Fat startup: Eric Ries and his Lean Startup programme go wide

Eric Ries
Eric Ries

Eric Ries asked for $135,000 on Kickstarter. He got $588,903. That’s not lean.

And Ries, a man with a ready sense of humor, cracks up at the suggestion that he’s doing too well to fit into his famous “Lean Startup” gig anymore.

“Here’s the thing,” he says. “When you launch a Kickstarter campaign, there’s something great about how they’ve set up their platform. Great for the community. It’s not so great for the creator, in that it’s very vulnerable. Your successes and your failures are quite public. Everybody knows to the dollar how much you raised or didn’t raise.”

You’d think that Ries has had enough success not to worry. His 2011 book, The Lean Startup: How Today’s Entrepreneurs Use Continuous Innovation to Create Radically Successful Businesses from Portfolio Penguin in the UK, became a quick icon of modern business development amid the fast-rising digital dynamic. Many of us in and around digital publishing first encountered him when he gave a keynote address in 2012 at the O’Reilly Media Tools of Change conference in New York. Attached to the Lean Startup concept are such phrases as “continual deployment” (like “agile,” a process of iterating trial developments and getting consumer feedback) and “minimal viable product” (a conscious effort to produce only what’s needed and use no superfluous resources).

lean-startup_book-cover (1)Now billed as the Lean Startup Movement, Ries’ conceptualisation of this approach is honoured by many working in publishing startups and has been developed by the author as a network of conferences, meetups, online community, and events in 17 countries. He not only has put his act on the road, as we say, but he also has had the experience of serving in a consultancy capacity with many corporations looking for leaner ways to move forward.

But even Ries — so well-feted in the press, a man whose blurbs could make Donald Trump cry — can have qualms when things get too lean. Take, for example, the launch of that Kickstarter campaign.

I was at South by Southwest, where we did the official launch. So on Sunday morning, I would be speaking to their big ballroom of thousands of people, to make the official announcement.

And as you do in these situations, when you launch something on a Monday, you actually upload it and set it up for Sunday night, so everything’s ready to go on Monday. So we were sitting with the media and VIP people on Sunday night at a restaurant in Austin. We did the pre-brief, the embargoed news. And then I went to the computer to hit the button and make it live [for Monday’s official launch]. And because the fad this year in Silicon Valley is live video, I was on an app called Meerkat — where you can broadcast what you’re doing, live, to your Twitter followers…

So I went on the video, said hi to everybody, explained what was going on. People knew that something was going to be announced, they just didn’t know what it was. I told them I was going to start this Kickstarter campaign and you’re going to watch me do it live. “But don’t tell anybody, it’s embargoed until Monday.” So here I am in a bar in Austin, Texas, with probably 200 people tuned in live, right? I went to push the button, and — I kid you not — there’s this error on the page: “Kickstarter Not Working.”

It was like “Three, two, one. launch! Abort!” And I’m sitting there live. It was both very embarrassing and kind of funny.

Ries tells me this anecdote by way of answering my least favorite reporter’s question (but you notice I asked it): Did you ever in your wildest dreams think you’d have this kind of success with Lean Startup?

“That was my state of mind at that time,” he says, still chuckling about the near non-launch of the Kickstarter campaign. “I hoped it would go well, I hoped people would like this as much as they liked Lean Startup, but you never know. Everyone’s your friend when things are going well. And then there’s this moment of, ‘Hm, is this really going to work out?'”

It worked out. One month and more than half-a-million dollars later, 9,677 backers seem to have forgiven him that gaffe in Austin and have backed Ries’ offering of The Leader’s Guide. In fact, he recalls his live audience online jumping in to try to bail him out: “They were telling me, ‘Okay, now try rebooting your computer.’ And the third time was the charm. It finally worked out after a few tries to get it going.”

The key to understanding what he’s doing here is that the Guide is not only that it’s based on Ries’ four years’ experience in guiding and watching applications of Lean Startup technique, but also that it’s a live, working exercise that will lead to his second book on the topic.

From Eric Ries' Kickstarter campaign video
From Eric Ries’ Kickstarter campaign video

Kickstarting a ‘research platform’

The Leader's Guide by Eric RiesThe backers of Ries’ Kickstarter have sprung for the 250-page limited-edition Leader’s Guide with what Ries in his funny, popular video for the campaign describes as “never-before-published exercises, case studies, tools, and curriculum I use with my startup and corporate clients…material battle-tested by organisations at implementing Lean Startup at scale.”

In talking with me, he says, “The idea is to use the Guide as an experiment, to do the research, and really just to make sure that the information we’re putting into the new book is not only accurate but also effective when people use it.”

That’s a very Lean way to work.

“I did this a lot with the material in The Lean Startup,” Ries says, “but this is on a whole new scale.”

Those working with the Guide will have access to a special online community with which to explore, record, and register their experiences. And the Kickstarter backers, having gone so vastly beyond the goal, triggered various “stretch goals,” as well, including audio editions of the Guide, a special webinar, software workshops, and more.

“Ironically,” Ries says, “I’m more confident now than ever that the recommendations” of Lean Startup “are right. But I’ve had four years to learn the hard way how difficult it is for some people to understand the written word on the page. That’s something you [journalists] know about, right? This has been bothering me all this time. It’s a matter almost of ethics: how much responsibility do business writers have when people read their book, take their ideas and go out, and try to make the ideas work for them?

