Eric Ries, the Face of the Lean Startup Movement, on How a Once-Insane Idea Went Mainstream

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“We’ll put you in charge of the entire engineering team, and we’ll do it your way.” For whatever reason, [co-founder Will Harvey] had the confidence that I could do it, and was willing to take that risk and put me in charge of a large swath of this company. Therefore I had a laboratory for trying stuff that was considered crazy. I mean, bona fide crazy.

This was 2004. The agile [software] manifesto was three or four years old. Extreme programming had been around a few years. Unit testing was just starting to enter the mainstream understanding. Continuous integration was considered as advanced as one could reasonably get. Pair programming was still considered nuts. But I wanted to do stuff like continuous deployment, which didn’t even have a name at that time, because it was considered something that only a truly crazy person would do. I wanted us to take agile into the business.

Ries’s first encounters with Steve Blank:

Steve had been on the board at There, and was kicked out. He was trying to prevent the disaster at There, and failed. So when we did raise our first angel round, he was the real focus of our fundraising and eventually we convinced him to do it. And part of the deal was, I think that was the first year he was teaching customer development at Berkeley, at the Haas School of Business. He basically said, “Why don’t you guys audit my class.” He didn’t exactly say, “In exchange for this check of $50,000 I am going to give you.” But I understood him to be saying, “I believe in you guys, but you do have a problem that you need to fix, and if I am going to be on board here, you need to fix this thing.” So we agreed to audit his class.

I felt like I was taking a class in peanut butter, and I had learning about jelly my whole life. I was that annoying student in class who would be like, “But Professor Blank, the way you’re talking about product development offends me. That’s wrong. We don’t do it like that anymore.” My mental model had shifted already to imagining that [agile] was how product development was and should be done, and that that was obvious to everybody. But if you think about the year it was when we had that conversation, he was much more correct than I was. The frustration that he was talking about [was the frustration of] trying to be more iterative in marketing when the engineers are all linear. But the marketers in my career were the ones who were the problem. I was used to thinking that we were trying to be more agile in engineering but it’s marketing who is dragging their feet. It never occurred to me that we could have a company-wide dialogue around marketing and engineering together as peers. That inspiration came from having that confrontation in this class.

[But] we had no idea how to apply this. We weren’t like, “We’re ready to sign up for customer development.” The class was very theoretical. We had practical problems. So Steve’s biggest influence on IMVU was not through his work but because he was our advisor, and he was eventually on our board. So the theoretical integration happened later.

The first Lean Startup diagram:

I remember the meeting like yesterday, when I was sitting in the conference room with Mike Maples [the early stage Internet investor who would later rename his firm Floodgate Fund]. Steve was there, and it was the first time I had the courage to say, “Guys, let me draw you this diagram of Build, Measure, Learn, agile, customer development, and I’m going to call it Lean Startup, I think that’s what it should be called because of my knowledge of lean manufacturing.” That was 2008, years after I’d left the company. That was the first time we had a theoretical conversation about whether this was right or not.

It was actually harder to learn how to talk about it than it was to learn how to do it. So the integration of theory and language all came very late in the process. And actually, that was a problem… I had a very low profile, even by Silicon Valley profile standards, when I left IMVU. But I had enough of a profile that I was being asked to … Next Page »

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Wade Roush is the producer and host of the podcast Soonish and a contributing editor at Xconomy. Follow @soonishpodcast

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  • Concerned Reader

    Sick of this guy those who can’t do….teach.

  • @Concerned Reader — Ries may be overexposed, but I don’t think you can write him off as a practicing entrepreneur so easily. IMVU is a pretty successful company, with $22 million in revenues last I checked. Ries has constructed a *very* successful one-man business around his speaking, writing, and consulting work. And he surely will be able to raise as much venture funding as he wants, once he decides to get back in the game. I’d say it’s important for those who *can* to stop *doing* occasionally and share what they’ve learned.

  • Wait…now that we built it leveraging Lean Start-up principles…”THEY WILL COME?”

    I understand the “Customer Development” component of Lean Start-up…but am still missing ideal strategies to generate new customers and users, especially for B2B startups providing a “disruptive technology/solution”

    It sounds like all you now need to do next is implement a sales/marketing 2.0 tool, add a “PRICING AND PLANS” section on your website and hire some internal telemarketers?

    Possibly a single point of potential failure to rely only on this strategy?…Should these start-up’s also target big company “C-Suites” and communicate their value prop towards “C-Suite” sponsored initiatives? Should a “top down” sales approach be ignored? “Bottoms up” / viral approach only?

  • Sam J

    Arm yourself with decades of business wisdom within 2 daysChk out