Lead and Disrupt

You think startups are hard? Try innovating inside a large company where 99% of the company is executing the current business model, while you’re trying to figure out and build what comes next.

Charles O’Reilly and Michael Tushman coined the term an “Ambidextrous Organization” to describe how some companies get this simultaneous execution and innovation process right. Their book Lead and Disrupt describes how others can learn how to do so.

I was honored to write the forward to their second edition.  Here it is in its entirety.


What you’re holding in your hand is a revolutionary document. It answers the questions of why some companies trace a brilliant arc as a shooting star and then flame out while others continue to thrive. Why are some companies able to reinvent themselves while others, once market leaders, are disrupted?

Is it that some CEOs are better than others? Are their people smarter? Do they have better sales, marketing, or product development groups?

The short answer is no. What the winners start with is the realization that in a world of continuous disruption, they have only a few years to develop new capabilities or be pushed over the brink. And they also recognize that simply exploiting their existing assets, capabilities, and business models is insufficient for long-term survival. So they prepare for future markets by exploring new ventures.

This radical idea of companies continuing to execute and exploit their existing business model while simultaneously exploring and creating new products, businesses, and business models is what O’Reilly and Tushman call ambidexterity. While simple at first glance, the concept is revolutionary in its ability to transform an enterprise. This book not only explains the “why does this happen” but more importantly gives you the tools for “what to do about it.”

In the 20th century, finding the successful formula for repeatable start-up success remained a black art. The idea of exploitation versus exploration was central in my own work in building the lean methodology for start-ups. The key was the realization that start-ups are not simply smaller versions of large companies, which execute/exploit known business models, and whose customers, problems, and necessary product features are all “knowns.” In sharp contrast, start-ups operate in “search/explore” mode, seeking a repeatable and profitable business model. The search for a business model requires dramatically different rules, roadmaps, skill sets, tools, and culture in order to minimize risk and optimize chances for success.

Recognizing the anomaly was just the first step. There were no standard tools, methods, or playbooks for start-ups. So we built our own tools to enable founders to rapidly translate their vision into hypotheses and then into validated facts. These tools—Customer Development, Agile Engineering, and Business Model design—became the lean start-up methodology, a rigorous approach to testing hypotheses and building prototypes, and, on the basis of data and evidence, adjusting or pivoting to a variant of the original hypothesis. Today, lean is the de facto method for building new start-ups.

Fast forward two decades, and many companies have adopted these start-up tools and methods to deal with disruption. However, after watching innovators in large companies try to use the lean start-up methodology, I’m embarrassed to say that it has mostly devolved into standalone innovation activities (corporate incubators, accelerators, and so on) resulting in “innovation theater,” with nice coffee mugs and posters but little impact on the top or bottom line.

In this book O’Reilly and Tushman succinctly articulate why these tools succeed in start-ups but fail in large companies. Most R&D budgets in established companies are spent on sustaining innovations that support existing products and operating divisions and the attendant processes and procedures, rigorous measurement, and controls. These formalized structures, necessary  for managing execution/exploitation, actually strangle disruptive innovation before it can start.

Companies built around exploitation emphasize efficiency, productivity, and the reduction of variance, whereas exploration demands searching, discovering, and accepting risk and failure. To accomplish both simultaneously—to be an ambidextrous company—requires not only separate organizations for each function, but also different business models, competencies, systems, processes, incentives, and cultures. In short, it requires a different way not only to manage a company, but a different way to organize it as well.

This is a really big idea.

To be truly successful at ambidexterity firms must master the new skills of ideation, incubation, and scaling. Firms first generate new ideas via ideation: the last twenty years have seen an explosion of corporate venture capital, open innovation, and employee involvement via hackathons and incubators. A smaller number of companies have become proficient at the next step—incubation—rigorously testing new business concepts, using the lean start-up methods of Customer Development, Agile Engineering, and Business Model design. However, relatively few have successfully scaled new internal ventures to enable them to stay ahead of disruption. It is this discipline of scaling, actually building new, substantive, profitable businesses, that is critical to the success of new, highly innovative corporate ventures. It’s only when companies can scale that they truly win. Scaling is the crux of ambidexterity.

Recognizing the need for ambidexterity and building an ambidextrous organization are tests of corporate leadership.

