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InfoQ Homepage Articles The Gentle Art of Running a Lean Startup

The Gentle Art of Running a Lean Startup

We often struggle to create valuable software because we simply cannot do the right things, correctly and quickly.

The recently developed Lean Startup methodology, combined with agile software development practices upon which it is heavily based, answers our problems.

However, most startups apply the principles in a fragmented way and do not get the expected benefits (three out of four startups fail).

To more easily understand the core concepts and value of Lean Startup, we present the martial art of Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu (BJJ) as a metaphor that can teach how to run a startup the lean way.

If you feel you’ve already mastered lean startups, use this article to introduce yourself to the martial art about which President Theodore Roosevelt said, "The art of Jiu-Jitsu is worth more in every way than all of our athletics combined."

BJJ, Lean Startup and Their Core Similarity

BJJ is a martial art and a self-defense system, based on judo, that focuses on ground-grappling. It utilizes controlling positions, joint locks, and chokes, and is considered the most effective martial art since its creators, the Gracie Family, dominated the first mixed-martial-art fights. “Jiu-Jitsu is the triumph of human intelligence over brute strength,” said Helio Gracie who, together with his brother Carlos Gracie, founded BJJ. Here, you can watch six-time world champion Robson Moura rolling during training or some highlights from the black belts at the 2013 world BJJ championship.

Lean Startup, following principles from lean manufacturing and agile development, is a way to develop products, iteratively and incrementally, in an environment full of risk. It was proposed in 2011 by Eric Ries and is based on customer development, business-hypothesis-driven experimentation, and continuous validated learning.

Both systems trace their roots to Japanese culture: the lean startup to the Toyota production system and BJJ to jiu-jitsu, the art of samurais. Both apply the core concept of “minimum effort for maximum efficiency” and implement the “conservation of energy” principle, which is the primary deciding factor for every fight in any aspect of life.

“Most startups fail, not because they fail to build the product they want to build, but they fail to find a market for their product before running out of resources.”

 Running Lean, Ash Maurya

“Jiu-Jitsu, like nature, is all about the conservation of energy. In jiu-jitsu, ‘efficiency’ means using only as little strength and power as is required to accomplish your objectives. It means economy of motion – eliminating wasted movements and effort.” 

 The Essence of Jiu-Jitsu   Nicolas Gregoriades, BJJ black belt

The Metaphor






Winning a customer or an opponent is your ultimate goal. You fight to impose your will on him, but he/she usually resists, escaping. You must respect him because he is your best teacher.

Startup team

BJJ martial artist


Product team


Being aware of customer's (opponent's) reactions, decides the next move

Development team


Executes the moves  (builds the code)

Based on the above metaphor and inspired by BJJ concepts, we will describe how to run a lean startup (everything related to BJJ has a gray background).

Stay Connected

“Build in response to a signal from the customer, and otherwise rest or improve.”

Ash Maurya, author of Running Lean

“I do not fight my opponent. He tries to take positions and I see his actions to make reactions.”

Kid Peligro, BJJ black belt

The best ground fighter of all time and champion of Gracie family Rickson Gracie always emphasizes the importance of connecting with your opponent to be able to feel his slightest movements and understand immediately his intentions.

A lean startup should connect with its initial users (earlyvangelists or early adopters) to track how they use the product/service it offers. Every new feature should be discovered and designed based on customer reaction. Otherwise, it’s like trying to fight an invisible opponent. We already have at our disposal the necessary techniques (customer development, lean analytics) and the corresponding customer-behavior and usage-analytics tools (Google Analytics, KissMetrics, MixPanel, Crazy Egg, Flurry), which help us to monitor and analyze everything about our users. Assuming we have this information, what is our strategy and how we decide our next move?

Control, Dominate, Submit

What differentiates Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu from most martial arts is the employment of positional strategy, which, independently of the opponent, is divided in three main phases: control, dominate, and submit. Before all, you must control your opponent. Next, try to penetrate his basic line of defense (the guard) to take a dominant position (side control, mount him, or get his back). From there, you can attempt to make him submit. Every stage has its own philosophy and approach and you must follow this exact path, with no exceptions, otherwise you risk defeat.


“A lot of my time was spent on the phone with users or exchanging emails to collect feedback on our product and community...”

David Spinks, entrepreneur/community builder

"You let go of that grip and your mother falls off of a cliff...and dies!!!" 

Kurt Osiander, BJJ black belt

In BJJ, you cannot apply a technique properly unless you have already established control over some points of your opponent's body. This is also extremely important in judo (the parent art of BJJ). Called grip fighting, this can decide the outcome of the fight.

Similarly, a lean startup must find ways to “control” its early adopters by establishing a special relationship with them with different methods and communication channels such as marketing, online feedback, rewards, etc. It must interact with them often, engaging them to reveal their reactions and accept their valuable input about the experiments it runs. Several tools can help, like, Mailchimp, Uservoice etc. These early adopters are a startup's most valuable asset. It must strongly grip them, making it extremely difficult for them to disconnect.


