Lean Startup Machine San Francisco Summary

I recently attended the Lean Startup Machine San Francisco workshop. The event takes place in cities across the country, lasts an entire weekend, and is focused on validating customer interest in your startup idea. So while it’s quite similar to Startup Weekend in structure, it’s different in content, since you’re measured in dollars or signups committed to the cause here, while Startup Weekend measures you by how much of a product you have by Sunday. It’s an extension of the lean framework developed by Eric Ries in The Lean Startup, although he’s not involved in the running of the workshops.

So in a sense, it’s a lot more helpful for a nascent startup because it confirms bona fide desire in the general population rather than resulting in a hacked-together MVP. I previously attended Startup Weekend in San Diego, and found this event more valuable, probably because every attendee can bring something to the table, since you’re not coding. Paradoxically, LSM had way more developers than SWSD, although that may have something to do with the fact that this is San Francisco and it’s significantly more expensive, clocking in around 300 dollars as opposed to SWSD’s 50.

Here’s a recounting of the weekend’s talks, a quick rundown of our team and the competition, and my personal issues with the emphasis on market fit rather than passion.

Mentor Talks

Mark Abramson started everyone off by recounting his first LSM experience. His team started out trying to fix something having to do with restaurants, but after multiple rounds of interviews with no interest, they ended up pivoting three times and ended on a premium priced model where you pay $1200 up front and get 6 gourmet dinners at fancy SF restaurants over a few months. 3 people signed up then and there, providing him with the validation needed to win the workshop.

Of course, he didn’t have anything to give them since the restaurant side of the equation hadn’t agreed to anything and didn’t support the pricing model, but that doesn’t matter for the workshop part. It made me a bit jaded as to the whole model, however – if you can win the workshop with a product you don’t have isn’t that a bit disingenuous? Indeed, most of our teams ended up pivoting to concierge models where we promised access to premium marketplaces that we didn’t actually have access to. More on that later.

Jason Evanish (a personal hero of mine) talked about how best to conduct customer interviews (slides here). It should become a therapy session where they complain about a specific pain point, and only after you’ve sketched out their problem do you mention your solution. Get them to offer their solution before you present yours – ‘if I could wave a magic wand, what would happen?’. Asking ‘Why is that, tell me more’ is crucial, and any hacked together MVP solutions they’ve already made to solve their problem (like excel spreadsheets, etc) are gold.

Justin Wilcox bounded up and NLP‘d the heck out of us with exhortations to high five your neighbors as hard as possible while yelling ‘Impact! Freedom! Money!’, which were our goals with interviews. He did know how to find customers to interview, though, going so far as to interview someone live on stage that he had recruited through Mechanical Turk.

He taught us how helpful mTurk can be to find customers in your target segment (I was astonished to see that the users are a decent cross section of America, and that many people do it as a secondary task to make money while bored in front of the TV or on a shift). And about how to approach strangers on the street – find them where they’re waiting, like for the bus or at a gas station, and come with props like a bouquet of flowers that makes you look less threatening.

The founder of Mancrates (Jonathan Beekman) came in and talked about his journey to success. He started out sending and packing the crates from his living room, going so far as to pay his neighbor not to park his car in his driveway so that he could use it to back trucks up into. The first crates were nothing more than a bunch of Target products stuffed in a box, but someone wanted them! It proves how much more important validation is that execution at first. As he said ‘Somebody is going to think your product is crappy and unfinished no matter what, so you might as well ship it early‘. Remind my of Reid Hoffman’s quote: “If you’re not embarrassed by the first version of your product, you’ve launched too late.”

Ryan Hoover (another personal hero!) came by to talk about the time he did LSM way back when and how customer validation shaping his making of Product Hunt. He was full of helpful insights (like be careful getting stuck doing something you love, it should be about what the customer loves getting), but I thought it didn’t line up well with the LSM methodology, since he admits he started PH as an email list for himself and his friends to talk about cool new stuff. It wasn’t something he made in response to a need he discovered through customer interviews – it was something he made for himself because he’d use it! It just so happened that he  belongs to a customer segment that also likes what he likes, which is why it took off.

The Competition

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On Friday anyone in the crowd who wanted to got up to pitch an idea they had, and we all voted on the ideas we were interested in, then split into teams of up to 5. Ideas ranged from complex things like an app that could discern fake Stingray cell towers from real ones to more simple stuff like Uber for balloons or a non friend-restricted Doggybnb.