In the end, exploitation pays your salary while exploration pays your pension. Companies that survive do both.

This book will do for companies what the lean methodology did for start-ups – give its leaders the essential playbook for transforming their organizations to meet the future.

Get your copy of Lead and Disrupt.

Why Innovation Heroes are a Sign of a Dysfunctional Organization

A week ago I got invited to an “innovation hero” award ceremony at a government agency. I don’t know how many of these I’ve been to in the last couple years, but this one just made my head explode.

The award was for an entrepreneur who worked against all odds to buck the system to turn her insight into an application. She had realized it was possible to automate a process that was being done manually – reentering data from one spreadsheet to another and annotating it with additional data from another system. Inspired by her own work problem, she talked to her peers and other stakeholders, built multiple minimum viable products, and figured out how to get engineering, policy, legal, security and everyone else in the enterprise to actually approve it. And then she fought with the acquisition folks to buy the trivial amount of additional hardware needed to connect it. It was a development process that would’ve taken three weeks in a startup, but inside this agency took 10 months (which was considered fast.) At each step she was confronted with “we’re not budgeted for this” or “this isn’t on our schedule” and “this isn’t your job.” Most rational people would’ve given up and said “you can’t fight the system“ but yet she persisted.

Having seen this scenario play out multiple times at multiple large corporations and government agencies, I could’ve repeated the speech her agency director made at the ceremony verbatim. “Blah blah blah and a $100 bonus.” Everyone politely applauded and went back to work feeling good. I was simply depressed. Never once did anyone ever step back and say that what we just witnessed was leadership rewarding and perpetuating a dysfunctional and broken system.

I’m constantly puzzled why thoughtful and astute CEOs and Agency Directors never ask, “Why is it that innovations require heroics to occur in our organization? Why don’t we have a repeatable process for innovation? What are the obstacles in the way of delivering needed innovation with speed and urgency in our organization? Why is it that after each one of these awards we don’t go back and fix the parts of the system that made creating something new so difficult?”

Instead, everyone at this award ceremony just went back to work like it was business as usual. I realized that innovation in this organization was going to continue to happen by heroics and exception rather than by design. As I’ve seen play out way too many times, ultimately the innovators get tired of banging their heads against the wall and leave government service or large companies. Their organizations hemorrhage the very people they need to help them compete against aggressive adversaries or competitors who have them in their sights.

An Organizational Design Problem
Sadly, this wasn’t a single act of bad management or malice. No single individual thought they weren’t doing their job. However, if anyone had taken the time to deconstruct the reason for the roadblocks to innovation, they would have uncovered they weren’t just obstinate middle managers, or a single bad process. Asking a series of “five whys,” (see this HBR article) would have discovered that:

  1. The agency’s existing processes were not designed for non-standard work. As in most large organizations, they were designed for the repeatable execution of pre-defined tasks.
  2. There were no resources available for non-standard work or any parallel organization responsible for innovation.
  3. The culture of the organization discouraged experimentation and punished the inevitable failures of a learning and discovery process.

Ultimately, the root cause was the entire government agency lacked an Innovation Doctrine. This manifested itself as an organizational design problem. There was simply no permanent place in the organization for unscheduled innovation to happen. And even if there had been, there was no way to turn demos into deployment with speed and at scale.Innovation Doctrine
In peacetime and/or when you’re the dominant superpower (or a commercial market leader), the emphasis is on process, procedures, and sustainment of existing systems. Deviations from that create chaos and diverge from the predetermined are not welcomed, let alone promoted, and funded. They are eliminated. This works great when the external environment -competitors, adversaries, technologies, threats – is static. However in times of crisis, war or disruption, these unconventional thinkers and innovators are exactly what is needed, and their ideas need to be rapidly deployed.

Well-managed organizations realize that they need both innovation and execution. With execution being dominant in peacetime/competitive advantage you have managers of process. In crisis/wartime innovation is dominant. Instead of mangers of process you need innovation leaders who shepherd ideas through an innovation pipeline. (see this HBR article.) Successful organizations recognize that innovation isn’t a single activity (incubators, accelerators, hackathons); it is a strategically organized end-to-end process from idea to deployment.

