A New Approach Called the Waif Startup
I like the Lean Startup methodology, but I am not sure it goes far enough. I am now recommending a disruptive new approach which I have aptly named the Waif Startup. It’s so lean it’s 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 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.
Here is how the discussion progressed. I think you will agree that I was recommending the textbook approach to how to run a lean startup.
First, he was talking about building a multi-year business plan and putting together his investor preso to go raise capital. I told him he had it all wrong. I recommended that he write down a few of his key business assumptions and go test them with customers (also referred to as “validated learning”). I was hoping that he would summarize his hypothesis in a simple business model canvas and see what stuck.
Second, I then suggested that once he had a better understanding of which of his theories were right on, he would have the key building block assumptions to rapidly prototype his software offering. Rather than spending months writing code and designing user interfaces he could build a minimum viable product (MVP) and share it with the same early customers within a few weeks.
Finally, based on customer feedback and an iterative approach he could remain agile and change product direction as needed to further provide customer value. Agile development works hand-in-hand with customers. And unlike long development cycles, it eliminates wasted time and resources by developing the product based on timely understanding of customer requirements. This would also help to reduce customer and team frustration along the way which is important because customers and engineers are a terrible thing to waste.
I was really feeling good about myself until he asked the following question, “How do you know when you are lean enough?” That got me thinking about what it takes to find the NEXT BIG THING. What if we are all still too bloated and inefficient? Is there a way that we can skinny down even further to slip through the fog of uncertainty to find the passage to a meaningful life and sustainable business.
Maybe I was just another tool of Eric Ries and Steve Blank. Maybe I had bought into the hype. Can you blame me? Everything is lean these days. There is lean manufacturing, lean protein, the lean startup, lean user experience, and even Sheryl Sandberg has been Leaning In.
So, I tugged and pushed and 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’s 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 grok 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. Finally, have you ever tried to record the notes from a meeting when no one really shares a meaningful belief. It’s beautiful, there are none.
#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 local 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 don’t bother wasting their time on prototypes. And definitely don’t let them go talk to customers with you because they then start thinking that they are the product manager.]
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 fab story teller. 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’s 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!