Seven Practical Themes From The Lean Startup Conference

Earlier this week, I attended my very first Lean Startup Conference in San Francisco. I was invited to sit on a panel discussion of the lean startup practices in the enterprise by the good folks at Neo (thanks, Josh.) I spoke about my my experience at Edmunds.com and both the blessings and challenges that go with applying the lean startup principles in the context of a mature business.

Throughout the conference, many inspiring speakers told stories of successes and failures; dos and don’ts. There was a lot to take in (kudos to the event organizers for packing an impressive lineup! Seriously, my brain is still swollen from the data intake!)

After a few days of processing everything I heard, the seemingly disparate concepts started coalescing in my head into themes of lessons learned or best practices or whatever you want to call it. These are beacons derived from real-life experiences to help guide us maximize our chances for success and avoid unnecessary failures.

I distilled them down to seven main themes that every entrepreneur or change agent should live by. Here they are in no particular order:

Just Do It

Lean innovation and disruption is based in action. If you don’t do, then what the hell are you doing? We live in an incredible time where creating high fidelity software is easier than ever. With tools like Heroku, Twitter Bootstrap, Django or Ruby on Rails, Google Analytics, and Facebook Canvas, validating a product by building a minimally viable version of it, or an MVP, and putting it in front of real customers is relatively a no-brainer kind of affair, yet not many people do it.  In his talk, Steve Blank stressed the importance of “doing it” as opposed to reading or talking about how it’s done. If you work at a large company, use the tools aforementioned to “do it.”  If you can’t code, try to onboard a developer to help you out. If you can’t, then maybe the universe is trying to tell you something.

It All Starts at The CEO Level

Senior executives to companies are the VCs to startups, for better or for worse. If your CEO doesn’t truly believe in validated learning and experimentation, the spirit of the lean startup is dead in the water in that organization. Many senior executives give good lip and rarely follow up with action. Beth Comstock from GE spoke about the protected class of ideas at GEThese are innovation teams believed in and protected by the CEO and are set up for success (i.e. they are funded, removed from the day-to-day chaos, …etc.)

It’s Not About You; It’s About The Team

Eric Ries stressed this point several times as did other speakers: in order for you to be successful, you need others to believe and embrace the lean startup principles as well. It was almost a call to action: how to inculcate these principles in our peers and organizations? How do we create an ecosystem in which validated learning is a core value? It was almost a call for evangelism. I believe the best way to show others the way is to lead by example. By “just doing it,” others will follow, especially after seeing the value of the ideas in practice.

Talk to Your Customers

We’ve all heard the “get out of the building” cry for action, but it all comes down to engaging with your customers and learning what their needs are. That’s accomplished by talking to customers in person or virtually through usability testings or even through collecting behavioral data through Google Analytics. As long as you’re “listening” to what customers are telling you and adjusting your product accordingly, you should be fine.

Cut The Crap!

My personal favorite learning from the conference. This encompasses cutting unnecessary features out of your MVP to speaking to people in the language they understand without the jargon. I find myself struggling with this a lot. Just because you understand what an “MVP” or “validated learnings” mean, it doesn’t mean that the person you’re talking to understands them as well as you do if at all. Taking the time to adjust your language to the audience before you is a crucial tool that ensures proper onboarding, understanding of, and ultimately the success of your project.

Use Android to Validate Mobile Products

I really liked Matt Brezina’s talk on Rapid Mobile Development and his contention that all products, including mobile, can be validated fast. This gets really important in mobile development since iOS development doesn’t lend itself to rapid development, given Apple’s tedious approval process. Matt’s suggestion to use a different platform for rapid testing mobile products is really interesting. Doing whatever it takes to find out if there’s a market for your product before building it out will in the end save you money and time. No one wants to work on an app or product for several months and have no one use it in the end. Now that would be heartbreaking.

