The Danger Of "Lean"

“Half of these opinions won’t apply to a majority of you.”

If every lecture, self help book and Lean startup talk began with the statement above, I wouldn’t be writing this post. But they don’t.

Like any sales or self-help book, lecture or op-ed piece - the Lean Startup mindset has a lot of valuable lessons; when assessed against your situation and applied where it makes sense. The thing that troubles me is the typical presentation of “this is the way to do things” and “what worked for me will work for you”.

If you’re like me, at some point you’ve worked for a manager who changed your entire process after reading some book on this or that. They get all excited and has an entire team spinning their wheels until, god forbid, they read another book.

Tim Ferriss’ The 4-Hour Work Week was a runaway success. How many of you who read it are working any less than you were before?

No way in hell you’re going to outsource dietary supplement manufacturing overseas, let a virtual assistant manage your business and go win a Jui-Jitsu competition while vacationing 6-months out of the year. But, there were a lot of valuable lessons.

My current beef isn’t with Tim’s book, it’s with some of the teachings of “Lean”. Or more directly, that they don’t all include a disclaimer.

One of the most shared practices of Lean is the idea of releasing a minimum viable product (MVP) and letting the users take over. That’s not how it’s presented, but that’s what it boils down to.

If you asked Facebook users what they wanted in the product early on, they would have said custom profiles and a music player. That’s what users knew. Myspace set the expectations. Luckily Mark Zuckerberg had a vision that he wouldn’t compromise on, knew when to ignore the masses and built a massively successful business.

If Mark Pincus of Zynga asked users what they wanted, do you think they would have said “we want to pay real money, to plant fake corn”?

In 2005, the most commonly requested features for cellular phones were MMS and longer battery life. The iPhone didn’t support MMS for years, and the battery life still sucks.

The most successful entrepreneurs have a gift for seeing what users need, before anyone else. The most successful businesses change our expectations.

If all we do is build what customers ask for, we’re all going to end up with the same damn products. VC’s would just hire focus groups and an army of engineers and build it themselves.

Own your roadmap. Solve problems that require vision we don’t possess - we’re relying on you to do exactly that.

Do right by your users, always. Without fail. But know that often we don’t know what to ask for. And if you build what we ask for, based on our current world-view, know that you’re going to end up building what we already have - and I’m not paying you for something I already have.

Erase “MVP” off your white board and don’t release something until it’s ready. You’re the only one who knows.

Absolutely test your hypothesis, make sure there’s a market fit, and get feedback along the way. But don’t be timid and second-guess yourself out of building something extraordinary or worse, let beta users talk you out of your roadmap.

Half of these opinions won’t apply to the majority of you.