“Go check out Startup Lessons Learned,” he advised us. “You guys need to start using a lean methodology.”
We checked it out -- and found it to be a revelation for our business. The lean startup, coined by Startup Lessons Learned founder Eric Ries, works as follows: you start by making a minimum viable product, or MVP: the most basic version of what you’re doing that can possibly be shared with outsiders. Importantly, the MVP is generally way more basic than what most people think. (Consider, for example, how minimal Facebook was when it first launched back in 2004.)
You put this MVP in the hands of real customers. You see what they like and don’t like based on how they actually use it, and you see what they’re willing to pay for by asking them to pay. This information goes back into the system and informs the next iteration of the product, which you put back into the hands of the customers as quickly as possible. Iterate, iterate, rinse, repeat -- until you achieve the Holy Grail: what Ries calls “product-market fit.”
Although it’s now become the de facto standard for Web companies, lean methodology isn’t new. The term “lean software development” was coined in 2003 by Mary and Tom Poppendieck. The philosophy stems from principles in use at Toyota since the 1930s, widely adopted by manufacturing industries and by sectors like project management and healthcare.
These days, even city-makers have begun to wonder wither the same approach might be successful in an urban environment. The Internet, after all, is in many ways a reflection of our physical world: as within, so without.
Consider, for example, the Project for Lean Urbanism, which last year received a grant for more than $600,000 from the Knight Foundation -- and which, according to founder András Duan, “focuses on revitalizing cities by finding ways for people to participate in community-building -- specifically, by enabling everyday people to get things done.” (Emphasis his.)
Or consider landscape architect and city-maker Lucinda Hartley. Using lean methodology in Cambodia, Hartley “worked on a slum upgrading project that began as a school, and ended as a footpath.” She says, “The collaborative process changed the whole brief.”
In fact, two of the biggest proponents of using rapid iteration as a different approach to urban regeneration come from the online world: Zappos founder Tony Hsieh and Dan Gilbert, who owns Quicken Loans. Hsieh has invested $350 million of his own money to revitalize downtown Las Vegas; Gilbert has spent more than $1.6 billion in Detroit.
Whether it’s Facebook or Fresno, the premise of the lean startup is the same: that we don’t know the answer, that we shouldn’t try to know it without working hand-in-hand with the people that answer is meant to serve. It’s good enough for car manufacturing. It’s good enough for Web businesses. It’s good enough for urbanists.
I hope it’s good enough for you.