Ever since Eric Ries penned his seminal book, The Lean Startup: How Today’s Entrepreneurs Use Continuous Innovation to Create Radically Successful Businesses, the Lean Startup Methodology has taken the world of entrepreneurship by storm.
However, while Mr. Ries did contribute to the popularity of the method, a Lean approach is not new.
The concept has been around since the early 20th century, and was named ‘lean’ in the early 80s.
What is the Lean Startup Methodology?
At its core, the Lean Startup Methodology aims to develop businesses and products in an iterative, market feedback-based process.
A first version of the product/service is developed with just barely enough features to complete the primary purpose of the product, and this minimum viable product (MVP) is built and launched. Based on market feedback primarily from customers and would-be customers, the next iteration is improved and quickly launched.
This approach reduces the wastage of resources in a traditional product development cycle, allows for quick iteration and allows startups to be more responsive to market demands.
Reduced market risks and reduced requirements for large amounts of capital have made this approach extremely popular amongst startups building new products or features.
How to Implement the Lean Startup Methodology
Fundamentally, the Lean Startup bases around the Build-Measure-Learn cycle. This cycle (or loop) emphasizes that speed is extremely critical in an early-stage startup and so moving fast in product development is vital.
The effectiveness and potential of a startup is judged by its ability to quickly ideate, build a Minimum Viable Product of that idea, measure the reception of the product by customers and the potential in the market, and learn how to improve (or change direction) for the next iteration.
At its core, it is a learning cycle (or feedback loop) which is repeated as many times as required until the product market fit is determined.
The process of quickly turning ideas into products, understanding customer response to the products, and understanding how to improve or revamp those ideas, is depicted beautifully in the chart below.
Implementing the Lean Startup methodology in Software Development
In software design and development, the Lean Startup approach has popularized both the agile software development process as well as continuous integration & continuous deployment cycles.
In agile software development, software engineering teams work in development sprints or cycles. Sprints comprise of developing a preplanned set of features and deploying them within a fixed time, typically one or two weeks.
You can read more about agile software development here.
Continuous integration consists of programmers updating the main code repository with every new update they code, and a series of automated tests keeps a check on whether the new update is functioning as intended or breaking the application functionality somewhere.
This avoids one final day where all developers integrate their code at once, reducing last-minute issues.
With continuous deployment, as soon as a change passes all the automated tests, the update is immediately pushed to live servers and users. This technique is especially useful when developing web apps, SaaS platforms, and similar web-based use cases.
Continuous integration and Continuous Deployment (CI/CD) is an excellent way to accelerate the feedback loop with your customers and take the pressure off the team as there isn’t a Release Day anymore.
Developers can focus on building software, and they see their work go live minutes after they’ve finished working on it.
Implementing the Lean Startup Methodology in Design
Popularized by David Kelley, founder of IDEO and Stanford University’s school of design (d.school), the Design Thinking process takes the Lean Startup approach and applies it to UX and UI design for startups.
However, while the build-measure-learn cycle is more distinct in software development, in design thinking these ‘phases’ or ‘stages’ need not be one after the other or step-by-step.
They may be considered more as a system of overlapping spaces. The process of design thinking starts with the inspiration phase of understanding the problem to be solved. Empathy is employed with the purpose of understanding the motivations and requirements of users, with a goal to define the psychological and emotional needs of users as well as the core problem at hand.
The ideation phase focuses on diverging by having a diverse group of people provides input and ideas on potential out-of-the-box solutions to solving the problem at hand. After collecting, sorting and analyzing these ideas, the team then converges by honing in on the most suitable idea.
The third part of the design thinking system is the implementation of the best ideas generated from ideation. Central to the design thinking approach to implementation is prototyping: turning ideas into actual products and services that are then tested, evaluated, iterated, and refined.
Prototypes and mockups of the final product help the team quickly gather feedback and improve the solution, directly in line with the lean startup methodology.
Criticisms of the Lean Startup Methodology
One of the biggest criticisms of the Lean Startup approach is that the entire process is premised on the assumption that once a startup ships a minimum viable product (which by definition is barebones and unfinished), customers will actually try out the unfinished product simply for benefit of being able to use it first.
This initial MVP may not be attractive in the face of competition with slightly different but much more polished and sophisticated products. Getting users to trust the MVP might be an uphill challenge.
However, an extensive focus on customer support, quick iteration to improve any shortcomings in the initial MVP, and an understanding of where and when lean principles apply can help mitigate these factors to a large extent.
Another criticism of the lean startup methodology is that a slow, iterative deployment and the slow ramp-up of marketing and customer acquisition might ‘leak’ the product to the market prematurely, giving competitors the room to maneuver and prepare their response or copy the startup’s product.
A fully fleshed-out product might be more suited to making a dent in the market by entering with a bang and quickly acquiring customers without giving competitors time to react.
Finally and most importantly, one unwanted side effect of the Lean Startup methodology is that companies subconsciously begin losing essential organizational and management discipline by e.g. deploying features without thoroughly testing because any bugs that arise may be quickly fixed in the next iteration.
This eventually builds up to create technical debt in products where every module may be half-baked with the intention to fix any shortcomings later in subsequent iterations, wasting both time and money for the business.
Constant iteration may also cause startups to lose track of the costs incurred in experimentation and outrun allocated budgets.