I teamed up with an Israeli marketer, local consultant, and a developer who was visiting from India to build something that would solve marketing for seed stage startups. I chose it because I had seen this problem before (where technical founders can build something but  can’t get the word out), but also because the customer interactions and research carried out towards that end could be helpful beyond the end of the weekend.

Something easer to explain would have made the customer development easier, since you could ask people on the street. But I have no interest in such a topic beyond the workshop, while startup marketing is a passion of mine no matter what. Such is the peculiarity of the workshop format, it that approachable consumer products are generally superior to anything else because then you can find target customers instead of cold calling startup VCs on weekends. We ended up sneaking into a closed co-working space downtown just to pull programmers from their chairs and try to interview them, only to discover they weren’t exactly in our target market.

The LSM founders introduced us to Javelin Boards and QuickMVP, two tools to help you along the path to validation. (big surprise, they’re also made by the same guy who founded the workshop) Javelin Boards are tables that force you to think when designing customer experiments (like what your ‘riskiest assumptions’ are), and QuickMVP combines a landing page with google ads to see how many people will actually click.

The winners of the weekend were a team that promised protein powder made from crickets, since they had the most signups (and spent almost nothing on PPC!). Another good idea was a $1k gift for baby showers that would automatically be invested such that it’d become enough to pay for a college semester 19 years later, which apparently isn’t hard. Clever.

Does passion trump validation?

And that’s the issue I had with LSM as a whole. The workshop was well run, the mentors helpful, and the methodology very good at helping find customer validation – but nobody is going to build a company merely because they found a market. I spoke with some of the winning teams after the awards and everyone admitted they weren’t going to follow up on the business, despite the validation. “That great, but not enough to quit my day job” was a common response. The only people following up were those who had come to the workshop with an idea they’d already worked on (which Mark had said were usually the worst-faring teams, since they’re married to their idea and can’t pivot).

Maybe they can’t pivot as fast as the other weekend teams, but more importantly, they have the passion to stay true to the project for months, way behind any workshop end date. A passionate person who believes in their project will outlast an MBA pursuing product-market fit any day, since they care about the solution than the money. It’s like comparing a nationalist soldier versus a mercenary – who do you want by your side when you’re surrounded?

Product Hunt excels because Ryan’s passion for startups is tied into its very DNA. He cares about the problem and the solution, which means he’ll stick it out through the hard parts more than someone who has only identified the problem. Yes, passion without validation will go nowhere, but so will validation without passion. You have to care about solving the problem.

So I don’t think anybody will found the next billion dollar company off of a Lean Startup Machine idea. But it will teach you how to validate your ideas with customer feedback, and maybe help refine an existing idea you’ve decided to work on. Check it out if it’s coming to your city!

Weekly Review #57: Narco submarines, exponential network growth, and headbutting over ping-pong

Tim Ferriss’s interview with cybercrime futurist Marc Goodman was full of good nuggets:

  • Genome sequencing technology is progressing at 5x the times of Moore’s Law (!)
  • the ‘thin blue line’ between order and chaos is the police – if the populace decides they aren’t in control anymore, there’s nothing the police can do to stop it
  • For a time, 20% of all drugs in the US were bought on the online marketplace The Silk Road
  • Bioengineering could introduce opiates into wheat, allowing for crazy stuff like cocaine bread that dogs can’t sniff
  • Mexican drug cartels have R&D robotics divisions dedicated to making autonomous submarines

Shane Snow on the James Altucher Show offers more:

  • Groupon used to hire comedy writers to write their deals emails – even if you weren’t interested in the deals you’d read for the jokes
  • The average age of a president is younger than that of a senator – Shane says because the former is more likely to find ways to hack the system and not have to put in as much time gaining experience
  • Introducing 2 helpful people to each other regularly can exponentially grow your networking reputation – if they click they have you to thank, at no additional cost to you!
  • Momentum is more important than speed when it comes to credibility – a 0-60 startup can be more alluring than a consistent 80 mph corporation
  • James comes up with 20 new ideas per day as a rule, no excuses. When you force yourself to do this you find ideas literally everywhere

Tech startups include BlueApron, which sends you all the groceries required to make healthy recipes, leaving everything but the cooking to you, Dapulse, which coordinates team management in a super simple way, Infogram, which make infographics simple, and Maillift, which will send handwritten thank you letters to your customers.

