Book Review: The Lean Startup by Eric Ries

Around here, we're used to the idea that science is business, but rarely do we think that business can be a science. The Lean Startup is about turning business activity into an experiment-driven science, focused on avoiding waste by building products people actually want to use.

A lot has been written about the ideas across the web, so much that even the word "Lean" has that over-saturated ring of alienation. However, upon reading the source material, rather than the echoing of blogs, I can say that Lean Startup does present a lot of potent ideas. They are simple to understand, sometimes difficult to embrace, and perhaps the potent change agent the culture of business needs to move from management to science.

Ideas Worth Spreading

The book itself proceeds with the usual business book process of anecdotes as object lesson, plus direct commentary on the techniques that would sustain the positive stories or correct the negative stories. The motif is always on incrementally testing assumptions in the real world, with simple solutions that attack the uncertain risks in customer behavior rather than the technical challenges of building a solution.

At its core, its techniques are about defeating human syndromes and failings, from overcoming the assumption that you know what people want to looking back and always seeing a result as a success. It dovetails with the programming techniques de jour of Agile/XP/Scrum, where starting and steering in a cycle is emphasized over classical waterfall techniques. From a programmer's standpoint, it looks a lot like the ethos of Agile, just applied to all business activity and customer analysis rather than just programmer activity. Just call it "experiment-driven requirements gathering" and most developers would be on-board.

One Book With (Too) Many Tools

As far as criticisms for the book, I find the only issue is the duality of its audience. It struggles to please two sets of people:

1) Intrepid entrepreneurs looking for a shovel to plant their seedling in the most fertile ground they can find

2) Energized middle managers in large companies looking for a hammer to smash the icons and dogma of the status quo

I do believe the lessons of Lean Startup are relevant to both audiences; however, there is a detriment to crafting an instrument intended to serve dual-purposes, rather than focusing on what a single audience needs. The concepts are so simple that you could make a ninety-page book for each audience, but instead, they have three-hundred for both.

Why Tri-Cities Needs to Think Lean

Growing up in Richland, I've hear of a lot of so called "Research & Development" companies that require huge initial investments just to go from research to development on projects. Their first product is a pitch that must land six, seven, or even eight figures in grants and investments; otherwise, they are almost dead in the water. The person giving you money for the idea is no longer the customer, it's some panel of experts. Unfortunately, that baggage of a big leap, heavy debt entrepreneurship permeates the mind of the employees and stymies them when trying to do something independent.

Also, the book made me realize another dimension on why patents are bad: if you're chasing patents, it means you can't steer a business. You're not worried about adapting to the customer or the market, you're worried about distilling a solution to a legally recognize unit. Immutable perfection is not an achievement, looking for it is a losing strategy for a Lean Startup. Patents have a place, but they are not the goal of a company, they are a side-effect at best.

The Lean Startup is an effective toolbox for the ideas that we really need:  finding hungry customers then making bite-sized progress, rather than serving a feast without checking for food allergies. Our community is slowly coagulating into teams that will strike out for fortune, Lean Startup principles can be a part of ensuring they are building an opportunity and not just an algorithm.