Me (with Robin Williams beard): I thought about what you said to me the other day, about how I’m running my startup too fat. Stayed up half the night thinking about it. Something occurred to me…I fell into a deep, peaceful sleep, and haven’t thought about you since. Do you know what occurred to me?
Lean Startup: No
Me: You’re just a methodology. You don’t have the faintest idea what intangibles it’ll take to win my market. If I asked you about customer acquisition, you’d probably give me the skinny on every growth hack ever written. How to test, measure, validate, and repeat. But I’ll bet you can’t tell me how it feels to look a customer in the eye and have to explain why you’re different. You’re a genius, Lean Startup. No one denies that. You’ve fundamentally changed the way people bring products to market for the better. Entrepreneurs have no excuse for starting something people don’t want. But they’ve still got to build it. That’s where the fun starts. If you want to talk about Fat startups, then I’m fascinated. I’m in.
Lean to Fat
I couldn’t sleep the other night, and I stumbled upon the above scene. It struck a chord. I’ve been having a battle with myself and others as the Lean Startup commoditizes the process of building an MVP as to what the next step is. I may have been unable to sleep in the first place because I was rationalizing the enormous amount of time we are spending on non-Lean things at Find Your Lobster. But maybe that’s a good thing.
Find Your Lobster is careening towards launch. Our beta product looks and acts amazing, my hilarious Michael Cera-like performance in our AppStori Video is generating Oscar buzz, and our team has gelled and is clicking on all cylinders. This is both great and terrifying - if FYL tanks I’ve got no one to blame but myself.
The biggest inner-battle I’m having at the moment is how fat my startup is and should be. The Lean Methodology has commoditized MVP’s - there’s no excuse for an untested, unvalidated startup any longer. So… Now what? I think step one is tossing the Lean Startup in the garbage (or at least putting it back on your shelf for a bit). But first…
How to use Lean
I use the Lean Methodology to test and subsequently prove or disprove assumptions. It’s an effective way to make decisions that can save you months or even years of building something people don’t want. It forces founders to “hit the street;” engaging with customers to understand what the MVP should look like.
I’m helping a few startups where the founders haven’t yet left their jobs. It’s fantastic for this. I tell them to ask themselves: “How can I get this product in the hands of my ideal customer without leaving my company or spending a ton of money building anything intensive?” Once they do this, and the feedback is positive, leaving is part of the discussion. If it’s not, it’s out of the question.
Entrepreneurship isn’t about taking risks. It’s about mitigating them. Lean does a fantastic job of helping entrepreneurs mitigate startup risks, because leaving a paying job in a shitty economy is simply a bad idea. It becomes a less-bad idea if you’ve proved your product has a market without spending 30 grand and quitting.
The Lean Methodology has dramatically raised the bar for MVPs, making a proven product with an accessible market table stakes. So what do you do now? How can you beat these companies now that have the Lean advantage has been erased?
Ask yourself why you started this company in the first place.
You knew the market, were passionate about the problem and your product, and wanted desperately for your solution to exist. Table stakes.
You’ve got a talented team that is as passionate as you are. Now you’re getting somewhere. What do customers want that your team is uniquely equipped to knock out of the park? What are the things your team can do that aren’t in any Lean book?
This is where things get fat. And risky. As an example, here’s how we are being fat at Find Your Lobster:
Find Your Lobster is a dating app. Perhaps you’ve heard that people are finicky when it comes to those. There’s stigma (whether there should be or not is a different blog), so we’ll need to be flawless and consistent in our marketing, design, and execution. Add in that I’m asking users to log in with their Facebook accounts, and they’ll be like gazelles in the Serengeti - ready to scatter.
My app can’t afford to look like an MVP when we launch. It can’t be marketed like a product built by a team of people with no experience marketing a dating app. It’s a serious challenge, and a big reason goliaths like Match.com still exist despite an inferior product. It’s tough to break into this space and build a user base with the existing market forces.
The differentiator for us comes in distribution and user experience.
I’d like to say I was planning this strategy from day 1, but truthfully it’s emerged as we’ve built the app, our team, and our audience. Another big factor was my ability (good fortune) to find two of the most talented UX/Marketing guys in the city who happen to be as passionate about the idea as I am. They also happen to be extremely talented behind a video camera. Videos featuring me in a giant lobster suit getting into the funny, awkward, and embarrassing situations that WILL happen when you join any dating site seems like a better way of attacking these parts of the site than ignoring them.
Our combined ability and willingness to spend enormous amounts of time giving our product a personality will hopefully pay off. Our developers dedication to a product that, while an MVP, looks and feels like something more is a risk. We’re being fat where we’re talented - if we’re going to be beat, I want it to be with our best pitch.
I think it’s necessary to take a hard look at whatever industry you’re entering and figure out what your unique, sustainable advantage is. This isn’t revolutionary but you should be able to answer immediately, and it shouldn’t be something vague. I believe we can win on the marketing / video / funny front because our marketing team has made awesome, funny videos before. They’ve built a social presence with 10’s of thousands of engaged users before, my developers have built complicated, awesome apps before, and I’ve… well… I’ve got faith I can do it. Which is exactly what I just told people not to do. In all seriousness, I’ve got experience running the ship. And I’m the one making the decisions on where we spent our time, which is really the most important responsibility for any founder.
Don’t be afraid to be fat where you can differentiate - in this commoditized Lean world, it may be your best shot.