Having Daily Outcomes

This was one of the learnings I spoke about from my experience. Validating a hypothesis or releasing a feature/test/fix every single day is important for success…and morale. Having 3-week iterations promotes procrastination and lots of wasted time. If you break down your product properly and “cut the crap” brutally, you will end up with very small tasks that can be tackled on daily basis. The team needs to leave for the day with a sense of accomplishment. This practice isn’t common in big companies and one that the lean startup spirit could help bring to the table.

These are the main themes that jumped at me. What do you think? Did I miss something?

I left the conference inspired to continue embracing the “just do it” mantra but also doing a better job in reaching out to different people across the company to help institutionalize the practice of validated learning and rapid experimentation. What will you do differently with these learnings in mind?

Edmunds.com API: Driving Innovation and Partnership with Open Data

I gave a talk at Mashery’s BAPI NY conference last week on the success of the open data initiative at Edmunds.com.  I gave a webinar a few months back on the same subject.  You can find the Edmunds API here. This is only the beginning 🙂

Why Ask Friends Who They Voted for in 2008 When Votizen Can Tell You That and More

I know voting records are public.  Notwithstanding, I was a little annoyed to learn that some of my seemingly apolitical Facebook and Twitter friends were Republican or voted Republican in 2008 when crazy Palin was running.  How did I know that?  I went to Votizen.com.  I’ve been a member for a while and I do like the site, but I wasn’t ready to see some people, most of whom I don’t really know that well, outed as Republicans.  Being a Republican today isn’t like being a Republican back in 1986, if you know what I mean.  In today’s political climate, I would have preferred not to know that about those people.

After getting annoyed for a day, I started to wonder: do these people even know that their political affiliation and voting records are now readily available for viewing by their Facebook and Twitter (and now LinkedIn) friends?  Would they be OK with that?  So I asked one of them.  He flipped out.  His response was, “dude, this is personal. How can they do this? I never signed up for an account there.”  He felt, well, outed.

Here’s the thing: we like to think that our political affiliation and voting records are personal and most of us avoid the topic all together at work, family gatherings, parties, …etc.  But in reality, all of that stuff is public data.  The folks at Votizen collected it, catalogued it, digitized it, standardized it and turned it into a product.  I’m not really sure any of us can do anything about it.

Here’s a snapshot of what I saw on Votizen.  I blurred the names and photos of those individuals out of respect.  I did the same thing with my Democrat friends.

Voting records might be public, but let’s give the choice back to individuals to determine with whom to share that public knowledge.  If not out of respect, at least out of courtesy.

All I know is: thank God I didn’t connect my LinkedIn account with Votizen!

Five Lessons Learned at The Reinvent Business Hackathon

Last weekend, two of my colleagues and I participated in the Reinvent Business hackathon in San Francisco. I’ve participated in Hackathons in the past where code with its sophistication and originality was the main focus. It was different this time around; the Reinvent Business hackathon was primarily a non-technical event focused on innovative business solutions as opposed to purely innovative technical solutions.

The experience was extremely fulfilling with many learnings to be shared. Here’s a list of the top 5 learnings we gleaned from the event:

    1. Frame the Problem: Hats off to the organizers of this hackathon! frog and LRN did a bang-up job with the logistics and the flow of the event. I liked the fact that spaces in which opportunities for business reinvention and innovation where clearly called out.  The 160 participants were then asked to state issues that need to be addressed under each space. The frogs (i.e. employees at frog) then took all those participant-generated statements and coalesced them into clearly articulated problem statements. The participants then organically gravitated toward the problem statements they wanted to solve, and in turn, meeting other likeminded individuals, which made it easy to form teams.  State the problem and let people come up with the solution.
      Adding opportunities for innovation under the Business Decision space at Reinvent Business hackathon
      Adding opportunities for innovation under the Business Decision space at Reinvent Business hackathon

      The frogs combining all submitted statements into clear problem statements individuals and teams could tackle
      The frogs combining all submitted statements into clear problem statements individuals and teams could tackle
    2. Inspire Don’t Direct: Dov Seidman, CEO at LRN, delivered the keynote speech.  He was absolutely inspirational. He challenged us to “innovate in humanity” by making business personal. He’s a master storyteller and got everyone stoked and ready to hack away!  To get people to care and do their best, you have to inspire them, not direct them.