“When you are BPMF (before product/market fit), focus obsessively on getting to product/market fit… Do whatever is required to get to product/market fit.

Marc Andreessen, Netscape founder

“Jiu-Jitsu first seeks to establish a position, and then to finish the fight... Your main concern is to transition to a dominant position as efficiently as possible.”

Nicolas Gregoriades, BJJ black belt

In BJJ, the way you fight before taking a dominant position is much different than after taking it. You must continuously try techniques to get by your opponent's basic line of defense (the guard). While you are experimenting with ways to penetrate, you have to be agile, with your eyes open to your opponent's weak points and openings. Your opponent is a moving target, always reacting. Every second, there is a new image of the game that you have to visualize and adapt to accordingly.

A startup’s dominant position simply translates to achieving product/market fit.

It must continuously execute small experiments (testing and pivoting) to discover those product features providing real value. Split testing and pretotyping help in this approach. During this effort, progress must not be measured by the total number of features pushed but by how much we improve our position (how much closer we have come to p/m fit). We measure this with specific customer-activation and retention metrics (how-i-am-measuring-productmarket-fit/). Functionality without our awareness and value for the customers is wasted movement, uselessly spending our energy.

If, however, we realize that no matter our amount of effort, our approach does not overcome customers’ resistance to use our service regularly, then we must change direction with a pivot.

“Pivot is helping you like the GPS of your car does. The vision is your destination, which must remain the same. But, when you run into an obstacle you do not just drive your car on to the obstacle over and over again hoping you will be fine. With the help of your GPS, you find a way around.”  

Eric Ries, creator of Lean Startup

“When you can’t move your opponent, move yourself.” 

Jiu-Jitsu principle

Only when a substantial percentage of our user base says that they would be disappointed if we discontinued the service (Sean Ellis test) can we say that we are in a dominant position (p/m fit). At this point, we change tactics from experimentation to establishment and growth. Our main concern now is retaining our position by improving the quality of our services and in parallel try to finish the game by achieving growth.


“The most successful technology companies first get their product/market fit right before stepping on the accelerator.... Once you do find your value proposition, driving growth is a heck of a lot easier… and more profitable.”

Andy Rachleff, co-founder Benchmark Capital

“Startups have no use for a growth team pre-P/M Fit. Until then, focusing on growth is like putting $1 in a high-yield compound interest account… it's just a waste of time.”   Andy Johns, "The Case for User Growth Teams"

“It’s a numbers game, really.

You have a far higher chance of finishing the fight successfully from a dominant position than you do of catching an opponent with a lucky punch or kick.“ 

Nicolas Gregoriades  BJJ black belt

In following BJJ’s principle of positional strategy, you should not try to make your opponent submit from an inferior position because you will just consume your energy and bring yourself closer to defeat. But when you are in a dominant position and see a chance for submission, exploit it immediately, explosively and with full strength, to finish the fight.

Sustainable growth on a massive scale is the final destination of a startup. To achieve this, a new role of growth hacker has emerged. A growth hacker’s mission, according to Patrick Vlaskovits, author of the NYT bestseller The Lean Entrepreneur, is “to deliver huge and exponential growth in users/leads/sales”. Richie Hecker, founder of Bootstrapper, says growth hacker “ the most important role because this person, by enabling new ways to create a scalable customer acquisition process, graduates a company from startup to viable long-term business.”

A startup should not try to grow its user base before product/market fit, because that will only consume resources without much benefit. In parallel with growth efforts, although a startup will probably make adjustments to the value proposition, it must be careful not to lose its dominant position of product/market fit.


The startup game is a positional game with disciplined strategy (control-dominate-submit) that above all requires conservation of energy and agility. Agility is the ability of the team to change directions without losing balance, strength, and speed. It is a primary success factor.

In an another article, we will show how team agility can be developed, measured and maintained through proper training and an agile coach.

Adopt a survival mindset, try to avoid mistakes, and sooner or later your users will give you the opportunity to win them as lifelong customers. As Helio Gracie, one of the founders of BJJ, said, “I never defeated my opponents, they defeated themselves.”

About the Author

Yiannis Mavraganis has over 15 years of experience as software engineer, enterprise architect and SCRUM master, delivering mission critical enterprise applications. Currently, he is leading, as co-founder, a tech startup. He strongly believes that effective communication, by building trust, is the key to form hyper productive teams. Passionate with agile and lean methodologies (certified Scrum Master, APMG Agile PM practitioner, public speaker and curator of the Greek Agile community) he is also acting as independent agile coach and instructor, helping teams to improve their agility index. Yiannis is 2 times Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu European champion (1st place/2010, 2nd place/2012). More info about Yiannis can be found here.

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