While innovation and execution have different processes, people, and culture, they need to respect and depend on each other. This ambidexterity (see this HBR article) and the innovation processes that go with it require an innovation doctrine – an overall strategy and playbook for the entire organization and enterprise that includes an innovation pipeline and processes intended to drive innovation efforts, and describes the role of innovation leaders in an ambidextrous organization – all focused on rapid deployment of new capabilities.

Lessons Learned

  • Innovation heroics are a symptom of a lack of an innovation doctrine
  • An innovation doctrine has a playbook, and innovation pipeline and describes the role of innovation leaders in an ambidextrous organization – all focused on rapid deployment of new capabilities
  • All large organizations – both government and corporate—need an innovation doctrine or else risk being outpaced by competitors.

You Don’t Need Permission

I was pleasantly surprised to hear from Suresh, an ex-student I’ve known for a long time. A U.S. citizen he was now the head of sales and marketing for a company in London selling medical devices to hospitals in the UK National Health Service.  His boss had identified the U.S. as their next market and wanted him to set up a U.S. salesforce. Suresh understood that the U.S. health system was very different from the system in the UK, not just the regulatory regime through the FDA, but the reimbursement process and the entire sales process.

Over a Zoom call Suresh explained, “I’m trying to push the importance of running customer discovery and testing these hypotheses before we build our U.S. product, but I’m running into a pushback from my CEO. He says, “We’re disruptors! Discovery is going to slow us down.  We need to move quickly!”

Suresh was concerned. “If we don’t test our assumptions about the market and any changes needed to our products, we’ll build something I can’t sell. Worse, given how expensive clinical trials are in medtech, I’m concerned if we build a product that isn’t commercially viable, we’ll be out of business before we even start.”

I could hear his frustration and concern when he asked, “How can I convince my boss to use customer discovery to test our hypotheses?”

That’s when I realized that Suresh was overlooking a few things.

  1. He was trying to sell the “story” of Customer Discovery as part of the Lean Methodology to his CEO by explaining how discovery worked with the business model canvas, agile engineering, pivots and MVPs.
  2. But talking about the method to others is not the same as “doing” Customer Discovery.
  3. Customer Discovery is about gathering validated evidence, not proselytizing a method.
  4. The goal of discovery is to gather evidence to test hypotheses, deeply understand the customer problem and validate a solution.
  5. As head of sales and marketing, Suresh didn’t need his CEO to buy into the process or give his permission to start the discovery process. He was in charge.
  6. Given the ubiquity of Zoom, he could use it to rapidly get out of the building to the U.S. to test some hypotheses and gather some initial insights.

I pointed out that once he had potential customer, regulator, and reimbursement data from his Discovery interviews, he could bring that data into conversations with his CEO.

Having real data turns conversations from faith-based to evidence-based.

Lessons Learned

  • Talking about the Lean method to others is not the same as doing it
  • If you’re in charge or part of a customer-facing organization, you don’t need to wait for permission to talk to customers to test hypotheses
  • Having real data turns conversations from faith-based to evidence-based

Your Product is Not Their Problem

There are no facts inside your building, so get the heck outside

I just had a call with Lorenz, a former business school student who started a job at a biotech startup making bacteria to take CO2 out of the air. His job was to find new commercial markets for this bacteria at scale.  And he wanted to chat about how to best enter a new market.

His market research found that the concrete industry contributes between 5 and 10% of the world’s carbon emissions. So it seemed logical to him that the concrete industry was going to be one the first places to approach since it was obvious that they need to reduce carbon emissions. He believed that if used as an additive to concrete, his bacteria could strengthen it while reducing CO2.

The conversation got interesting when I asked, “How are you going to describe the product to potential customers in the concrete industry?” Lorenz began a long description of the details of the bacteria, his founders’ research papers on bacteria, the scientific advisory board bacteria experts they had assembled, how the bacteria was made at scale in fluidized bed reactors, etc… This went on for at least ten more minutes. When he was done I asked him, “So why should anybody in the concrete industry care? Do you really think they’re looking for bacteria made in fluidized bed reactors? Do you think there are a significant number whose number one issue is to buy bacteria? Do you know what if any of the features you mentioned actually matter to a potential customer?” There was silence for a moment. And then he said, “I don’t know.”

I wasn’t completely surprised because as a young marketeer, I made this mistake all the time – thinking that my product was a solution to someone’s problem  – without ever understanding what problems the customers really had. And that I needed to have all the answers when in fact I didn’t even understand the questions.

