News Column

'Lean Startup' Guru Shares His Secrets

September 27, 2011

Donna Goodison, Boston Herald


Eric Ries is on a mission to make entrepreneurship more rigorous and scientific. That's the fundamental thinking behind the "Lean Startup" methodology that he developed and coined in 2008 as a general-purpose approach to entrepreneurship.

"The method is doing rapid testing in order to discover which elements of the business plan are working or are crazy," said the San Francisco-based Ries, an entrepreneur in residence at Harvard Business School. "We borrow techniques from lean manufacturing ... and apply them to the process of innovation."

Ries was in town on Wednesday for an HBS speech to introduce his new book, "The Lean Startup: How Today's Entrepreneurs Use Continuous Innovation to Create Radically Successful Businesses," which debuted this month.

Start-ups are all about doing something new without knowing whether it will work, according to Ries.

"Entrepreneurship is the management discipline that deals with high uncertainty," he said. "It's not about being in a garage, it doesn't matter if you eat ramen noodles, and it doesn't matter if you're building a technological product or what. What matters is we don't yet know what the product is, we don't yet know who the customer is, and we don't yet know if we're on a path to a sustainable business."

The 32-year-old Ries, who co-founded IMVU in 2004 and was its chief technology officer until 2008, is now a board observer for the Mountain View, Calif.-based online social entertainment site where members use 3-D avatars to meet people, chat, and create and play games with friends. He's also an advisor to pbWiki, Bunchball, SpeedDate, illumobile, BlueBet and KaChing.

Boston has one of the largest Lean Startup Meetup communities that were spawned by Ries' methodology and take place in more than 100 cities.

"There's a real awesome entrepreneurial renaissance in progress in Boston," said Ries, who gave his top five tips for start-ups to follow:

L Ries says his most important tip is to treat every product, product feature, marketing campaign -- everything a start-up does -- as an experiment designed to teach its founders how to build a sustainable business.

"Our most important unit of progress in entrepreneurship is learning," Ries said. "So we want to learn as quickly as possible. And, in order to learn, you have to be able to test, fail, adjust."

L Ries recommends start-ups initially build a "minimum viable product" instead of a grandiose version.

"We try to find the smallest, simplest versions of the product, so we can build it in order to start learning as quickly as possible," he said. "We want to put it directly into the market as quickly as we can, so we can get feedback about how it performs in the real world."

L Ries advises start-ups not to launch so they don't focus on what he calls "success theater" -- work that entrepreneurs do to make them look successful.

"What gets start-ups in trouble is when they start talking to the press way too soon, and they start making predictions and boasting about what is going to happen, and it turns out disappointing," Ries said. "We separate the product launch from the marketing launch. We try to get them to do the product launch as soon as possible and the marketing launch as late as possible. The reason is that we only need a relatively small number of customers to test our ideas."

L Ries espouses a "build, measure, learn" concept.

"We want to focus on how fast we can go through the whole feedback loop of turning ideas into products, measuring how customers respond and then learning for the next set of ideas," he said. "We want to do this on a continuous basis."

L Knowing when to "pivot" also is vitally important for entrepreneurs, according to Ries.

"A pivot is a change in strategy without a change in vision," he said. "Whenever I talk to founders who've been through a pivot, they always wish they had pivoted sooner. All of the other practices and tips I've given are designed to help entrepreneurs realize it's time to pivot sooner."

Source: (c)2011 the Boston Herald. Distributed by MCT Information Services

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