Meta Principles I Learned from Running Lean

Eric Ries succinctly captures the Lean Startup validated learning loop as Build/Measure/Learn.

While a cycle around the validation learning loop (or experiment) helps you validate a specific business model hypothesis, I’ve been searching for a workflow that strings multiple experiments together (into an iteration) to take a product from idea to launch to Product/Market Fit.

Since I am writing a book about raising the odds for building successful products, it was fitting to apply the process to the writing of the book itself. Writing a book is a lot like building large software. Both are massive undertakings where the odds of success (building something people want) are stacked against you.

Even though I was documenting a workflow for building web-based products, I believed there was an underlying iteration meta-process (or pattern) that the book helped uncover:

To illustrate this iteration meta-pattern, I’ll describe how I applied it to writing my book and then highlight some of the underlying meta-principles.

How I Wrote Running Lean

Customer Pull

Writing a book was never in my plans. I started my blog simply because I had more questions than answers. Along the way, a few of my blog readers started suggesting that I turn my blog posts into books. I knew writing a book (even from blog posts) is a massive undertaking, so while I was flattered by the requests, I did nothing at first. After about a dozen such requests, I decided to explore further.

Understand Problem

I called these readers up and asked them why they wanted me to write a book. Specifically, I asked what would be different about this book from what was already on my blog, Eric Reis’ blog, or Steve Blank’s book? (existing alternatives)

From these interviews, I learned that, like me, they too were struggling to take Customer Development and Lean Startup techniques to practice (problem) and viewed my blog posts as a “step-by-step” guide for applying these techniques from the ground up.

Define Solution

With that knowledge, I spent a day building a demo. It was a landing page with a table of contents, a title, a blank book cover image, and a price.

I called up the same readers and asked them if I were to write this book would they buy it? Their feedback gave me a strong signal to move forward and helped me define the solution. I finished refining the original title, price, and table of contents.

While encouraging, I still didn’t want to write a book for just a dozen or so readers, so I put up a “Notify me when the book launches” call-to-action on the landing page, announced the book on my blog, and others helped spread the message (channel testing). Once I hit 1,000 potential buyers, this became a problem worth solving for me. My rationale for this thinking was to at least cover my costs for writing this book using a simple back-of-the-envelope calculation.

Validate Qualitatively

Writing a whole book was still a massive undertaking, so I needed to build the smallest thing possible to start learning from customers (a minimum viable product).

I took the table of contents and turned it into a slide deck with the same outline with a few bullet points under each topic. I announced a FREE Lean Startup workshop and got 30 people interested. I launched the first workshop with ten people who helped me test and refine the content. Based on the success of the first workshop, I ran more workshops and started charging for them. With each workshop, I continually tweaked the slide deck content for better flow.

Once I understood the solution, I started writing. Here again, instead of writing the whole book in isolation, I contacted my potential prospects from the teaser page (some of who were growing impatient) and told them I’d be writing and releasing the book iteratively: Rather than waiting six months to get the book, if they pre-ordered the book, they would get two chapters of the book every two weeks in a PDF format.

Enough people agreed to this arrangement which allowed me to further test and refine the content iteratively with my early adopters. The early adopters were driven by the content alone and didn’t care about things like typos or iPad/Kindle versions. Others chose to wait for the “finished product.”

Verify Quantitatively

As of this writing, the book is now “content-complete” and almost ready for a full launch. You can see the finished product here: Running Lean.

Up until now, my focus has been solely on content. I deferred things like designing a book cover, testing the book sub-title, or researching print/eBook options, all of which I am doing now (Right Action, Right Time).

While I’ve always been prepared to self-publish this book, I’ve been contacted by two major publishers that are currently reviewing the manuscript. I asked them if my model for writing and selling the book so far would be a deal-breaker. On the contrary, they wished more authors wrote their books this way.

The biggest risk for most products is not technical risk but market risk.
- Steve Blank

By selling the book on my own and demonstrating early traction, I was proving there was a market for this book and helping mitigate market risk for the publisher.

As with building a web-based product, the ideal time to attract external resources is after Product/Market Fit, which ironically may or may not be the right action at that time. The final decision to go the publisher route or self-publish is still being determined — economics, reach, and time to market are all factors.

Meta Principles

The meta-pattern above is grounded heavily in Lean Startup, Customer Development, and Bootstrapping techniques, which I cover in great detail in the book.

Here is a highlight of some of the main meta-principles:

  • First, find a problem worth solving, then define a solution
  • Demo before building
  • Pricing is part of the product
  • Maximize speed, learning, and focus
  • Build a continuous feedback loop with customers throughout the product development cycle
  • Right Action, Right Time
  • Build a path to customers from day one
  • Identify early adopters
  • Product/Market Fit (early traction) is the first thing that matters

Where Else Can This Be Applied?

While the specific tactics of applying the process vary from product to product, I believe the overall meta-pattern and principles can be applied to a wide range of products. I just taught three back-to-back workshops at Innovacorp in Nova Scotia. This was my most diverse audience, ranging from web startups to clean energy and bioscience entrepreneurs. I presented this meta-pattern for the first time in these workshops, and it survived all the products represented.

Once you internalize these principles, you start seeing applications in other unexpected places too. I am currently applying it to finding a co-founder, hopefully making for an interesting case study soon.

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