“If somebody misunderstands what you wrote, is that their fault or is that your fault? I’ve been coming more and more to the point of view that it’s your fault. If you weren’t clear, if you wrote something that was misconstrued, you have a responsibility to make sure…People can misunderstand. They try to apply it but they’re missing critical pieces of information, they get distracted by material I really shouldn’t have included.

“This is a chance to really raise the standard. Everything I say in the book won’t have to be, ‘Hey this worked for me and I made a lot of money at it so you should copy me,’ or, ‘My clients have used this with me standing right there.’ But I’ll also be able to say, ‘Hundreds and maybe thousands of people have tried this and here’s what happened.'”

All this is headed toward Ries’ Book Two, something he expects to research and write in the next couple of years. He describes it at my request:

You know how Mark Twain said, “I’d have written it shorter if I’d had more time”? That’s kind of how I feel about this. To produce the standard airport book, something you can casually read…still very useful for the high-tech people, but telling that story in a compelling way, the appropriate level of case studies and story — a lot goes into that. A workbook, even though it’s more detailed and longer, I think is easier to produce. You’re talking to people who are already looking for the recipe.

The Leader’s Guide, the exclusive Kickstarter offering, is a workbook.

“In a way, I’m giving myself the freedom to be bad,” Ries says. “The goal is not to produce the best workbook in the world. In fact, by keeping The Leader’s Guide to one printing, I can give myself the freedom to have it be bad, in many respects.”

He goes on:

This is the paradox of anything startup-y: if you don’t know who your customer is, you literally don’t know what the word “quality” means, if quality is defined in the eyes of the customer. There’s no evidence that if you spend more time perfecting something in the absence of feedback that you can actually make it better in the eyes of the customer. Sometimes you do. But you can actually make it worse. So I think it’s better to admit that we’re going to figure out which parts are good and bad, and improve the ones that are definitely in need of improvement.

‘In denial’ about what success may mean

Ries talks his talk in a personable, comfortable way, evident in our interview, which was conducted while the Kicktarter campaign was near the halfway point: 

Most of the people writing or talking about [the disruption] focus on the people creating the tumult — books about how to be a disruptive entrepreneur and capitalise on the data, which sometimes almost have the tenor of being in a war zone and having a chance to do some profiteering…There is something unseemly about. Then you have this other set of people [who write] “Hunker down — I will help you survive this wave. Everything is about to go nuts and I will seek shelter and emergency rations…it’s going to be a rocky ride.”

I sit in this very interesting intersection where I get to talk to both camps. In the morning I might be talking to somebody who’s seeking to bring about this kind of change. In the afternoon, I’m talking to an “involuntary entrepreneur” — same job, same industry, same company, then, oops!, there’s no such thing anymore. What’s fascinating is how similar the two sides are…The languages we use to talk about this are similar.

You have this new and increasing share of the world’s work that happens in a domain where you can’t really make good forecasts; where the future is uncertain; and where people have more theories than knowledge about what’s going to happen in the future. If you face that situation, then  you are an entrepreneur, no matter what it says on your business card.

A lot of people become entrepreneurs intentionally because they don’t like big companies. Even “internal entrepreneurs” — “Give me my own business unit, my own team, far from headquarters. Just let me do my own thing.”…They want the freedom of a startup.

The question I have been learning to ask, more and more, is, “If you hate big companies so much, why are you trying to create a new one?” They’re in denial about the fact that if their startup succeeds? It will grow.

This is kind of my thesis for the new book: If you grow into the same blueprint that you were fleeing, you will recreate the problems that  you hate.

Ries has come to see entrepreneurship as “the missing function,” he says, in the corporate world. “You don’t forget the marketing department. But nobody has a business card in the whole company that says ‘entrepreneur.’ Who’s in charge of the entrepreneurs in the company? What’s the career path?”

I ask him about skunk works departments. Do they fit the bill as a company’s entrepreneurial “department”?

“In a previous era, that was the best you could do. Keep it secret. A secret lab somewhere. And listen, that was better than nothing. But now…the problem of keeping things secret is you simply can’t grow. Once it becomes not-secret anymore, you’ve just sent a memo to every middle manager in the company that says, ‘This is a company that keeps secrets. And if you’re not on the inside, you’re on the outside.’

“In the US, we had the self-care debacle when Healthcare.gov came out. The irony is that when something is really big and important, the decision of how it will be made and what’s considered risk-mitigating is to do it in a political way and be sure the asses are covered…That means hiring defense contractors to do the implementation at great cost. In software, we call this waterfall style development. Each piece of the puzzle is owned by a separate entity. People don’t talk to each other. You do your piece, you’re not allowed to know about anyone else’s piece. Once they brought in a startup team” to work on the Healthcare.gov plan, “they had the whole thing fixed in 90 days.”

Ries wasn’t directly engaged in the Healthcare.gov fix, he says, but “as the story gets out and people start to realise that there’s this kind of entrepreneurial energy that can be unlocked in any kind of organisation,” he says, the Lean principles are becoming better understood.

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By Porter Ander­son

The FutureBook:  Fat startup: Eric Ries and his Lean Startup programme go wide

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