An article by Percolate offer tips for Automating Internal Workflows, helpful for those products within companies that make the flagship product work. And Nir Eyal explains Why Stupid Startups Make So Much Money - they introduce a new habit into our lives. Most businesses solve problems or create fun, but the new cadre of tech giants have created new fun for us such that not indulging in them cause pain.

Life Optimization: Cal Newport admits that It’s okay to be bad at email - not everyone needs to be reached all the time! And Noah Kagan shares his morning GEBY routine - Gratitude, Exercise, Breakfast, and You. It’ll keep you happy and energized.

Fun: We at Life is A Game offer up 25 Great Games for the Holidays in case you need gift ideas, Headist is a crazy German sport played headbutting a volleyball across a ping pong table, and How to Shit Around the World offers the travel advice we really need to know.

On Silicon Frivolity (or Solving Hunger by Attacking Boredom)

Not Helping the Image (HBO Show Silicon Valley)

Whether Silicon Valley is a catalyst for real change in the world or merely a self-indulgent group of entitled twentysomethings making frivolous apps is persistent question. Beyond the giants like Facebook, Google, and Apple, few of the technology startups born here can truly say they’ve changed humanity for the better. Instead, they’ve addicted us to dozens of social media apps we didn’t need before, or solve a problem that only privileged rich people have.

Such arguments are warranted given that many SV founders think of themselves as modern-day messiahs, but I still think the tech industry is being held to an unfair standard. Bankers and lawyers don’t create value the same way a tech founder does – they move money and settle disputes, but a startup creates an entirely new solution, all the while generating employment for thousands (if successful). The mega success of frivolities like Snapchat shows that there is indeed a market desire for such things.

But all value is not created equally. Is solving global boredom equivalent to solving global hunger? They’re both widespread problems that millions of people are willing to pay to solve, but the type of person affected (and what they’re able to pay) is so different as to make them incomparable. Plus they’re on opposite ends of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. No app could ever solve hunger.

Or could they? What problems do substitutes like Soylent or delivery options like Munchery solve, if not hunger? The question of global hunger is not one of production but of distribution, as Mark Bittman points out. We already make enough food to feed everyone on the planet – it’s just not distributed correctly, plus those who need it most can’t afford to pay. Such services currently only help rich people eat more by reducing preparation hassles, but the same technology could be used to solve one half of the hunger problem by getting food where it’s needed.

The advanced logistic technologies pioneered and honed by companies like Uber couldn’t be helpful on a global scale? Today, it’s a private taxi service to the privileged, but they’re already planning to take that same efficient transportation marketplace to everything, be it food, freight, or friends. The same technology that solves a frivolous first world problem can be used to solve a truly global one. Twitter started out as a frivolity even among the technorati, and since then it helped facilitate the Arab Spring. You can’t say something is useless because you never know how someone out there will use it.

Plus I don’t think non-profit organizations can effectively tackle the big problems like hunger or authoritarian governments head on. They are constantly competing for funds and talent with nothing more to offer other than ‘purpose’. The debate between for-profit and non-profit rages on, but all that is proved moot by the staggering scale of tech power.

The 19 billion dollar acquisition of Whatapp by Facebook was a standard operating expense for the company, despite being much more than the cost of vaccinating every child in the world against measles. With the ability to throw around that much cash without thinking twice, a for-profit company with the right motive could affect far more change than any non-profit or even most governments ever could.

Then the frivolous first-world problems become a vehicle for good, in fueling a benevolent business that gives back. A company could solve a frivolity and make fat profits off it, and then use said profits to solve some bigger issue. And it might even be in their best interests.

Time’s recent cover story tells the tale of frivolous social media company Facebook bringing internet access to all corners of the world. They’re doing it in order to get more Facebook users, of course, but a Facebook account is a small price to pay for Internet access, especially in the rural corners of Africa. Web access provides infinite possibilities to the poor, through education and global communication. Better opportunities, I’d say, than what any non-profit could offer.

That’s why I’m hesitant to judge all the new glitzy useless apps out there. It’s easy to scoff at Flappy Bird or Clinkle, but the former made hundreds of thousands for its Vietnamese creator, and the latter facilitates payments directly from phones, which opens up new routes for those without the credit or self-discipline required to sign up with a credit card provider.

Such companies solve boredom, yes, but in solving boredom they get paid millions more than any charity appealing for donations from the very same users. As long as they use those profits to do something rather than sit on them, there’s no reason to scoff at their initial product. And many of them face the tougher issues armed with technology honed and perfected from years of facing lesser problems.

