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Highlights from Lean Startup 2014

Last month I had the opportunity to attend the Lean Startup conference here in San Francisco. The event’s expanded quite a bit since my last visit in 2012 – the Lean community is growing, and this time I met many more folks from outside the Bay Area and the United States.

Lean Startup is an approach to entrepreneurship and product development that’s built on experimentation and measurement. It gets you to test your ideas rigorously and efficiently, and to be flexible and change course when the data tells you to.

To learn more about Lean Startup, I highly recommend Eric Ries’s book, which started it all. O’Reilly also has a popular Lean series that delves into the specifics of Lean UX, Analytics, and more.

Even though it has “startup” in the name, Lean Startup applies anytime you’re creating something under “conditions of extreme uncertainty.” That can happen in businesses at any size or stage. Alexa has been around for 19 years, and we’re using Lean Startup principles every day.

That said, I wanted to share some highlights from the conference. I’ve included links to the videos as well, so you can watch and learn more on your own.

Learning from Customers

One of the most popular talks I attended was Des Traynor on how to Find Product Market/Fit Through Customer Conversations.  At Alexa, we’re constantly talking to customers, and Traynor conveyed some really important advice about finding the right customers to talk to, at the right time, in the right place, about the right things.

For example: want to know what makes your customers want to upgrade? Then focus on talking to users who upgraded recently – don’t ask them two months later, or you risk being misled.  Traynor told a story many of us will find familiar: receiving a survey about a brief customer service phone call he’d had with his bank several weeks before. How could he possibly remember enough to give meaningful feedback?

Formulating Hypotheses

When you have a great idea and you’re excited to start building, you’re probably taking a lot for granted – and it can really trip you up. In her talk, Identify and Validate Your Riskiest Assumptions, Laura Klein showed us how to turn presumptions into hypotheses that you can test quickly, before you invest lots of time and money (we’ve already started using her Sharpies-and-stickies technique here at Alexa).

Klein identifies three types of assumptions you can validate:

  • Problem (is there really a market with this problem?)
  • Solution (are you addressing it in the right way?)
  • Implementation (can you build it without running out of money?)

“Building is never your riskiest assumption” she stated, unless you’re Elon Musk and your product is a reusable rocket ship.

Validating Ideas

So you’ve got a hypothesis you’d like to test – how do you do that and avoid the rookie mistakes? It’s harder than it looks, but Grace Ng demonstrated Tactics for Truly Effective Experiment Design and shared some useful templates, along with real life stories to illustrate how you can be led down the wrong path.

Ng cautioned that false validation happens when you:

  • Test the wrong assumptions (e.g., the solution before the problem)
  • Ask the wrong questions (e.g., focusing on usability, not customer value)
  • Fail to pre-define success criteria (and let confirmation bias take hold)

In Lean, Adaptability Is Key

Finally, one truly memorable event came on the final day of the conference.  A storm big enough to have its own hash tag (#hellastorm) knocked out power to much of San Francisco, including the conference venue.  But the flexible spirit of Lean prevailed, and attendees gathered to create their own mini-sessions wherever there were windows or candles, until power was restored.

leanstartupconferencePhoto of the Lean Startup conference by candlelight

I learned a lot, and left the conference inspired and energized. The Lean Startup movement has come a long way in just two short years – I’m looking forward to the 2015 gathering!

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