The Lean(est) Startup
October 2, 2013

The Lean(est) Startup

by Brian de Haaff

I like the Lean Startup methodology. But I am not sure it goes far enough. I am now recommending a disruptive new approach that I have aptly named the Waif Startup. It is so lean that it is barely there. I think the principles will be familiar to many product and technical thought leaders and easy to adopt in your organization no matter your size.

Before I explain the five key principles behind getting really skinny via the Waif Startup, let me quickly share the backstory behind how I developed it.

I was recently exposing the benefits of how we get lean at Aha! to a friend who is thinking about starting a sales optimization software company. In the course of our conversation, we covered the three key areas of being lean: testing assumptions, building a prototype, and rapid improvement. But at the end of the conversation he asked, “How do I know when I am lean enough?”

So, I sweated it out to develop a completely new methodology that makes lean look fat. I am calling it the Waif Startup, and you heard it here first. Here are the key principles behind this new approach. And while the name is new, many of the concepts will be familiar and therefore easy to formally adopt by companies worldwide (especially more mature ones).

#1 No assumptions It is better to have no assumptions than a long list of hypotheses that are guaranteed to be wrong. Because let’s get real — no matter how often you are told that your organization celebrates “fast failing” no one ever got promoted for being a loser. And if you are in a small company, no customer wants to hear about your hare-brained schemes. They got to where they are because their ideas are right. Sharing no assumptions is even more important when you are in a meeting with a customer.

When you have no assumptions, you eliminate the focus on yourself and your ideas and can better understand what the customer really wants. It also makes it easier to deny that you had any preconceived notions about what you were going to build when the customer actually wants a product from you.

#2 Hand puppets Never build a prototype. If you build a prototype the customer may actually want it. That will distract you from getting to the real big opportunity for your business. This helps highlight the fundamental principle of the Waif Startup — always be on the lookout for the “next big thing.” A great way to loosely explain a product that you may or may not ever build is to use hand puppets. Everyone loves hand puppets and they make it a no-brainer to explain a possible user experience.

Ones with cute faces are the best because you can move the mouths to show how happy an end user might be if the software was based on design thinking and had mobile social gamifaction that was built in. You can also make the puppet frown to represent where your designers will really need to focus to eliminate user frustration. And btw, great UX designers are really hard to find these days, so do not bother wasting their time on prototypes. And definitely do not let them talk to customers with you, because they then start thinking that they are the product manager.

#3 Promise If you are in a start-up (or in any role where you are encouraged to think like a start-up) you likely are a great storyteller. Furthermore, if you cajoled a customer to meet with you, you are no stranger to harmless lies. These are important skills because they mean that you are convincing, have some perceived expertise, and people trust you. This helps when customers like what they think they heard from you and want you to deliver something at a specified time in the future.

While some customers just come right out and ask you, others are crafty and wait towards the end of the meeting to harass, “so when do you think we could have that?” It may not happen (if they are following these principles too), but if it does, feel free to promise them some date either three or four quarters out. Three or four sounds small and you will reaffirm their trust. The good news is that it’s a long time and it’s very likely that either they will forget or be in a different job at that point. If not, you would be wise to add a month or two on to the schedule every time the customer asks, but after about 18 months from the original conversation you are are going to need a new tactic. See principles #4 and #5.

#4 Blame engineering It is always a good idea to blame engineering. This is true for many reasons including: engineers prefer to speak to computers than people so they are never in the customer meeting with you to defend themselves, they are a self-loathing lot (because why else would they spend so much time fixing bugs if they did not have self-assurance issues), they never deliver what they say they will on time. So, after 18 months of promises, you should throw engineering under the bus and share a few of the reasons engineering is so behind. Pick at least two from the following list and make sure to explain the situation as if you really feel terrible about what’s happening.

  • They are moving from waterfall to agile development

  • They are focused on platform stability

  • This is “Innovation month” and they get to work on what they want

  • It’s really hard to find good Ruby on Rails developers

  • There is a lot of technical debt

#5 Blame product management This is the most counter-intuitive aspect of the Waif Startup. That’s because you are probably in product management and I already told you that losers never get promoted. Taking responsibility with customers is not failure and your organization likely values doing whatever it takes to make the customer happy — including committing hari-kari. This is because customers are always right. Remember that losers do not get promoted but martyrs do. A good way to take responsibility is to start by talking passionately about the market and generically about the importance of having a product vision.

From there, talk about how important having a good product roadmap is. Just be careful not to be too specific or share any specific thoughts about your business or potential product direction because your fundamental responsibility is to keep listening for the next BIG thing.

If you follow these basic principles you will be so lean that people might not even know you exist. You will also be guaranteed to be a better listener, more likeable, and have more time to focus on the “next big thing.”

But, if you think this is all a joke and you are looking to lead product with conviction and set brilliant strategy and roadmaps with courage — you just might want to try Aha!

Brian de Haaff

Brian de Haaff

Brian seeks business and wilderness adventure. He is the co-founder and CEO of Aha! — the world’s #1 product development software — and the author of the bestseller Lovability and The Startup Adventure newsletter. Brian writes and speaks about product and company growth and the journey of pursuing a meaningful life.

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