Take Tesla, the champion often put forth to defend Silicon Valley’s reputation of uselessness. Scalable electric power would solve the problems of people around the planet without exception, and yet Elon didn’t even try to solve it for middle class Americans at first. No, as he relates in his Secret Master Plan, he started off with the Tesla Roadster, a sports car priced for the one percent, in order to build up the war chest for the Model S, a slightly more affordable sedan. It’s been his plan all along to iterate and use the profits, technology, and learnings garnered from previous models in order to perfect the next model, each more mass-market than the last. It’s a textbook example of solving a rich problem in a way that paves the way to solve poor ones.

So let Silicon Valley do its thing – as long as people are paying for its products, you’ll never know how truly disruptive (in the strictest sense of the word) the next app will be.

Weekly Review #56: MBA origin stories, favela tours, and John Galt, the ‘genocidal prick’

I crashed an informal Stanford GSB event with Kevin Rustagi called simply The Talk where two MBA candidates get up before the rest of their class every week and talk about their journey getting here as well as what they want to do with their degree. The speakers were masterful presenters, as apparently they get coached by expert presenters (all from their class) beforehand, and we were all held riveted by true origin stories framing their desires to end corruption or bigotry entailing everything from rape to kidnappings.

It made me wonder what origin story a privileged white man like me could possibly offer as a similarly compelling person story as reason enough for solving the worlds problems. Sure, I can talk about the challenges of backpacking abroad or some difficult personal project, but thats nothing like the Third World candidate who has fought their way past every obstacle the world has thrown at them to get there. I was also struck by how international (around 45% apparently) and good-looking all these MBA-ers are – I guess if you’re on top of the world you look the part.

I also sat down with Patrick Ip and Elliot Rosenberg on Google campus, both ambitious young upstarts. Elliot ran a Favela Tour Agency in Rio De Janeiro, and says the slums are actually safer than the touristic areas in the city as long as you stay in the right neighborhoods. Patrick has many entrepreneurial credits to his name, which makes him an odd employee at Google, apparently. He says that most people there are not self-starters due to the corporate atmosphere, but that if you take it on yourself to do more you’ll have plenty of resources and opportunities at your disposal. For example, he’s only been there two months but has already worked with Ray Kurzweil. Hmm – always tricky to balance the alluring power of big companies with the gritty learning of little ones.

Online, we’ve got nifty startups in Crowdcast, which adds analytics, chat, and other supercharges to your Google Hangouts, and Splash, which makes it super easy to throw up a landing page for your upcoming event.

Habits: Corbett Barr introduces the Complete Calendar, which is basically him plotting out every hour of his weeks beforehand so that he knows what he should be doing at any given time. Plus there’s the best Habits of Productive Writers - no such thing as writers block, write more than talk, look for inspiration everywhere, believe in themselves, know what they’re good at, read a lot, can pound out a draft, work on more thing at once, stop at easy starting points, and never say ‘if only I had ____’. And Shane Snow tells you how to make your writing shareable - curate an identity, make it readable, and make it novel. Good stuff.

Resources: Fizzle’s 21 actions to set up your blog for massive success is a solid checklist for any aspiring blogger, while 5 WordPress Plugins for landing pages make your search for a solid landing page a lot easier, though LeadPages and Instapage do this as well.

The NYT has more reasons to keep a diary - it makes you feel better even when you write about sad emotions.

Cracked has a surprisingly good story on Harsh Life Truths - mainly, the universe doesn’t care about you beyond what you can produce of value. So why aren’t you producing value?

And I’ve got to share John Scalzi’s opinion on Atlas Shrugged - that no matter how helpful Galt’s inventions were, he’s still a ‘genocidal prick’. It’s a hilarious and poignant review that’s as relevant now with the advent of Google as it was in Ayn Rand’s time – Scalzi even wrote another short story about yogurt taking over the world (read: supercomputers) to illustrate his point here.

Fun stuff online includes the Pyro Handheld Fireshooter, which lets you actually shoot fire from your hands like Iron Man, and  Shia Labeouf, an absurd song portraying the Hollywood superstar as a cannibal with preposterously high production value.

Timely Content Is Useless

from Jesus Gomez on flickr

Content Marketing is a business phrase that means ‘art produced in order to promote a product’. It’s often distinct from advertisements because the content in question has value of its own. Whether its a helpful infographic, insightful blog post, or professional video, its something you might peruse and enjoy without actually buying the product. Within content marketing, there’s considered to be two distinct categories: timely and evergreen.

