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Lean Startup Machine Rumbles into Toronto

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The Lean Startup Machine (LSM) is an intensive workshop where people can learn and experience what it's like to work in a Lean Startup environment. At LSM, teams have to start with an idea and rapidly validate or invalidate their assumptions until they find an audience willing to pay for their product. The emphasis isn't on building a product, but getting out of the building so you can find out who your real customers are and what they're willing to pay for. Recently, LSM came to Toronto. I was able to attend the event and chat with Jason Cheong-Kee-You, who brought the event to Toronto, about why he feels this is important to the Agile community:

My friend Cameron Westland told me he was heading to LSM Boston in January 2011, and that I should come. So I went.

As an Agile coach, I thought I knew pretty much everything there was to know about how to run a software business. What I experienced in Boston, made me think, the Agile community doesn't know about this. When I was in Boston, I told Trevor Owens, the founder of LSM, you have got to bring this to Toronto.

At LSM Boston, my team started on Friday night. By Sunday afternoon we had someone pay $40 online for our product. Here's the thing...we didn't write one line of code. And four of the six of us were developers. Now you might think, well what did we do over the weekend? Why didn't we just build the application? If we had done that, we never would have gotten anyone to pay. On Friday night, within 10 minutes of talking with a customer, we invalidated 3 out of 4 problems we were solving for customers. We said, we've been hearing that this is a problem. The first 3 people we talked to said, no, not a problem for me.

Here is how Jason describes the event:

LSM is a weekend competition where people pitch their ideas, form into teams, and apply Lean Startup to validate three hypotheses: who's your customer? what's their problem? what's your solution?

LSM provides sufficient structure and mentorship so that participants experience an epiphany. A moment when they realize that their understanding of their business is a set of hypotheses, and that the best way to test these hypotheses is against reality (i.e. paying customers). And that the best time to do this is before building the product.

Here's what some the attendees had to say about their experience:

Tony Semana of Semanteks Consulting:

This past weekend, I attended Lean Startup Machine Toronto, and WOW... it was amazing, exhausting, information-packed, dynamic, exhilarating, inspiring... did I mention exhausting??

This weekend we were exposed to the Validated Learning Canvas - which seems to have been developed by Trevor Owens for Lean Startup Machine. I REALLY think the Validated Learning Canvas method that we learned, practiced and executed this weekend using the canvas was AWESOME!

Essentially, the canvas drives home the idea that for any problem/solution hypothesis-pair there are a number of assumptions, and of those assumptions there is 1 that is the riskiest of them. That one assumption is the one that needs to be focused on and tested to the exclusion of all others.

Navneet Alang, Tech Critic at The Toronto Standard, had this to say:

It's that experimental notion that pervaded the event at the Burroughes Building, and the emphasis placed on real-world customer validation of a business idea. That meant picking up the phone or hitting the streets to talk to people. Only then, after learning what customers actually wanted, could teams "pivot"--i.e. alter their original idea--until a viable concept emerged.

Jason Little, of the winning team Hire Shark, wrote about The Lean Startup and his learnings from the event:

Start with a problem hypothesis and figure out a solution hypothesis. After that, come up with your set of assumptions and identify your riskiest ones. After that, “get out of the building” and go talk to who you think your customers are. As you get information you’ll either validate or invalidate your assumptions and you can decide what to do, stay the course or pivot. The key is to validate your customer by getting them to give up something of value. That can be money or something else of value.

Jason took five learnings away from the event:

  1. Let go of your fear:

    Max Cameron’s workshop was awesome. At LSM Boston he mentioned he felt that same fear of going up to strangers and asking them for money for his idea.

    I had a customer hooked really early and chickened out asking for money. I didn’t make that mistake again. Max’s story was inspiring, from the language he used to how passionately he spoke about building trust and listening to customers, understanding their pain and finding something to stop that pain. Worst case, the customer says no and you move on.

  2. Let go of your assumptions:

    Your ideas and assumptions will be wrong. Deal with it.

    One of the mentors said many people with the next million dollar idea come in excited and leave with a crushed ego.

    if you can’t validate them, move on and let it go. I learned that by Friday night and it was a hard lesson to learn. Your assumptions are worth ZERO until you talk to your customer.

  3. Do whatever it takes to deliver your service:

    Eric Ries joined by Skype to answer some questions. When people asked for advice he would ask “how many customers do you have?” The answers were all sorta like “uh, well, we have 9 people that love it, but we don’t have any software to show or….” Eric replied with “that’s entrepreneur speak for ZERO”

    One of the teams, Printify, had an idea to provide printing services in the cloud. Upload your doc, they’ll print it and you pick it up on the way to where you’re going. Eric’s advice was “start printing!” Tell students and anybody on the street you’ll print their document and bring it to them. That’s the measure of whether or not the service is valuable.

  4. MVP = Experiment:

    An MVP is nothing more than an experiment. It can be a landing page, poster on the street with a phone number, paper mockup, a survey or a hacked together service. Make sure it’s an experiment that is testing one of your assumptions.

  5. Beware of confirmation Bias:

    it’s the phenomena that happens when you have what you think validated.

    Stay honest with yourself. I’ve been guilty of this many times. ”See!!! I’m right!!!” It’s not helpful.

This experience was life changing. It changed my whole perspective about how I approach problems and ideas. I used to get annoyed with all the hoopla and tongue-in-cheek “you’re wrong!” snarkyness that comes out of the lean startup community but once you really experience that feeling of validation and invalidation with face-to-face (or phone) conversations with your customers, you will get it. I get it now. I “knew it” before, but now I get it. Really.

LSM Toronto will be coming back in April 2012.

The Lean Start Machine has an interview with Jason Little and Toronto Standard has posted a Lean Startup Machine Toronto video.

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