Winning Lean Startup Machine: Follow the Energy

I recently attended Lean Startup Machine (LSM) Tokyo, the first LSM in Japan. In the last year I’ve been reading Eric Ries’ The Lean Startup and Steve Blank’s The Startup Owner’s Manual which both define and espouse the ‘lean’ methodology of business creation, a methodology so simple in theory but with one characteristic that perhaps trips up many: the need to get out of the building, which means getting away from your computer, going out, finding your potential customers and learning about them by interviewing them. It can take other forms (online surveys, landing pages) but actually talking to your potential customers repeatedly opens up a world of possibilities, which is the topic of this post.

In brief, the lean methodology says that you should start by defining your hypotheses:

Customer Hypothesis: Who do we think our customer is?
Problem Hypothesis: What do we think their problem is?
Key Assumption: What do we think the solution should be?

You then brainstorm all your assumptions, pick the most important one (if this assumption were to be invalid, the whole concept would fall apart), go outside and test it. Ask people, is this a problem for you? Would you buy this?

The team I joined started with the news of Angelina Jolie opting for a preventative double mastectomy as the inspiration for our first idea: Are there people who would like to know their risk of serious illness so that they could take preventative measures, even if only to improve their diet or general health?

Customer Hypothesis: People affected by life-threatening disease
Problem Hypothesis: They don’t know their risk
Key Assumption: They are interested in knowing their risk

We walked around Daikanyama on a sunny Saturday, talking to people from various demographics about their interest in their health risks. Everyone knew who Angeline Jolie was and only one person hadn’t heard the recent news about her; people had a lot to say on the subject and we walked away with 11/13 people saying that they would like a report on their risks and would pay anything from $30-100+ for it, on the condition that a doctor must be present to explain it to them and answer their questions.

This would normally be considered a quite successful result when applying the lean methodology, after all the majority of people wanted what we were offering and were happy to pay for it. We had gone out with the aim of (in)validating our key assumption that people are interested in knowing their health risks but we had also been asking open-ended questions, and we discovered that while people were interested in knowing their risks, there were some who were far more interested in knowing what their options are if they become ill.

In this way we decided that our first pivot would be to switch the problem away from risks to options instead, even though our initial results were promising. I informally call this principle “following the energy” as the aim is to move through the space of problems to those that are really resonating with people, with the idea that if you keep following this energy you will end up at a more significant problem than when you started.

As Ian McFarland says, when you pitch your idea to your target customers you’re looking for Cookie Monsters:


Our hypotheses now looked like this:

Customer Hypothesis: People affected by life-threatening disease
Problem Hypothesis: They don’t know their treatment options
Key Assumption: They would pay for a personalised options report

We discussed this pivot internally in the team then with several mentors and took advice from a doctor (parent of the team leader), with the eventual conclusion that while we had discovered a problem that people were indeed enthusiastic about, our ability to execute on it was basically zero without medical expertise in the team. So, for the sake of practicing the validation process (the aim of the weekend) we pivoted again without outside validation. The team leader had talked to two housewives who were particularly concerned about their husbands’ health and we postulated that they might be interested in a service that would provide them with a quick and easy report of their partner’s health risks and advice for how to mitigate them that they could use to broach the discussion. With the following new hypotheses we again stepped out:

Customer Hypothesis: People who care about a loved one’s health
Problem Hypothesis: Simply nagging isn’t working
Key Assumption: They would pay for a personalised health report about the loved one

This idea was met with some enthusiasm from married women and so again by the standards of the lean methodology it was basically looking successful. Married men of course hated the idea, however when we then switched it to be a health report for their kids then everyone became more interested, you could literally see people’s attention being grabbed so we explored further. One mother in particular was concerned that she had only coincidentally discovered that her kids fell into a particular age range which had missed an important vaccination. In order to know this she had to go down the local government office and check a noticeboard; from this we hit upon the idea of providing a service which would ensure that parents are always kept up to date with everything they need to know regarding their childrens’ health from the disparate low-tech sources they need to be checking in with on a regular basis. And so, we headed out again:

Customer Hypothesis: Busy mums (esp. 1st-time mums)
Problem Hypothesis: Struggling to keep up with health information for kids
Key Assumption: They would want this email summarised and emailed to them

Our initial interviews went very well, it was a real problem that parents had (especially 1st-time mothers) and the solution connected with them so we decided to stop pivoting and get some broader validation done online, with a Facebook page and a landing page where we would gather email addresses of those interested. Checking today the Facebook page has 92 likes (including 15 likes from people who are not friends of friends so are less biased) and 19 email addresses of people who would be interested in trying the service.

In two days we had gone from investigating health risks to proving tailored family health bulletins. At each major decision point we had moved towards a problem which people cared more about, following the energy, while also staying within our limits as a team so that we would in theory be able to build the solution.

We presented our results and were met with guarded skepticism; our validation process looked so terribly clean so as to be suspicious and the judges weren’t buying it, yet we were chosen as the winners of the weekend! One of the judges came to explain this to me later in the evening; in the 5 minute presentation there hadn’t  been time to give enough detail of our interviewing process but in the Q&A they asked us how we had made the pivots we had. I explained how we had followed the energy, the enthusiasm of the people we were talking to, and had used that to decide what problem we were solving and who for. He said that this was not something that they had explicitly taught yet we had noticed; they were then satisfied that we had actually gone through the process faithfully and declared us the winning team of the weekend.

Before the workshop I’d read quite extensively about the process but had not yet applied it —the theories are simple but to put them into practice is something else entirely. If you had told me that we would talk to strangers all weekend and that they would tell us what they were really worried about, what they wished they had a solution for, I might not have believed you (though I believed in it enough to sign up). Such powerful techniques that are so terribly simple.

Suffice to say I will be applying these principles on current and future projects. To gain that level of learning of people’s problems at that speed is exciting: I used to work to hone my speed of execution (building things), now I’m honing my speed of learning through hypothesis invalidation which some call “failing fast”. Regarding the workshop, I can’t recommend Lean Startup Machine enough and will be attending another in my home country to experience validation without the language barrier (I’m in Japan at present); LSM Tokyo will be happening again in September this year so I’d suggest keeping an eye out as it will sell out quickly. This last even was organised by Ariba Jahan who had assembled a fantastic team of mentors and support staff (including incredible translators who ran the event fully bi-lingually). It’s worth noting that you do not need any skills like programming or design to get as much out of the weekend as anyone else, you just need to be prepared to go out, ask people about their problems and listen intently to the answers.

On advice for the workshop I’d say, aim to invalidate your key assumptions as quickly as possible but be sure to make the people you interview comfortable so that they can speak freely and teach you what problem they would really like you solve; if your weekend is anything like ours you’ll surprise yourself with the distance you cover.

The service’s landing page:

Our presentation slides: I-Heart-Kosodate