      Dov Seidman giving the keynote speech at the Reinvent Business hackathon
      Dov Seidman giving the keynote speech at the Reinvent Business hackathon
    3. Less is More: I noticed that the teams that did well had not more than 5 members.  This reaffirmed my belief that the less people you have in a team (ideally between 3-5,) the better the product, the team and everyone involved for it. I believe this goes to the fact that smaller teams don’t suffer much from the “too many cooks in the kitchen” syndrom and will also likely to focus better. Obviously, there are many large teams that do very well, but those are the exception to the rule.
    4. Team Roles = Accountability: I know this firsthand since our team failed to assign clear roles like Team Captain, tech lead, …etc. Our team, on the human level, was awesome! But the fact that we didn’t have assigned roles meant that we did everything by committee. Design by Committee and Decision by Committee, both of which proved detrimental to our success. Assigned roles it clear what each member’s responsibilities are. With responsibility comes accountability and in turn focus to deliver and eventually success.
    5. Storytelling is Everything: No one cares about how awesome your code is or how complex your software architecture is. People care about the human story your product creates. Why is your product good for people? Why do they want to use it? How will it impact their lives? Our team built a mobile web app that illustrated our idea, but when it came time to sell the idea (i.e. pitch it) we focused more on the product than the people that would benefit from it. Ironically, the winning team had an identical idea to ours and no prototype. Yet they won and they won because they told a compelling, very engaging story about why their product is good for people and for business.  We didn’t win because we couldn’t agree on how to pitch our product and tried to accommodate every opinion.

      This team ROCKED! They told an awesome story and came in 2nd.
      This team ROCKED! They told an awesome story and came in 2nd.
The learnings are still sinking in and I’ll probably update this post with more learnings in the coming weeks. My colleagues and I left the event inspired and committed to making business personal and authentic through technology. Most importantly, we were inspired to tell better stories.
Team Edmunds (left to right): Ismail Elshareef, Daniel Kang and Joseph I
Team Edmunds (left to right): Ismail Elshareef, Daniel Kang and Joseph I

Lean Innovation: How to Become an Effective Innovator [UPDATED]

Yesterday, I gave a talk on Lean Innovation at the very first Edmunds Tech Conference. Before I started my talk, I played this Louis C.K. video:

Very funny, but it also set the tone for my talk. We do take innovation for granted. We do so because our expectations are continuously resetting and normalizing that unless we start teleporting people tomorrow, no one is impressed.

My talk defines innovation by stating what it is and what it is not, and how lean innovation is different. At my job at Edmunds, I took on two projects with highly uncertain business values: the open APIs and Facebook Timeline integration. Through the process of implementing both, I learned a lot about bringing highly uncertain products to customers and making them work. I felt I needed to share that with my colleagues and now with you.

Most importantly, I truly believe that if you cannot recognize innovation you can never create innovation. 

Innovation has four cornerstones:

  1. Creativity: vision and ideas are impetus of innovation.
  2. Execution: acting on those ideas is the realization of innovation.
  3. Business Value: what separates innovation from invention is how the value proposition that consumers adopt.
  4. Evolution: innovation is iterative. If you’re not iterating, you’re not innovating.

What makes innovation lean is the high uncertainty surrounding the business value of the innovation. When you think you know what people want but you don’t really know. That’s when you have to innovate the lean way.

Effective innovators are:

  1. Dreamers: You gotta dream and dream big. Tune out the naysayers and the eye-rollers. Dare to see things differently and believe in your vision.
  2. Fighters: Armchair and fair-weather innovators are what gives innovation a bad rap. You need to fight for your vision.
  3. Doers: You can dream all you want but if you don’t do something about it, you’re not innovating.