Timely content is relevant to current events, which is in high demand immediately during or after the situations it covers. Evergreen content deals with things that aren’t tied to a particular event, which means it is just as relevant today as a few years ago. You usually find timely content in newspapers and magazines, while evergreen content is usually found in books. Blog posts can be either – ‘How to Find a Winning Football Team’ might be evergreen, while ‘Predictions for the 2014 SuperBowl’ is obviously timely.

Marketers face a conundrum when creating such content, because each has its merits. It’s easy to default to timely content, since tying in keywords to some trending search term will pull in lots of views at first, while people are hungry for the subject. Most company blogs exclusively feature news pieces like this, extolling new features or how their product affects a current event. I’m sure the editors are happy with the consistently high viewerships such articles post, but meanwhile evergreen content can be even more powerful. It has a longer shelf life, and when done well, will become a reference point on the subject, thus pulling in readers consistently. And we all know the long tail has higher numbers than the fat head.

Outside the world of marketing, everything you’ve ever consumed still qualifies as ‘content’. Every book you’ve ever read, every magazine article, every website browsed – it’s all content, crafted by someone to entertain, coerce, or maybe express themselves. Nowadays it’s almost all digital, delivered to us on computer screens or devices that auto -update and boast new content every few minutes. Couple that capacity with the editors desire to hold on to your attention, and you’ll find that the vast majority of what we consume regularly is timely updates, not evergreen content.

And timely content is useless!

Any content that comes with an expiration date will become obsolete, by definition. So there’s no reason to stay updated on it unless that information is going to influence the very next thing you do today, before it becomes obsolete. That’s the trick with time-relevant material; it’s not relevant to anything other than the time its published. 

The opposite of timely is timeless, and its no coincidence that’s what we call great art. Timeless art transcends the time in which it is made. The Mona Lisa is just as inspiring today as it was the day it was painted – if it wasn’t, then it would necessarily be considered timely, and likewise as inferior. Sometimes art is so ‘ahead of its time’ that the artist languishes in obscurity during their lifetime, but eventually the value comes out. But it’s never treated as timely.

 

Since art and content are two side of the same coin, why are we holding them to different standards? A blog post or status update is content just like that found in a museum – but you won’t find tweets in the Louvre anytime soon. The best tweets, posts, and longform web articles can evoke the same awe, laughter, or thought than any modern art piece can – so why don’t we see them in museums? One answer is due to traditionalist conceptions of art, but another is the internet’s penchant for timely content.

 No true artist ever set out to make something that would only be exciting for as long as it was new. They want it to be timeless. Why  treat the internet any differently?

You may argue that much of the web content out there is made solely to bring out the audience’s credit cards. But even that action depends on the content being convincing no matter when the buyer is reading it. Look at old advertisements like Apple’s famous 1984 adit’s still compelling, even as the fashions displayed become dated. Similarly, even timely content can become evergreen, when structured such that it fits into a broader agenda. For example, content covering the Ferguson riots can fit into an evergreen piece about racial tension. How Obama dealt with one presidential crisis is news, but the framework with which he approaches a new one is strategy. One is something you can use in your life, and the other trivia.

Musings about human nature, the best way to accomplish something, or what’s truly important don’t change. They may evolve over time, but only on the foundation of the older beliefs, which instead of becoming obsolete become part of a story. In a similar vein, scientific news doesn’t talk about who did what – instead it’s about who discovered what, and whose work they used to get there. Hence ‘standing on the shoulders of giants’

That’s part of why I do Weekly Reviews. Tweeting out content doesn’t make it easily accessible when I face a relevant challenge down the line. But when structured within a blog post, fraught with keywords that will help me find it later, it becomes an evergreen resource for referral. How someone did something will be relevant to me trying to do that same thing no matter when I try to do it.

I’m certainly not the first person to lament the instant gratification of the internet. But I’m not just talking about the context of the content, I’m talking about the actual content. If something is helpful, it’ll be helpful whenever. And an article that’s only helpful when it’s new will always be replaced by a newer version, rendering the old version defunct.

Therefore timely content can never truly matter beyond the transitory pageviews it generates. Only evergreen content is worth the space in your brain it takes up, as it builds upon itself and others to help you reach greater heights of understanding. Evergreen content stacks, while timely content replaces.