Some people think of startups as sprints. Some think of startups as marathons. My take: They’re marathons that you have to sprint through.
Most successful startups take a long time; the truth about “overnight success” is that it’s never really accomplished overnight (or even over a few nights.) We’re seeing a lot of early exits, which can be great for the entrepreneurs and early investors, but even these startups take a long time. And you can’t just look at the calendar time, but look at the collective effort that goes in.
The pace of a startup is incredibly hard. When it comes to the Lean Startup process, it’s even harder.
Slow -> Fast -> Slow
Before you get too excited and let your imagination run wild (although by all means, feel free), let me explain the above statement.
The first instinct most entrepreneurs have after they’re struck by some crazy inspiration isn’t to write down hypotheses, assumptions and tests for a Minimum Viable Product. It’s more like this:
“Holy shit! This is going to be bigger than Facebook! We’re going to be rich! I can’t believe no one has thought of this yet! We’re awesome. Shhh…don’t tell anyone. Wait, let’s tell a bunch of people. Wait … crap, we should start building it right now. Quick, write down all the features we need…”
It’s an AWESOME feeling.
But the Hail Mary “run towards the wall like a crazed lunatic” is so counter-productive to your potential success; it kills a ton of startups before they even get a chance to start (I call it Startup D.O.A.) The Lean Startup methodology is much more tempered and focused. It’s methodical and intensive. It can also feel slow. This is especially true for technical founders because all they really want to do is build something.
Having said that, it’s not too bad at the beginning. You can probably be convinced to do a little bit of customer development, interview some people and think a bit more before jumping in completely blind. It’s still going to feel slow, but enthusiasm will drive you through the process.
When it’s time to build a Minimum Viable Product (assuming you’ve found one worth building and haven’t just half-assed the customer development in order to get to what you really want to do, which is code!) things will accelerate (or at least feel that way). Finally you’re doing what you love doing – building things – and doing what you know how to do. Cold calling potential customers sucked big time, but now you get to build your product! Boom! Things are moving now! And that’s a fantastic feeling. From a slightly slower beginning, it makes sense that the pace would accelerate into the development process.
And then, Lean Startup says, “Great. You built an MVP. Now slow down again.”
Slow -> Fast -> Slow
With an MVP in people’s hands you have to go back to customer interviews and collecting feedback. Putting a “Feedback” button on the side of your web app is good, but that doesn’t really count as proper customer development. You’ve got to go back to the people you originally interviewed and talk to them again. And you’ve got to speak to a whole new group of people. Even worse, you’ll most likely have to re-adjust your hypotheses, assumptions and tests as you validate some elements of what you were doing but invalidate others. Going from “code, code, code” to “interview, think, write, re-think, interview…” is hard. It’s going to feel SLOW.
Then you’re going to read startup news sites and see a whole bunch of competitors launching, raising capital and making noise. It won’t be quite clear if they’re getting legitimate traction or creating any actual value, but it’s going to feel like they’re moving faster than you.
All of this makes the pace of Lean Startup very challenging. It’s much harder than just sprinting constantly at the same pace. The pace ebbs and flows based on the stage you’re at in the process; but done properly, rigorously and honestly it can accelerate the overall process of building a successul startup. By eliminating waste and risk, you increase your chances of success. If you assume that your startup is still going to be a sprinted marathon, it makes sense that going through the Lean Startup process can cut out time in the future that you’ll potentially waste if you don’t know what you’re doing and where you’re going. Answering the tough questions earlier in the process will save future headaches. And that’s going to speed everything up over the long haul. But be prepared emotionally for the ups and downs of the Lean Startup process because of how challenging it is to the pace of building your startup.