There's Plan A, and then there's the plan that will become your business

"Running Lean" author Ash Maurya on startup adaptation and the gift of obscurity.

We need a word that captures the specific sort of pain entrepreneurs feel when their carefully developed startup ideas are met with blank indifference. All that time. All that effort. And it adds up to … this?

Running Lean” author Ash Maurya (@ashmaurya) doesn’t have that word, but he may have something better: a method for avoiding the pain altogether. In the following interview, Maurya explains how the Running Lean process helps startups iterate from flawed “Plan A” ideas to products people want.

What is Running Lean?

Ash MauryaAsh Maurya: Running Lean is a systematic process for quickly vetting and building successful products. Most entrepreneurs start with an initial vision: their “Plan A.” Unfortunately, most Plan A ideas don’t work. Running Lean helps entrepreneurs iterate from their initial Plan A to one that works — before running out of resources.

What are the early signs that a Plan A idea isn’t working?

Ash Maurya: A startup is about bringing bold, new ideas to the world. That naturally works to your advantage. Your initial goal is getting a strong signal (positive or negative) from customers. This typically doesn’t require a large sample size. So, for instance, if you can’t even get 10 strangers to say they want your product (or better yet, pay for your product), this problem is not going to go away by targeting 1,000 people. A strong negative signal indicates that your bold hypothesis most likely won’t work. It lets you quickly refine or abandon it.

On the other hand, a strong positive signal doesn’t necessarily mean it will scale up to a significant business. But it does give you permission to move forward on the hypothesis until it can be verified later through quantitative means.

Is there any value to writing a business plan?

Ash Maurya: Before you can start the process of iteration, you have to draw a line in the sand. You have to start by documenting your initial vision (or Plan A) and sharing it with at least one other person. Otherwise, it’s too easy to endlessly iterate in your head and never be wrong.

Traditionally, business plans have been used for this purpose. But while writing a business plan is a good exercise for the entrepreneur, a business plan falls short of its intended purpose. Few people take the time to actually read business plans. More importantly, since many Plan As are likely to be proven wrong anyway, spending several weeks or months writing a 60-page business plan largely built on untested hypotheses is a form of waste.

I instead recommend using a one-page business model format called Lean Canvas. It captures the same core elements you find on a business plan, but because it fits on one page, it’s a lot more concise, portable and readable.

Running Lean — This book demonstrates ways to apply and test techniques from the Customer Development, Lean Startup, and bootstrapping methods. Learn how to engage customers throughout the development cycle so you can build a product people will actually buy. (Note: This digital early release edition includes the author’s raw and unedited content. You’ll receive updates when significant changes are made, as well as the final ebook version.)

Why is it a bad idea to build products in stealth?

Ash Maurya: There is a fear, especially common among first-time entrepreneurs, that their great idea will be stolen by someone else. The truth is two-fold: First, most people are not capable of visualizing the potential of an idea at such an early stage; and second, they won’t care. The initial challenge for most startups is getting noticed at all.

There is also a difference between stealth and obscurity. Stealth is bad because you build products in complete isolation only to find out later that you were optimizing a product no one wanted. On the other hand, obscurity is a gift. It allows you to test your product at micro-scale, getting it right, before attracting a lot of attention and scaling out.

So avoid stealth, but embrace obscurity.

Do the techniques in your book only apply to tech-centric startups?

Ash Maurya: Even though a lot of these concepts were recently popularized by tech-centric startups, I believe the principles they embody are universally applicable to products ranging from high-tech to no-tech. Several core principles in “Running Lean” date back to the last century when Taiichi Ohno and Shigeo Shingo were laying out the early groundwork for the Toyota Production System, which later became “lean manufacturing.” I used these same techniques in the writing of my book, which I share as a case study in the book along with several other non-tech products.

What’s the connection between Running Lean and the Lean Startup?

Ash Maurya: Running Lean is a synthesis of three methodologies: Lean Startup, Customer Development, and Bootstrapping. Of the three, Running Lean draws the most from Lean Startup. While the Lean Startup, created by Eric Ries, codifies the core principles, my goal with Running Lean was to create an actionable how-to guide for taking these principles to practice.

[Note: Eric Ries is the editor of the Lean Startup Series, which includes “Running Lean.”]

Why did you decide to apply Lean Startup methods to your own work?

Ash Maurya: When I was first exposed to Lean Startup, I was already running a company and on my fifth product at the time. I had built products in stealth; attempted building a platform; dabbled with open sourcing; practiced release-early, release-often; embraced “less is more”; and even tried “more is more” — all with varying degrees of success.

I saw that acting on a vision can easily consume years of your life, and I was in search of a better, faster way of vetting and building products.

The key idea from Lean Startup that resonated with me was that of rapid iteration around customer learning. Specifically, that you could almost always test the riskiest parts of a vision without having to build the product first.

As I started internalizing these principles, I had more questions than answers. That prompted my own rigorous testing and application of these principles, which led to the book “Running Lean” and several other software products I am now building.

This interview was edited and condensed.


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