Here’s how to ensure your lean innovation is effective:

  1. Set Daily Outcomes: when you’re innovating, time is not on your side. You need to test your hypotheses and validate them quickly. You can’t think in weeks or months. You need to think in hours and days. Set a daily outcome that you have to deliver on. You’ll be more productive, much happier as a person, and well .. more innovative!
  2. Know Your Tools: You cannot innovate without knowing how to build, test, deploy, market and measure your innovation!
  3. Measure Everything: Since you’re dealing with high uncertainty, you need to measure everything you can possibly measure. Otherwise, your results might be skewed (invalidating a valid guess or validating and invalid guess) and in turn your product won’t be successful.
  4. Find Your Allies: Like anything else, you cannot do anything worthwhile alone. Find people you trust to collaborate with you.
  5. Do It: If you don’t do it, it doesn’t matter. Doing can take on various forms. You can code or put together a team that does. Whatever it is, you need to do by being involved and ensuring that the project is moving forward.
  6. Sell It: Storytelling can make or break any innovation. If you can’t tell an engaging, compelling story of why this innovation makes sense, you failed.

You can see the entire talk in these four video installments:

I’d love to get a conversation going about Lean Innovation within companies. Feel free to post a comment below of tweet me at @ielshareef. Looking forward to it!

UPDATE (June 20, 2012): You can now watch my Lean Innovation talk here.

Five Things Jean Paul Gaultier Can Teach Innovators

A week ago, I was in San Francisco visiting friends. We had the most perfect San Francisco summer day that Saturday: gray, cool and windy. It was a great day for culture, so we decided to go see The Fashion World of Jean Paul Gaultier: From the Sidewalk to the Catwalk (on through August 19th) at the de Young. I saw the same exhibit last year in Montréal where it started. It blew me away then, and it inspired me this time around.

Now, I’m not a fashionista by any stretch of the imagination. I do, however, find art and fashion to be incredible storytelling mediums, beyond anything technology could offer. I thought Gaultier’s exhibit was so creative, so inventive, so beyond inquisitive that it exemplified innovation for me. Jean Paul Gaultier’s strong point of view and storytelling capabilities are something from which one should learn as much as one envies.

Bending and blurring the line between the masculine and feminine is a big theme in Gaultier’s collection. He brings diverse cultural aesthetics into his haut couture and prêt-à-porter collections. All the while, telling the story of modern masculinity and its evolution in our society.

The exhibit is rife with inspiration. As a technologist, I was especially inspired by the following:

  1. Have a Strong Point of View: There’s no time for mediocrity of thought. Take a stand and pursue it. Not everyone’s going to like it, but so be it. You don’t want to be on your deathbed lamenting the fact of being boring.
  2. Embrace the Fringe: Just because something isn’t popular, doesn’t mean it’s not useful or valuable. Innovators see value in the most mundane, ordinary, and sometime, outcast elements. Keep your eyes open for the extraordinary in ordinary things.
  3. Tell a Story: Storytelling is what makes people connect with you. Whether you’re building a clothing line, software, company or a country, it’s the story you tell that captures people’s imagination. Not what you’re building.
  4. Be Yourself: You’re most effective and authentic when you’re being yourself. Hiding any aspect of who you are will directly or indirectly hinder your chances of success.
  5. Have Fun: Enjoy the process because there are no guarantees in life. Be passionate, care deeply and enjoy the ride!

I believe technologists could benefit immensely by stepping outside the bubble of tech to draw inspiration from other disciplines.  There’s so much to learn from theater, art, fashion, music, martial arts, sports, …etc. The most effective innovator in our lifetime, Steve Jobs, drew much of his inspiration and innovation from calligraphy and type theory.

The world around us offers much mental stimulation. Are we tapping into it?

Tom Bihn Ristretta: The Perfect Bag for Your Mac

A few months back, I wrote about my travel machine, the Macbook Air 11″. The bag I used to carry it around back then was a freebie that I got at QCon a few years back. Needless to say, it was cheaply made and it started to disintegrate. Quickly.

image

I started looking for a new bag after seeing a nasty tear on the side the bag (I threw it out before taking a picture. Sorry.) During my search, I stumbled upon the Tom Bihn Ristretta for the Macbook Air 11″. After comparing it to other alternatives, I decided to buy it.

