The Achilles Heel of the Lean Startup?

Here’s a confession: For all the buzz about Eric Ries’ “The Lean Startup”, I’m finding it tough slogging to read.

I understand the thesis and the benefits it provides to startups looking to create and evolve products that resonate with users. But as I read through the book, there was something about the Ries’ thesis that wasn’t clicking. I wondered whether it was just me or whether there is a flaw or hole in The Lean Startup.

Then, I stumbled upon an interview on Tech Cocktail with SoftTech VC’s Jeff Clavier:

“The other thing which is very popular these days is the lean startup concept, which my friend Eric Ries has pioneered. And it all makes sense, but it’s based on the concept of throwing shit at your users very early on and then iterating. The problem is that users have less and less patience now.”

What Clavier nailed is the Achilles’ heel within the Lean Startup thesis: the reality that many consumers are time-strapped, fickle and suffer from attention-deficit disorder. As much as a lean start-up can embrace the idea of continually iterating and testing new features, many consumers don’t have the patience to go along for the ride.

Within this landscape, which offers an endless buffet of choices, startups usually only get one shot to capture the attention of a user. If their messaging, value propositions, registration process or service features any kind of uncertainty, flaws or grit, a user will leave you in a flash. The problem is there are no second chances, no shots at redemption or do-overs.

To me, this is the big challenge and problem with the lean start-up: While it’s great to do real-life testing, the product needs to be good enough out of the gate. It has to provide some kind of value and, at the same time, avoid any kind of bad users experiences.

As much as you would like to think consumers would give a startup the benefit of the doubt, the reality is they need to be impressed in some way to stick around or come back. There are simply too many other choices to tolerate a product that doesn’t deliver.

To be clear, the Lean Startup theory has a lot of good elements, which explains why it has resonated. At the same time, startups need to recognize that whatever they offer along the way needs to deliver without creating much pain for the user.

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  • Stephane

    I know exactly what you mean.

    I got some clients upgrading their account past weeks, months after they tried the product. We were glad of course, but stunned why this happened so we asked them. Many answers were “At first, your product was interesting but looked crappy. Now that you improved your design, it’s way more appealing”.

    That being said, it’s hard for a startup without huge funding (we are self funded) to do everything perfectly. So we concentrate on important things and we take enormous care of our first customers, those who trusted us despite the “crappy” look.

    On the other hand, if we had tons of funding, we would have wasted it because we would have missed all that learning stage that allows us to give exactly what the user wants. Now our project is significantly different from the starting idea, but it’s gaining good traction.

    In short, I agree. First impression matters a lot. Design improvement is one of our priority.

  • DaveG

    Good comments. I’m about half way through the book myself, and enjoying it, though I admit I’m a bit uneasy with the idea of launching to the public with a minimal prototype. Maybe a closed beta with a limited audience can mitigate against the ‘bad first impression’.

  • Colin Smillie

    I would have to disagree. I think the Lean Startup approach is all about validating your product direction/roadmap as you develop. This isn’t really throwing shit at customers, that would still just be shit. I think its about making intelligent assumptions and then working to validate them.

    I think most start-ups fall into the cult of product dictator and don’t look for that external validation. Often they over develop a product and are surprised when they can’t get traction …

  • Matt Roberts

    Plays nicely into my most recent tweet:!/mattroberts/status/180046263532793856

    “Either, Oink’s 150K followers are proving @EricRies wrong or @KevinRose doesn’t understand the Lean Startup Thesis. Discuss.”

  • Gary Lee

    I disagree. I think calling this an Achilles Heel is based on a flawed assumption: that Ries et al are advocating throwing your first prototype to the mass market for feedback. I believe there is a better way, and one that still fits within the framework of “lean” and agile.

    Nielsen, Landauer, Virzi, Lewis, Barnum and others have all pointed to empirical studies which show that testing can be accomplished very effectively using test groups of no more than 5 subjects. 5. Not throwing your first product to the mass market, having it thrown up on, and having to recover from the results. But by doing rigorous testing through small groups, quickly fixing and modifying what is learned, and then testing again in a small group and continuing the process over and over in a rapid fashion. By doing this, you are gaining the benefits of agile / lean, iterating quickly, and not throwing crap to the mass market.

    This method of testing and iteration is NOT new to those in the usability world who have been advocating rapid testing using small test groups for years. After going through N rounds of testing, you have then proven your viability to the market both through market acceptance, product fit and solution usability. And then and only then are you ready to throw it to a larger audience.


    • Tim Burke

      I’m with you Gary – they are missing the fundamental point of Lean Startup. If you are through sh*t at your customers – you are doing it wrong! The foundation of Lean Startup is based on strong customer discovery and development BEFORE you ever build anything. If this is done right, you define and build your MVP based on real customer feedback and therefore you ONLY deliver your customers a viable solution to their problem — it may not be perfect, but is certainly isn’t sh*t.

      • Mark Evans

        Tim: You make a great point but I suspect many startups build before they discover what consumers want. Thanks for the comment. By the way, love your tethering application. Mark

  • Dave Sachse

    Great post Mike, I enjoy elements of Lean Startup but as a evolving entrepreneur working on my startup, I realized that the first impression to users is more important now than ever before due to the crowded landscape. Also, it is often best for entrepreneurs to listen to advice or what others say but in the end, they need to attack their vision their own way.


  • Gregory Nicholas

    as someone who recently raised and started a venture backed business from an awesome grand vision.. some people in the company thought it necessary to use the “lean” method to implement and execute on it. the result was a messy smattering of shit. it’s ok to source and validate ideas. but the problem with this hype, like so many others, is that people who spend all of their time reading tech crunch and textbooks try to apply this where it’s not suited, just so they can exercise what they’ve “learned”.

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