I suggested that perhaps he should get out of the building and actually talk to some large-scale concrete suppliers and rather than starting with what he wanted to sell them, try to understand what their needs were. For example, how were current and upcoming green building regulations on CO2 emissions affecting the concrete industry? How are they solving that problem today? (If they weren’t solving it, it may not be a problem they’ll pay to solve.) What was the current cost of low carbon concrete? How much would they have to charge to be competitive? Were there specific use-cases that made sense for initial adoption/pilots? What additional benefits could bacteria as an concrete additive make (ie. greater strength, crack healing)?

We talked for a few minutes more and by then I could see the lightbulb going on over his head when he said, “I think I got my work cut out for me.”

Lessons learned

  • Your product is not someone’s problem
  • Start with a deep understanding of a customer problem or need before you start pitching your solution
  • Ask customers how they solve the problem today
  • Understand future regulations that might change your customer’s priorities or challenges

These Five Principles Will Accelerate Innovation

As Director of the U.S. Army’s Rapid Equipping Force Pete Newell delivered innovation at speed and scale in the Department of Defense. Pete is now CEO of BMNT, a company that delivers innovation solutions and processes for governments.

Here are Pete’s 5 principles that will accelerate innovation.


To help a large Defense organization wrestle with how to increase the velocity of innovation in their ranks Steve Blank and I spent the better part of last week with our heads together reviewing everything we learned in the five years since we merged the concepts of problem curation and Lean while launching the innovation pipeline.

The original Innovation Pipeline sketch – 2016

I spent yesterday sifting through the most recent lessons learned and results from a series of accelerators BMNT is running for the intelligence community. Then last night I watched the final presentations from the inaugural Hacking for National Security course in Australia before jumping over to teach Stanford’s Hacking for Defense® (H4D) class.

Looking back on the week I’m blown away by how far we’ve come since we merged the two methodologies five years ago and by how fast we are discovering the pathways toward solving incredibly hard problems. Some examples:

  • In less than six weeks a Stanford H4D team has redefined a problem related to security vetting and radicalization while also describing the pathway a solution could follow to deployment within the Department of Defense and the Intelligence Community.
  • A Navy team recently sourced 80 problems, then curated down to one priority problem to solve. In less than 60 days they created 26 MVPs while interviewing over two dozen companies. They then incubated and delivered a solution that will help get large vessels back to sea faster, potentially saving the Navy $20M-$30M a year.
  • In just three weeks, the DIA MARS team sourced 100 problems from nearly 400 people, then curated and selected five priority problems to focus on. In eight weeks, five teams conducted more than 125 interviews (across 53 stakeholder organizations) and 12 experiments to deliver five validated proofs-of-concept and the evidence needed to confidently invest resources to prototype three of the five based on their user desirability, technical feasibility and organizational viability.

What I observed from the week’s deep dive: Whether it is an agency cross-functional team or a university-based “Hacking for” team we are accelerating, five key concepts drive the foundation for this increasing pace of learning and solution delivery. They are

  1. The power of Lean Methodology is supercharged when discovery begins with a well-curated and prioritized problem. Getting to one well-curated problem requires access to a source of hundreds of them.   
  2. Problem curation doesn’t stop until discovery is complete — the process of trying to discover the solution to a problem helps define the actual problem (and for .gov folks the actual requirement for the future solution).
  3. Stakeholder mapping and nailing the value propositions for beneficiaries, buyers, supporters, advocates and potential saboteurs are critical to building a pathway through the phases of the innovation pipeline and transitioning a solution to deployment. 
  4. The key to understanding value propositions is in building interviews that are based on a set of hypotheses (about the problem, the stakeholder and potential solutions to be explored) and data to be captured while using minimum viable products (just enough “product” to increase the efficacy of a conversation and increase the speed of learning).
  5. Innovation happens because of people and it takes a village. Whether academic-based like our Hacking for Defense teams or internal organizational Integrated Product or Cross-Functional Teams (IPTs/CFTs), accelerator teams perform best when supported by:
    1. Teachers – who can ground teams in a common framework and language for the discipline of innovation and entrepreneurship.
    2. Coaches – who can walk teams through the practical application of innovation tools in context with the problem they are trying to solve.
    3. Mentors – who will provide relentlessly direct feedback to teams and challenge them on the quality of the hypotheses, MVPs and the analysis of what they’ve learned, while driving them through each pivot rather than letting them get bogged down in “analysis paralysis.”
    4. Advisors – who will provide alternative viewpoints that will enable teams to see clearer pathways through bureaucracies.
    5. Connectors – who will help teams rapidly grow their networks to gain new insights from unique partners not yet discovered.

