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October 09, 2012 · 5 minute read

Lean Startup Machine

Over the weekend I attended Lean Startup Machine’s London workshop. I’ve been reading lots about Lean and Customer Development recently but have been stumbling at applying the theory. I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to spend a fast-paced weekend learning about it from amazing mentors!

What is Lean Startup Machine? Different to the type of hackathon you might be used to, Lean Startup Machine focuses on validated learning as an outcome rather than coded & designed prototypes. It will take you from knowing nothing about Lean to being well versed in the theory and practice in 48 hours. Ryan and his team leave no one behind and emphasise the importance of understanding the process.

Our Validation
Board

During the weekend, you’ll make friends with the Validation Board - a great way to note down your ideas and keep track of progress. You might be familiar with the Business Model Canvas (a visual grid for describing and iterating on business models); the Validation Board is a similar idea for earlier stage exploration. It’s a really neat way to note down your Hypotheses and Assumptions at each step of the process, and keep track of the work you’ve done. I found using the Validation Board invaluable in two areas - it helped crystallise our team’s thinking, and it allowed wandering mentors and friends to understand our progress quickly and easily. 5-7 words per post-it note, all uppercase, no rambling. Boom!

You can download a Validation Board for free online as a PDF and Keynote template, but consider taking it to a print shop and getting an A1 print to stick on your wall. Also take some time to watch the videos on the site - they go some way to explaining how it should be used.

Our Validation
Board

Before this weekend I wondered what people actually do at a Lean Startup Machine course - I knew there was no hacking or designing involved, but I couldn’t picture ‘talking to customers’. Would we be roleplaying? Would a mentor stand on stage and just tell us theoretical teachings? Hell no! The weekend revolved around getting out of the building (physically and metaphorically). ‘Get Out Of The Building’ is a synonym for ‘Getting Out of Your Head’ - it turned out phoning contacts and conducting online qualitative & quantitative research was ‘out of the building’ too.

But I digress - actually getting out of the building and talking to real strangers was hugely valuable to me. I definitely have a tendency to bottle up ideas and wait until they’re ‘perfect’ to unleash them on the world - no more!.

Our initial idea was a ‘platform for sci-fi fans to get involved with the production of movies’. Kickstarter meets GitHub. In space. A way for fans to cut through blockbuster disappointment and get the movies they wanted produced. This worked out quite well for the exercise - sci-fi fans are a very targeted demographic and this allowed us to pin them down to some quite specific geographic locations. So first thing on Saturday morning we went to the ‘scene of the customer’ —Forbidden Planet in Soho—and talked to some customers!

We learnt a few things that morning:

  • Speaking to strangers isn’t so scary once you get into it.

  • Asking non-leading questions is really difficult.

  • The people we talked to hated our idea.

  • Know when’s the time to pitch your ideas to people - you learn a lot more by listening rather than talking.

From this initial invalidation we picked up on some great insights from our customers - they were mainly happy with the selection of media available, but lots had friends producing low-budget horror—not sci-fi—films. Ketchup and a MiniDV camera, that sort of thing. These friends supposedly had a tough time getting their films heard about online, which we thought was a shame, so we decided to pull our first pivot and talk to some filmmakers. Surely they’d love our new idea of a social media marketing & analytics tool?

One of the things every team was worried about this was ‘where do we find customers to talk to at the weekend?’. In the real world we have days and weeks to track down people to talk to, but we had to move ultra-fast and iterate several times over a weekend. Answer? You’ll figure it out, trust me.

Scouring Facebook, Twitter & LinkedIn, wracking our brains and breaking into a film school (seriously) we found ~20 filmmakers eager to talk to us about their craft. We were convinced they’d love our social media idea (though again we weren’t pitching it to them - rather seeing if they’d validate our assumptions). Again a resounding rejection - a vast majority of them pointed out that they had to keep their work offline so it was eligible for film festivals - the major events that they were worried about. Pivot again, this wasn’t working.

Talking to more filmmakers we found out that whilst film festivals are important, after the festivals lots of films fail to find their way to an audience. Our final idea - a service to let fans watch independent films that otherwise wouldn’t be made available. A two-sided market, we also envisaged it as a platform for filmmakers to gain leverage and social proof to showcase their work to independent cinemas in the hopes of bringing them back to the silver screen. The filmmakers and film festival organisers we spoke to were unanimously keen on this idea (some even rushing to send us trailers and information to use) - which we took as validation. Running out of time in the weekend, we also decided to put up a landing page to gauge whether fans would sign up.

It’s not the prettiest site I’ve hacked together but for an hour’s work (and treating it just as part of the process & learning experience) we felt it did a great job - £75 of AdWords, a couple of tweets and several hundred visitors later it’s still maintaining a 17% conversion rate. Better than the 3% conversion rate we’d hoped for!

Overall a fantastic weekend - I met some fantastic people (participants, mentors and the customers we spoke to!) and learnt more in 48 hours than I thought possible. There’s definitely more we could have done at every stage, but I’m glad we didn’t obsess on detail and instead moved quickly through the process - there’s time to conduct really thorough experiments in the real world!

Top things I learnt this weekend

  • Don’t hold onto ideas too tightly

  • (In)validate your assumptions

  • Talk to real people, not your friends & parents!

I had a fantastic time and would recommend it to anyone (the crowd was surprisingly diverse - not the usual homogeneity of designers & developers). The next London workshop is taking place in December (and the team put on events all around the world) - I hope you get out of it as much as I did!


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Jon Gold

Jon Gold is a technologist, musician, and attention activist researching the long-term future of computation at Airbnb, focusing on the intersection of Artificial Intelligence & the creative process. Contact