Fireside Chat With Ash Maurya – Understanding Lean Startups – Part 2


June 6, 2014

This is the second part the multipart series: "Fireside Chat With Ash Maurya" ( Read part 1 here).

Vaidy:  So I have one question. I know that you're building your own product User Cycleand it's quite obvious from the flow, even though I haven't actually signed up for it myself, I do keep seeing the 3 or 4 levels of "Are you sure you want to buy this?", you know. You're kind of trying to push customers away rather than actually making it easier for them to come in. You also have the multiple levels of customers, the 10x model that you were talking about. So it is obvious that, you were kind of eating your own dog-food, that you were testing your own principles on products.

My question is with respect to the customers that you have been working with and the other startups that you've been working with. I've found it extremely difficult to even discipline myself to go through this. How often do you find companies that are willing to cross the bridge and work with you? How often do you see with the folks that you interact with who actually take your idea or have taken your idea so far and who've been like gone, not all the way, but really crossed significant milestones?

Ash: Yeah, and so I would say that maybe I will give some comments on the whole 10x model. I actually recommend raising sign-up friction against lowering sign-up friction. If you ever have a kid, like a 5 year old or something, you can tell her * not* to go into that room, they want to go into that room even more. So if you actually tell them they can't have the product they actually want it more. I've seen this in the past.

People start asking me, at a very high level, what I'm doing and offer to be a beta user. We don't want * beta users* . We want just * customers* and that * changes the conversation* . So I think that's just something to throw out there.

But, I would say that as far as adoption goes, yes this is definitely at the infancy stage which is why I engage people at many different levels. There are people who just read the book and read the blog and they take what they want out from it and there's a process. So, a lot of stuff sounds very simple and some of the things are simple, like if you have an idea, instead of spending six months writing an iPhone app, you can actually just build the demo, put up a landing page - see if anyone will even say they're interested.

So people get very excited when they go through those kind of things. But at some point when you have customers and you think things should get easier when you have customers. But I found out it is the exact opposite because customers start pulling you in different directions and start asking for things. Now if you listen to everyone, you get lost even more. So that's when people usually come back and ask us for something like a framework [to make it easier].

So I find that there are levels where people come and practise a lot of these things and they'll try different tactics but it's still at that jolting phase. Now there are workshops and camps where the idea is to have a more deliberate process so it's common to understand the concepts, take your startup idea or growth product and have you apply it in every week, design experiments, come back with a learning and if you get stuck talk about how we can get it restarted. So I think that has had a much bigger impact just from the people I work with.



Vaidy: So there is another thing actually. So you said you had a bit of recursion in the first book you wrote wherein you were talking about the process of writing the book itself when writing the book. Was there any similar version in the second at all?

Ash: So that's a great question. So I say that every product that I build has the same process. We definitely eat our own dog-food so we'll have an idea. Furthermore it's like understanding the problems and I throw this out as a hat for everyone, anyone. So if you really want to find problems worth solving you have to first immerse yourself in the world of your customers and really see how they solve their problems.

I travel around the world but I find that for a typical entrepreneur/intrepreneur the problems are the same. We may speak different languages, we may look different, but fundamentally we all want the same things and feel the same things. So if you take out all those barriers it's the same person whom you are talking to. So through that immersion which I deal with my workshops every month and that's why I go out and it's not for the money but it's more for that exposure to these different entrepreneurs around the world.

And you can then figure out what the right problems are and then through that process, the entrepreneurial process, you come up with certain solutions. And the way I test that is in this incremental fashion, so I will first introduce an idea in a workshop. So I'm running a workshop tomorrow and there's always some new content there which is almost like a test, so I throw it out there and it'll barely be a five-minute thing, it may be a 30-minute exercise. But the point is that if that doesn't help then I go back and tweak it and that's how I build on that idea.

So Customer Factory was not a book first, it was really just an idea - a picture I had in a slide somewhere and I talked about it and people really liked the idea and wanted to learn more and that's what encouraged me to learn more. So it usually starts with a small closed-group setting because if you guys don't like what I say then I don't have to say it anymore - no one else has to hear about it.

But that's this process of incremental validation - if I get encouragement here then I go to the next level, which may be a blogpost, and so I've done some blogposts on Customer Factory and before I even announced the book I just shared the idea as a business model, as a system, and that got a lot of positive feedback and then I will come out and decide, okay, I'm gonna write this product and let's see - will people even want a second book?

So it's very much the same exact process and so I'm going through the same process of Running Lean, but in some ways on a different scale, because now, and this is where some of the bigger companies always ask - well we have a brand to protect and lean stuff makes us look like fools if we don't build the right product. That's where this kind of incremental reveal and also not committing to doing something before you are ready to do it helps. So it's the same thing but I'm being a little bit more deliberate in how I'm releasing the content this time.

Vaidy: Yes, yes…It's not the same as the " free" running lean days.

Ash:  Exactly. Yeah, I mean those easier days. I'd be happy if people hadn't even heard of this [Running Lean]. :)

Vaidy: Has there been a time when, like in the recent past, the last couple of years, where you've actually been really fascinated by a certain idea that you thought would work, but it didn't?

Ash: Oh yeah, that happens a lot. It probably happens more often because that's again where I talked about this incremental reveal. Many things are just killed very very quickly before they can get too far. So most people don't even know - they just see that this guy is just writing a good blogpost that has a lot of the stuff that happens in the back.

So even like I would talk about this Lean Stack thing. So we have this Lean Canvas which is a simplified business model, but we knew that we wanted to be able to better track experiments so you bring it up on kanban boards, but if you look at the journey of the blogposts and even the products, there are lots of innovations there and we all thought those were all awesome ideas but I look at them now and I say these were just really bad.

The current one is the better version, so right now we have a latest version that we like, but from experience I would say that may not be the one that's going to stay there. So I talk about this late-finding - I talk about having a big vision but you wanna late-find a solution to it as late as possible so as to understand the problem really well, throw out a few possible solutions, and you're gonna iterate on that till you come up with that final solution.

So if you've an idea as the lean stack, if you were in software we would say it's faster to build this thing in software so let's just build it, and inevitably in software it * always* takes longer than you expect. So it took us two months to build instead of a month and after we built it it was the wrong thing so we ended up killing that feature. This stuff doesn't really work.

Vaidy: So this was actually built on top of the lean canvas. You had the lean canvas earlier and you added some things to it.

Ash: Right, but the lesson there for us is that…so we had the lean canvas and we had us some new screens for these boards, but then we eventually took that out in the next iteration and said we're not gonna build them with software, we're just going to build the poster.

So we actually had a designer sketch out this thing which I had drawn on my board and I thought I'd do a poster and I took it to my workshops and even that wasn't really much, but through that process of iteration we came up with one that we liked and we sold the poster for a while, so if you want this experiment board you can buy it as a poster and we sold that for a while and then we turned it into a keynote template and a powerpoint template which we sold.

I think you may have seen some of those, we even sold those for a while. And then now we're building it into a software product. So it goes to say that even though you think software can be fast and almost always is a fast way to test something, there are other ways to launch an idea.