If your organization is running innovation activities or an accelerator and these five principles aren’t part of their program they are likely wasting your organization’s time and resources, and contributing to Innovation Theater instead of deploying solutions to real problems.

—–

Next up we’ll dig into how the innovation pipeline serves a parallel process for managing innovation

Enterprise Innovation for the 21st Century

Today’s environment requires separate systems for innovation and execution that operate with parallel and sometimes overlapping processes


A Path to the Minimum Viable Product

I first met Shawn Carolan and his wife Jennifer at the turn of the century at 11,000 feet. I was hiking with my kids between the Yosemite High Sierra camps. Having just retired from a career as an entrepreneur I had started thinking about why startups were different from large companies. The ideas were bouncing around my head so hard that I shared them with these strangers around a campfire, drawing out the four steps with a stick in the dirt. Shawn immediately said the name I had given the four steps was confusing – I had called it market development – he suggested that I call it Customer Development – and the name stuck. What I didn’t realize was that both were graduate students at Stanford and later both would become great VCs – Shawn at Menlo Ventures and Jennifer at Reach Capital. (And Jennifer is now my co-instructor in the Stanford Lean LaunchPad class.)

The MVP Tree
Over the last two decades Shawn has seen hundreds of startups use the Lean Methodology. Many of them get hung up on understanding how to select the right minimal viable product. He came up with the concept to simply the search for product/market fit by using an MVP Tree.

Shawns guest blog post describing describing the MVP Tree is below.

(Note that if you’re familiar with the business model canvas, Steps 1-4 below are equivalent to a visual map of the choices a founder makes as they develop a business model canvas. Step 5 and 6 leads you to selecting the right MVPs.)


It’s commonly believed that the top two reasons startups fail is because “there’s no market need” and “they ran out of cash.”  These reasons are mental gymnastics to avoid a plain truth: startups fail when they don’t build a simple solution to a problem many people have.

startup_fails.pngMany startups fall into the trap of building toward a “mission” rather than a minimum viable product (MVP).

Your mission is your baby. It’s the North Star that got your people on board and inspires them daily. However, solely focusing on your mission is the same as being unfocused.

Bridging the gap between a big, ambitious dream and the reality of what you can accomplish with limited resources isn’t fun because it requires saying no (for now) to a lot of things that have you excited. Paradoxically, resource limitations are the secret to success; they teach lessons that experienced entrepreneurs have harnessed. Constraints force you to pause—or even permanently shelve—certain aspects of your mission in favor of proving that you can deliver one specific thing that really matters to customers.

During the crucial mission-to-MVP planning phase, the objective of a startup is to solve one job for one customer group such that customers consistently use your minimally viable product for an important part of their work or personal lives. In other words, you prove retention. It’s really all that matters at the earliest stage.

The tool for doing this efficiently and effectively? We call it an MVP tree.

Solution: Build an MVP Tree
Company missions tend to fall to the extremes: either the mission isn’t ambitious enough or it’s too ambitious to build with your current resources.

It bears repeating: an early-stage startup must focus on making one customer group excited by a mission-aligned product. Doing so is usually a long way away from realizing your full mission statement, and that’s okay.

An MVP tree is a way of methodically breaking your mission into smaller components and formulating MVP candidates that may get your company sustainable and scalable. Using the tree structure outlined below increases the chance that your first step forward (the MVP) will be successful with a small team, while taking you in the right direction to achieve your company’s big mission. An MVP tree has three main components—customer archetypes, jobs to be done, and execution—and we’ll walk you through them step by step with a case study of Roku, a former portfolio company we’ve been fortunate to see execute from a $20 million first VC round to what is now a $50 billion public company.

(To get started, we draw our tree out using Whimsical, a product that I’m a big fan of.)

