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

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sit on advisory boards and work with VCs. Mike Maples had this thing and I worked with him. There was the Kleiner Perkins thing. I was getting the opportunity to work with very prestigious organizations and do cool stuff. But everywhere I went, I was telling the story about IMVU, and how we were doing this stuff that sounds crazy but it worked out great. The fact that it worked out great didn’t mitigate the fact that it was crazy. So it was a real struggle to get people to take my advice.

I started writing a blog because I wanted to have something to show people. I would have these meetings where I’d get all dressed up, schlep over to some startup office, give them my shtick, and they’d want to argue with me and say it’ll never work, that’s stupid. I’m like “You called me!” Life’s too short. So I said, I’ll write this stuff down. And Steve was encouraging me to blog and write. So I said all right, let’s try this out.

I remember very clearly [when] I went from having arguments with people that I lost to having arguments with people that I won. That was how I knew I was on the right track. I was trying to change people’s behavior, and if you can’t answer questions like “How do you know it will work for me in my enterprise software business, maybe it’s only for consumer Internet?,” if you can’t answer that question with facts, with truth, then no one is ever going to take you seriously. No one is going to change their behavior on a whim. But once I started to be able to walk people from first principles to here’s why it’s going to work for you, I could feel the difference, and I had a real sense the advice I was giving people was true.

On Ries’s sudden rise to fame in the startup world:

The timing could not have been better. To be talking about something called Lean Startup right when the financial crisis was happening—I mean, [it was] very good timing. I wish I could say I thought about that, but I was very lucky. The way I experienced it at the time, it was that people had an almost unlimited appetite for new ideas about entrepreneurship. Fundamentally, our discourse about entrepreneurship had become completely stale. And that the old model was discredited but there was no new model. There was just this vacuum that I accidentally walked into and then got pulled in a million directions.

The first big talk I gave was at the Web 2.0 Expo in 2009. That was only two years ago. I was on the junior stage, the unrecorded stage. And the number of people who showed up at that talk blew my mind. That was when I knew I was on to something. That was April 2009. And then by a year later I had gone from nobody to the main stage, that was a big deal, and in the meantime I had traveled, I think that fall I was on the road full time. It was very fast.

On the importance of vision in a startup:

The most emotionally satisfying part of this has been that Will [Harvey] and I are no longer adversaries. He was right. Customers do not know what they want. No startup has ever had any success at all without vision. In fact my new belief is that a true visionary like Will is much too precious a commodity to waste. I signed up to be Will’s deputy [at IMVU] because I believed in where he wanted to take us. I wanted to see it realized and I viewed my job as to make it happen. The reason we had so much conflict was, Will thought that testing his vision would be a way to destroy it. Which it kind of was. I know a lot of people like that. Data has a really bad name in managerial circles. A lot of people use data to puncture a vision. But we found a way to say, “Let’s use data to discover which parts of the vision are correct and which parts are crazy and discard the crazy ones.” I wish we had done it better at IMVU, but now we are really on the same page about what that means and now I can talk to visionaries in a way that makes them feel really heard.

In the book, I draw this simple pyramid. If somebody had shown me this 10 years ago, the last 10 years would have gone really differently. It’s so simple. Vision, strategy, product. The foundation is vision. Vision is where you want to go. It’s the destination you program into your GPS. Strategy is the route; let’s do this combination of actions and that will get us there. The product is the pointy edge of the spear where you say to customers, “Here, be part of my strategy.”

Changing the product is like what you do every day. It’s optimization. It’s just driving. Sometimes, when you change the product, you will discover an obstacle. “Oops, customers won’t download the damn thing”– like we learned at There the hard way. That could just be a speed bump. You don’t give up, you just go around. But when you try to go around, sometimes you find out that … 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