And boy am I glad I did![[MORE]]

The Ristretta is light, compact, has plenty of room for someone on the go, elegant, sturdy, and best of all, it’s “Made in USA!” If you love your MBA as much as I do, you’ll treat it to something awesome like Tom Bihn’s slick bag. image image

I currently have the following items in my bag:

  1. MBA 11″
  2. MBA charger with long extension
  3. Kindle 3
  4. Magic Mouse
  5. iPhone charger
  6. iPhone
  7. Three pens
  8. Headphones
  9. Eye mask (when traveling)
  10. Ear plugs (when traveling)
  11. A New Yorker magazine
  12. Business Cards
  13. Keys
  14. Passport bag (when traveling)

This is the perfect computer travel bag I’ve had to date. I have a feeling you’ll love it too.

Caught My Attention: The long goodbye, developing an iphone app, how to be a mentor, anatomy of an idea and fbootstrapp

  1. The Long Goodbye – An end-of-life account that’s both heartbreaking and funny in equal measure.
  2. My Experience Developing an iPhone App – A blueprint of how to think about and implement an iPhone application from a product perspective. Disclosure: I’ve worked with Howard Ogawa at Edmunds.com
  3. How to be a great mentor (and a mentee)  (TheNextWeb) – A quick read with tips on how to mentor professionals and how to accept mentoring by subject matter experts.
  4. Anatomy of an Idea – Steven Johnson wrote one of the few business books that really changed how I think about innovation. In this blog post, he tells us how he works and researches. Great read.
  5. fbootstrapp (github) – HTML, CSS, and JS toolkit for facebook apps. Fbootstrapp is a toolkit for kickstarting the development of facebook iframe apps.

Caught My Attention: API craft group, the future of classics, the culture of innovation, SOPA and code racer

  1. API Craft (Google Group) – Started by Apigee to provide a place for API developers and architects to talk shop with peers and to learn more about best practices. Great resource for anyone interested in APIs.
  2. Do The Classics Have a Future? – What is truly amazing is what we have, not what we don’t have from the ancient world. If you didn’t already know, and someone were to say that material written by people who lived two millennia ago or more still survived in such quantities that most people wouldn’t be able to get through it in a lifetime—you wouldn’t believe them. It’s astonishing. But it’s the case; and it offers the possibility of a most wondrous shared voyage of exploration.
  3. Is It a Fools Errand to Try to Create a Culture of Innovation? – A culture is its people. Innovation starts with the people in charge. If they don’t really embrace it and lead it themselves, they aren’t really for it, no matter how hard they try.
  4. On the Problem of Money, Politics, and SOPA – An interesting take on SOPA and the role of Hollywood money in starting it and giving it life.
  5. Code Racer – A game that tests your CSS/HTML skills. Pretty awesome!

Caught My Attention: The effect of collaboration on creativity, dynamic face substitution, innovation at YouTube, new incredible camera and Facebook mining our political sentiments

  1. The Rise of the New Groupthink (NY Times) – Can Design Thinking be actually bad for innovation? Most people are are most creative when alone and uninterrupted, so how will creativity fare in the new norm of team brainstorming and collaborative workplace?
  2. Dynamic Face Substitution – Whoa! Now that’s some awesome but real creepy technology that uses face tracker and color interpolation.
  3. Streaming Dreams (New Yorker) – A fascinating look at innovation at YouTube and how that company will reinvent TV. A must-read for all innovators and business executives out there.
  4. New Camera from WVIL (YouTube) – Debuted at CES 2011, this incredible camera will change photography as we know it.
  5. Facebook Gives Politico Deep Access to User’s Political Sentiments (All Things D) – All your updates, public and private, that mention a political candidate are shared with Facebook exclusive “partners.” That the price we pay for “free” service.