Step 1: Define Your Big Mission in a Simple Statement

In the day-to-day fray of prioritizing features, considering customer input, and handling people issues, it’s easy for a team to lose their bearings. The world is full of great products and it’s essential to be crystal clear on your reason for being; to avoid wandering in circles, you need a mission statement. A few examples:

  • Roku: “To be the TV streaming platform that connects the entire TV ecosystem around the world”

  • Uber: “To bring transportation—for everyone, everywhere”

  • Chime: “We believe everyone deserves financial peace of mind”

Your mission statement needs to stand for something specific and impactful. It may change as you build and learn from your customers, but aim for it to conjure up an image of a better future with your product at the center.

Your mission statement is the center of your MVP Tree.

Screen Shot 2021-03-17 at 11.21.46 AM.png

A motivating mission statement inspires action. It may be tempting to jump right into coding, but slow down—remember, the goal of this exercise is to determine how little you can do to acquire and retain customers. With both growth and retention, you earn the right to build more.

Step 2: Customer Archetypes

A customer archetype is a category of similar people with similar needs (e.g., segmented by age, gender, profession, personality type, etc.). While it may be tempting to want to build a product for everyone, everywhere (7 billion TAM, right?!), doing so will distract you from building exactly what one group needs. Each new segment you attempt to serve can increase scope, adding to your workload and demanding more of your limited resources.

The intent of this branch of the tree is to identify one group of potential customers who would be highly motivated to fix their pain as part of your MVP. Draw out a few customer archetypes that might be a fit for your startup, (we’ll discuss later how to prioritize the one group to tackle first.)

Screen Shot 2021-03-17 at 11.22.16 AM.png

Step 3: Jobs to Be Done

Clayton Christensen’s Jobs to Be Done framework proposes that focusing solely on customer data leads founders on a wild goose chase. Founders should understand what the customer hopes to accomplish, or what their job to be done is.

Break down your mission statement into different “jobs”; this itemization will likely narrow your product scope considerably, while still allowing you to create something of significant value.

When consumers have a job to be done, they’ll look around at their choices and select the best tool for the job. Your goal is to build the best tool for meaningful, reoccurring jobs that people face. Map out the jobs that you believe exist for the customer archetypes identified in step 2.

The more common jobs may apply to several of the archetypes, while the more esoteric jobs may apply to just one. There will be plenty of overlap, which is why jobs have their own branch of the MVP tree rather than attaching directly to the archetype branches.

The more common jobs may apply to several of the archetypes, while the more esoteric jobs may apply to just one. There will be plenty of overlap, which is why jobs have their own branch of the MVP tree rather than attaching directly to the archetype branches.

Step 4: Execution Branches 

Execution branches will vary based on the company, but think of them as the components of what gets built and where it gets sold. These branches of the MVP tree comprise the components of market expansion that urge founders to explore the tactical side of getting a solid product in front of the right people. This first product launch can either be a costly mistake or an ingenious first step that shows traction with early customers and gives your team and investors confidence. Map these out now as part of the tree and reduce the odds of a headache down the road.

In the Roku case study we’ve chosen three execution branches: (1) delivery platforms, (2) sales channels, and (3) chip platforms.

Delivery platforms
Delivery platforms are the vehicles through which customers come to interact with your product. For software products, they would be the operating systems with big market shares: iOS, Android, web, Mac, and PC. While supporting each additional platform expands your addressable market or breadth of customer touchpoints, it can dramatically increase scope. Developing for multiple platforms at once spreads already-thin resources, which ultimately harms the creation of the best product possible for a specific customer segment.

The fewer platforms you choose to support, the smaller the scope. Pick one delivery platform to save resources and prove your value. Investors will recognize that a successful app on iOS will also work on Android with more capital. Focus your precious time on making one platform sing.

Clubhouse, a recent startup darling, has quietly grown to over 2M users exclusively on Apple. Some early users might be frustrated because they can’t invite their Android peers, but the strategy to focus on iOS helped Team Clubhouse minimize their initial scope and meticulously learn from early users without the distraction that may come from opening the floodgates.

