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.
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.
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!