What Lean Startup Machine Can Teach Product Managers

Update and disclaimer: I had originally attended Lean Startup Machine in October 2012, was a mentor in September 2013, and will be mentoring again this year.

If you’re a product manager or marketer, you need to attend Lean Startup Machine. Why? So you can learn to be wrong. A lot. And faster.

Lean Startup Machine is an intensive educational workshop that lasts 49 hours (yes, you read that right) where attendees learn how to use Lean Startup principles, particularly Customer Development techniques, to validate an idea for a new product or service with actual customers. So if you have an idea that’s been rolling around your head for some time, come to LSM and in 49 hours you will leave either with the real knowledge that your idea stinks (because there are no customers) or quite possibly with a commitment from an early adopter customer in the form of a purchase order, contract or credit card number, or non-cash currency in the form of time, a registration, and email submission or letter of intent. (No, I’m not making this up.)

If you’re unfamiliar with Lean Startup or Customer Development, read this, this, and this.

This past weekend I attended the Lean Startup Machine (LSM) workshop held at The Fort.vc in downtown Washington DC. It started Friday at 6pm and ended on Sunday at 7pm. About 50 people participated representing a spectrum of backgrounds and industries. The youngest attendee was still in high school while some of us, like yours truly, could be considered more “seasoned” professionals.

The basic format is this: anyone with an idea has 50 seconds to pitch it, everyone votes, and the ones with the most votes become team leaders. Everyone else then joins a team. The teams then spend the rest of the weekend validating the assumptions behind their ideas with real customers and iterating based on their feedback with the goal of getting to a point where you can claim customer validation for your product idea. Assumptions and iterations (also called pivots) are tracked via the Validation Board. Proof of validation is in the cash or non-cash currencies mentioned earlier. If you think this sounds unrealistic to accomplish over a weekend, read this.

The first thing the team does is identify who they believe is their target customer for their product idea – called the Customer Hypothesis – and what problem they believe their solution solves for these customers – called the Problem Hypothesis. The team then identifies all the assumptions underlying their Problem Hypothesis and then picks the Riskiest Assumption among all these. This is the most important assumption of all your underlying assumptions – the one that if it turns out to be false tells you the problem you thought exists actually doesn’t.

With the Riskiest Assumption identified, the team creates an experiment to invalidate that assumption. What this means is you go find real customers to talk to who can tell you you’re wrong. That’s right: the purpose is not to be proven right; it’s to be proven wrong.

What this also means is that you’re getting out onto the street and interviewing actual strangers to find out (a) if they meet your Customer Hypothesis, and (b) if they do, do they have the problem you think they do?

If you get enough potential customers confirming your assumption, you may be on to something and may have the opportunity to actually pitch them your idea in the form of a minimum viable product. It’s more than likely, though, either you won’t find any suitable customers or they’ll tell you they don’t have the problem you thought they did. And that’s when the real fun begins, because you’re then forced to pivot, which means either re-visit your Problem Hypothesis or perhaps test your hypothesis with another type of customer.

This happens over and over at an extremely rapid pace. You are in a constant flow of documenting your hypothesis, creating your experiment, listing your questions for the customer interviews, getting out of the building to go find people to talk to, capturing your findings, and then repeating the cycle. You use the Validation Board, sticky notes and markers to keep track of all this stuff. Along the way, you’re guided by extremely helpful mentors – former and current Lean Startup entrepreneurs and practitioners. There are also presentations by other lean practitioners to share their experiences and insights, and to keep you motivated.

The workshop ends with team presentations on Sunday evening and a winner is announced.

LSM was a unique and unforgettable experience that I’d recommend to anyone with a product or business idea. But I was particularly struck by how much product managers and marketers can benefit from participating in LSM and learning the Lean Startup approach. Why?

1. To get better at customer research. Product managers and marketers need to be spending their time understanding customer problems. While data and metrics can tell you a lot, nothing will tell you more than actual customer interviews. But there’s a right and wrong way to do this. LSM will give you a crash course in the right way so you can get to the true nature of the customer’s problem as quickly as possible.

2. To learn how to validate your ideas quickly. Product managers are natural problem solvers. But running with the first idea that strikes as a solution will cause you to run into problems of your own. So testing ideas is important. “Build and launch” is not the way. “Test and learn” is. LSM will force you to think critically about the most important components of your idea – who is the customer and what problem do you think you’re solving for them – and give you the tools to rigorously and systematically test these. The structure of the workshop will force you to go through this hypothesize-test-learn loop as quickly as possible so you can start discarding bad ideas quickly so as to get to the potentially good ones faster.

3. To get their teams past debating opinions and intuition, and focused on validated learning. Product managers typically work in teams whose members don’t report to them. So the ability to influence defines success or failure for a product manager. Everyone thinks their idea is the most credible and, particularly in agile teams, everyone has an equal voice. Even when data is available, it is still subject to interpretation. LSM gives product managers the tools that enable them to get past the opinions and subjectivity by capturing everyone’s point of view as a hypothesis that can be rigorously and systematically tested with actual customers. Product teams can cycle through the opinions and get to what customers really want faster while maintaining team harmony.

4. To practice your influencing skills. Related to the above. A product manager with poor influencing skills will fail. Period. LSM is a team-based workshop. You’re working with total strangers to validate an actual product idea. And you’ve got precious little time to do it. Everyone’s opinion counts. The cauldron of LSM is perfect to test and refine your ability to influence.

5. To learn the value of doing and being decisive. LSM will teach you to quickly get over your fear of having the perfect answer, being wrong or looking stupid, which often becomes a roadblock to actually doing anything. Instead, you’ll be forced to be decisive and do stuff so you can learn from mistakes quickly.

6. To learn that you’re often wrong. Some product managers fall into the trap of thinking they’re always right by nature of being a product manager. “Product management represents the customer, so of course I know best!” is how the thinking goes. This is dangerous. A product manager’s value is not in being the know-all about what’s best for his or her customers. Rather, it’s in the product manager’s ability to truly understand the customer’s problems and lead the organization to visualize and deliver a viable and innovative solution that the product manager’s value lies. LSM will teach you how to do this in a sustainably repeatable process.

7. To learn to distinguish between vision and details. Every product starts with a vision of a potential solution to a problem. Being natural problem solvers, product managers often have a vision for how to solve their customers’ problems. It’s a fine line between knowing when to keep to the vision and when to admit it just won’t work. LSM is a great way to learn how to stay true to a vision, but be flexible on details.

Check out when and where is the next Lean Startup Machine workshop here.

Have you attended LSM? What was your experience like? What were the key lessons you took away?