For hardware companies, delivery platforms are essentially the potential SKUs you might consider shipping. Steve Jobs once said that if you are really serious about software, you should build your own hardware. You can think of these hardware form factors as software delivery vehicles. Most people only know Roku for their TV devices, but Roku initially shipped an audio device for Internet radio stations and a PhotoBridge product to get digital photo libraries to the TV. Even when moving to video, consumers had the choice between a stand-alone box or a smaller plug-in stick. Today, Roku has become an operating system embedded in other brands’ TVs.

Sales channels
Sales channels are the paths through which your product lands in customers’ hands. For software products, the channels are typically through the mobile app stores or directly over the Internet. For hardware products, it’s D2C e-commerce, online retailers, or physical retail.

Some sales channels may behave similarly; more often than not, they each pose unique challenges. Every additional sales channel costs resources and increases scope. Pick one channel, prove traction, then experiment with the next.

Roku_MVP4.png

Chip platforms
Unique to hardware companies is the choice of which chip to use, and it’s a big one. The choice of semiconductor has profound implications on system requirements like how much memory is needed, how much power is required—and ultimately, the end system cost. Owners of the new Mac M1 laptops are taking advantage of a decade of Apple’s mobile chip development, which is finally robust enough to run the MacOS. The Roku OS has come to run on several different chipsets over time, but in the beginning they had to choose one.

Roku_MVP5.png

Other branches
There are several other execution branches that may be relevant to your business. If you are an office productivity tool, the data ecosystem you pick is a big one: Google or Microsoft? It’s lazy thinking (and expensive engineering) to try to build for both at the same time. Pick one, show success, then raise more money to address the other half of the market. Again, the fewer of these branches (ecosystems, etc.) you choose to support, the smaller the scope. If your startup doesn’t need to access customer data, the choice of consumer-grade vs. enterprise-grade is a big one that adds scope. The theme remains the same: be selective and pick the branch you have the best shot at success with before adding more.

Roku_MVP6.png

Step 5: Scope Out Your Candidate MVPs

If your map looks like Roku’s, you’re probably now staring at something that has grown to become quite complex, with many “leaves” at the ends of your branches. A single leaf chosen on each branch is what makes up an MVP. The reasonable permutations are your candidate MVPs.

Remember, an MVP is the minimally scoped product that gets some job done for your chosen customer archetype.

Step 6: Evaluate Your Candidate MVPs

How do you know which MVP to build first? Choose wisely: This will be the next several months of your life.
A successful MVP satisfies three criteria:

  1. It addresses a meaningful job to be done. A customer spending their own time or money to do a job chooses your solution as the best option for them. Pick a meaningful job—the more frequently occurring the better—and offer a significant advantage (better, faster, or cheaper).

  2. It has a growth engine. Build or price growth into your product. There are two viable growth engines for tech companies:

    1. Viral, or “inherently viral” growth: Customers either intentionally or unintentionally recruit new customers by using your product. Social platforms use intentional virality; this occurs when users get a more fulfilling experience as more of  their friends join the same platform. Unintentional virality happens when customers inadvertently introduce others to the product experience, similar to how shared bike or scooter riders serve as mobile billboards for the experience.

    2. Economic paid acquisition: Contribution margins from customers are recycled into advertising, marketing, and other PR activities that successfully drive additional customers. Note well, though: this engine is “economic” because it must fuel itself. It’s easy to simply buy customers, but only real value makes them stay. Your product must collect far more value over the lifetime of the customer relationship than the cost of acquiring that customer in the first place.

  3. It has a rapid time-to-value: How long must customers wait for the “aha” moment? With my first Uber ride in late 2011, it took about two minutes for that moment to arrive: I installed the app, entered my credit card, ordered a car, and it was waiting for me by the time I walked down one flight of stairs. Aha! I knew I’d never wait for another taxi in San Francisco again. The faster and more simply your product can prove its worth, the higher rate of conversion from tire-kickers to retained customers. For software startups, ask yourselves this question: What’s the one screen that will make your customers get it? 

Step 7: Pick, Beta, Ship

Now’s the time to let the rubber meet the road and get a minimal product into a customer’s hands. Can it do the job better than their prior solution? Keep iterating until you’re getting that one specific job done. 

Roku’s first two MVPs weren’t a success (sound bridge + photo bridge). It was however, through the process of mapping out MVPs candidates, testing, and learning that brought intense clarity to and laid out the infrastructure for what would ultimately work — a delivery platform for Netflix. Even if the first MVP isn’t a hit, you’ll be building the muscle needed for the company such as making key hires.

