Lean Startup and Big Vision Are Not Diametrically Opposed

Recently, I presented Lean Canvas and an extended Problem-Solution Canvas (that we created at Year One Labs) to FounderFuel’s second startup cohort. It was a lot of fun, and hopefully useful for the teams. (If you’re curious, FounderFuel is a Montreal-based accelerator program that runs twice per year.)

I’m always concerned when presenting anything related to Lean Startup that I sound like a religious zealot. Hopefully that’s not the case. My goal is to simply share what I’ve seen work, what I’ve done (good and bad), and what I believe will help.

During my session at FounderFuel, John Stokes from Real Ventures asked me where in the Lean Startup process does vision fit in? I replied: “it fits in everywhere.” I don’t see Lean Startup and Big Vision as being diametrically opposed. In fact, I don’t think they’re opposed at all.

The Lean Startup process is a way of moving towards and achieving your vision (or at least trying!)

That statement assumes you have a vision in the first place. Unfortunately, too many startups are founded without one. In that case, Lean Startup doesn’t take away or impede the vision, because the vision never existed at all.

I can see how people use Lean Startup as “implicit approval” for starting a company without having a big vision. Heck, it’s now “so easy” to start a company that everyone can do it, right? Wrong. Well, everyone can start a company, I suppose, but they’re largely doomed to fail.

If you don’t have a big ass vision for your startup, you should really take a step back and think about it. The vision won’t just come to you, but the lack of one should certainly give you pause.

Lean Startup + Vision

1. Lean Canvas clarifies the steps you need to take in order to get to your vision.

There are millions of challenging, crazy and uncertain steps to take from “start company” to “vision achieved.” You can choose to wander aimlessly espousing the virtues of your grand vision, or you can choose to take a more methodical and honest approach.

2. Lean Startup helps you discover and clarify your vision.

Lean Startup’s focus on learning (above everything else) encourages broad thinking, exploration and experimentation.

It’s not about mindlessly going through the motions of “build -> measure -> learn” — it’s about really understanding what’s going on and being open to new possibilities. That doesn’t mean you change your vision, but it does mean you may change the steps required to get there.

The Lean Canvas doesn’t have a section for “vision” because you can’t test it. But take the sum total of the parts (of a Lean Canvas) and you start to see a vision materialize. It starts right with the Problems you want to solve, and validating how important they are to people. If you tackle a problem that’s not super critical to people … meh … but if you discover something truly meaningful to people, truly painful, there’s a very good chance that it still fits into your overall vision and goals for your startup. And with a validated problem (worth solving!) you’re that much closer to achieving your vision.

3. Lean Startup helps you expand your vision.

A lot of startups suffer from being too small in scope. Some believe Lean Startup encourages that smallness, but that’s not really the case. Used properly, Lean Startup (and Lean Canvas) helps expand your vision, because you’re encouraged to question everything. As you dig deeper and peel away more layers of what you’re doing – whether looking at problems, solutions, customers, revenue, or anything else – you’re likely to find a lot more than you realized. If you’re opportunistic about it, you can expand your vision and understand how to get there faster, all at the same time.

Lean Startup for the Sake of Lean Startup

Doing a “lean startup” for the sake of doing Lean Startup doesn’t count for much. You don’t win going through the motions. You don’t win jumping on a bandwagon and following a bunch of steps. Lean Startup isn’t a guarantee of success.

But Lean Startup is also not to blame for people releasing crappy minimum viable products. It’s not to blame for a mass proliferation of startups (particularly “clones”). And Lean Startup is not to blame for companies having a lack of vision. Nor does it eliminate the need for a big vision, or discourage big vision. It’s focused on the method by which you can achieve and expand your vision as quickly as possible.