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The Lean Start Up: Book Review

The Lean Startup review

The Lean Startup by Eric Ries became an instant classic when it was published in 2011.

What attracted me to the book was that the back cover promises a lean, entrepreneurial process that is about “learning what your customers really want.” Highly relevant to what we do here at Customer Thermometer.

Even if you’re not ever planning to create a startup, the entrepreneurial mentality has been much sought-after in recent years. Even huge businesses like Amazon (on track to become the world’s first 1 trillion dollar company) strive to retain and exploit the “Day 1” mentality. In Jeff Bezos’ recent letter to his shareholders he talked about how maintaining the impetus and vitality of Day 1 in your business.

As companies get larger, they often get further and further away from the customer. But The Lean Startup’s major message is how a laser beam focus on solving customer problems is a real key to success.

Jeff Bezos’ shareholder letter says the same thing. So I jumped into it this weekend; here are my top 5 takeaways, and top 5 quotes from The Lean Startup.

The Lean Startup: Top 5 takeaways

  • Value resides in providing benefit to the customer. “Success is not delivering a feature; success is learning how to solve a customer’s problem.”. Ries makes the point early on in the book that the vast majority of startups fail. Would-be product developers plunge in and start developing products, assuming that if it exists, people will buy it. I had the same experience in year 1 of Customer Thermometer. A very skinny version of the product was built, and put live on the internet, but few people bought it. Whilst a lot of this was down to our lack of marketing budget to make people aware of it, one of the other reasons was that we hadn’t observed our customers using it in order to see how they were using it to grow their businesses. Once we started visiting customers in person, and talking to them, we were able to adapt our early version with alerts, comment capture pages and real-time integrations that brought our vision, and their success, to life. We have continued that customer-obsession ever since.
  • First products aren’t meant to be perfect. In fact, products can’t ever achieve perfection, they are a constantly moving feast. The ‘perfect’ product will never achieve stasis; it will develop with its customers. So release early. You will never know the value of the product you’re building, or how to improve it, without customer feedback. Steve Jobs is famous for a similar stance – don’t ask customers what they want, give them what they need.
  • Products need to be value-creating and not value-destroying. It’s somewhat counter-intuitive to think one would ever aim to make a value-destroying product. But Ries points out that many startups end up doing just that. In the struggle for growth, products are created first and customers needs’ come a very distant second. (just because you can build it doesn’t mean you should.) Value can be destroyed in other ways too – where investment is taken in and spent without consideration for the sustainability of that spend. An ex-colleague of mine, Wendy Tan-White made this point about her own startup Moonfruit. Investment can be value-destroying if not focused in the right way. It is frighteningly easy to spend money wooing (and preparing to support) customers that aren’t coming. Proportional investment is the watchword here.
  • Customers’ unexpressed needs and fears are critical. And yet it’s pretty impossible to understand them without first hand experience. Ries talks about his own experience where teenagers refused to invite their friends to an early-stage IM product for fear that it wasn’t cool. It wasn’t behaviour that they anticipated, as they assumed the teenagers would enjoy something new their friends didn’t have yet. It was only by observing their behavior at close-hand that the team were able to understand what the real issue was.
  • “If we build it they will come” is wrong. Ries stresses the importance of the “Build-Measure-Learn” feedback loop, where the goal is to minimize the total time time it takes your product to iterate through that loop. The faster, the better. He makes the point we are trained at school to only ever hand in “our best work”. So releasing a product we know has holes is really hard for the many perfectionists amongst us in this industry. However, that is the only way to get (and keep) the business journey moving in the right direction.

The Lean Startup: Top 5 quotes

  • “Customers don’t care how much time something takes to build. They care only if it serves their needs.”
  • “Speed and quality are allies in the pursuit of the customer’s long-term benefit.”
  • “The big question of our time is not Can it be built? but Should it be built? This places us in an unusual historical moment: our future prosperity depends on the quality of our collective imaginations.”
  • “As customers interact with your products they generate feedback and data.”
  • “A startup is an institution, not just a product, and so it requires a new kind of management specifically geared to its context of extreme uncertainty.”

Where next?

Our founder, Lindsay, regularly writes reviews of business-focused stories and biographies. Check out some more here: