your questions in a positive way to sort of take the easy way out of having a conversation with you. Ask them for some currency and the answer quickly changes. You have to be direct! By asking the wrong questions or asking them in a leading way, the answers given can become tainted. There goes all of your effort and this could even lead to an idea bias which will kill you for days. The whole point of asking real thoughtful questions is to gauge the need for your product. If there is no need for it, then why build it?
Another big lesson for me was the team building aspect. I was in a room full of strangers, we had an ice breaker session for about 10 minutes which gave you an intro to the rest of the students. It definitely wasn’t enough time to really know if this was a person you wanted to work with or not. They let you know that it is OK to switch teams if needed. Having a great idea isn’t the end to all things. Building a team that can properly execute on an idea is by far one of the biggest challenges in the startup world. You have to find teammates that complement your skills and that you can get along with. I got along with my team perfectly, but we were not the perfect team to tackle the problem at hand. We all had similar skills and some what similar thoughts.
The mentors at LSM were all top notch! They taught us the importance of learning from others. I am a big believer of grouping with people way smarter than me. I do this for the main purpose of learning.Ii am an educator at heart so I tend to jump on teams where I feel I can help out by teaching them what I know, but end up kicking myself later on. The true way to learn is to group with smarter people, ask great questions, then sit back and actually listen! Listening to the mentors at LSM was worth the price of admission. I learned so much from them. They all had different advice, however; all advice must be taken with a grain of salt. Mentors will always have conflicting advise due to their past experiences so you must listen very carefully and ask yourself is this advice something I can apply? By having tons of mentors at LSM you are able to really pick the brains of some of the smartest people in the room. I am sure attendees can write books just off of the advice they received. Having a mentor by your side can really set you about from others. Don’t hesitate or blow the opportunity to talk to them as much as possible.
The biggest lesson I received during LSM was the power of learning while doing. I have always been a big time reader, but actually applying what you read can pay huge dividends. You can think you are well prepared but you never know until you actually do it. I didn’t attend LSM to build out the next facebook, I attended to learn about a format that I really felt in tuned with. I didn’t learn at LSM by reading, I learned by applying all of the stored knowledge in my head. Some of the things I knew, didn’t apply well with our business so I learned other things which I could apply. I learned to think on the fly and test by applying. Would I do this again? Hell yes I would and i highly encourage others to attend the next workshop in your city. You might worry about the price of admission, but after the first night you will be willing to pay twice the price. Its that damn good! Just look at how happy it made my team for the weekend!