Don’t pivot to a different job unless you’ve learned something new that causes you to reconsider your initial hypothesis. This may take a lot of time, but that’s perfectly fine. Stay focused on solving that job until you prove your hypothesis right or wrong. The world is littered with failed companies that never got a product right. Where there’s a job to be done, you can build a solution with enough time, talent, and focus.

Roku’s Winning MVP:

Roku_MVP7.png

Step 8: Double-Down

When you finally find your product getting a recurring job done better than any other tool, stick with it. Don’t take your eye off the prize and move onto new things too quickly.

Earn the right to increase scope and move on to other jobs, platforms, and customer archetypes after solidifying your position among this first set of customers―and creating a sustainable growth engine.

Final Thoughts

Founders become infatuated with a bold and ambitious mission—as they should. However, what separates a startup that actually brings its mission to life from one that doesn’t is the ability to shed the rose-colored glasses and solve for a small job to be done.

A proper MVP framework, such as our MVP Tree presented here, is a critical first step in fulfilling your mission, even though it might seem like you are selling it short. Be patient. It won’t be easy realizing your mission, and it shouldn’t be. If your mission were easy, it would already be done by someone else!

Want to see an MVP Tree for another startup? Tweet @Shawnvc to nominate a company!


A Quick Course on Lean

Over the weekend I got asked the best way to teach students the principles of Lean via Zoom.

One of the key lessons from our Educators Conference is that when teaching online complex information needs to be delivered to students in small, easily processed parts.

I realized that pre-pandemic I had put together a series of two-minute videos called “See Why.”  They’re not only helpful for a formal class but for anyone who wants to review the basics. Here’s what I suggested they offer their students:

Lean in Context

No Business Plan Survives First Contact With Customers

How did we build startups in the past?

The Business Model

An introduction to The Business Model Canvas

The Minimal Viable Product

How to Get, Keep and Grow Customers?

How to Get Out of the Building and Test the Business Model

What is Customer Development

What is Customer Discovery and Why Do it?

Why Get Out of the Building?

A short article on how to do Customer Discovery via Zoom

Jobs to be done

Customer Validation

The Pivot

The Harvard Business Review Article “Why the Lean Startup Changes Everything” ties the pieces together here

The Mission Model Canvas

What is the Mission Model Canvas

The Mission Model Canvas Videos

Extra’s

Why Customer Development is done by founders

What Do Customers Get from You?

What are Customer Problems/Pains?

Users, Payers and Multi-sided markets

How do I Know I Have the Right Customers – Testing

How big is it?

How to Avoid Pricing Mistakes

More two-minute lectures here

Tools for educators here

Tools for students here

Lessons Learned

  • Break up online lessons into small parts

 

 

 

What Can A Startup Do in 5 days? Watch this

With a terrific crew of instructors, TA’s, and mentors, we successfully concluded Session 1 of our Hacking 4 Recovery summer series – with 20 teams sharing their final presentations last night. Slides for these presentations are in this folder, and we will be editing and sharing videos of each presentation shortly.

 

  • Alivia – Telemedicine service bringing healthcare to middle income people in Peru
  • AllAboard – Remote onboarding services to help organizations establish a sense of belonging
  • AntiCovidAI – Mobile app for testing COVID-19
  • BBOM Preschool – Teaching social and emotional learning (SEL) to preschoolers
  • Collegiate Cost Busters – Delivering innovation to make college education more affordable to all
  • COVered – Crowdsourcing app to monitor risk for visiting public spaces
  • CoworkingSpace – Redefining coworking spaces in the post-pandemic world
  • Cratiso – Sourcing diverse patients for clinical trials
  • Florence Health – Telemedicine app to prevent hospitalization of congestive heart failure patients
  • HomeDoc – Central hub for connecting telemedicine platforms for nursing homes
  • Mango Lango – Mobile app that allows small businesses to reopen safely
  • MatchBook – Hiring platform structured similarly to dating apps
  • MemLove – Helping people grieve for lost loved ones
  • MUSTA – Telemedicine platform for patients in the Philippines
  • Remote Daily – Simplified employee feedback for small businesses
  • Resilience Gym – Online education and virtual reality to enhance mental health
  • Safe.ly – Mobile app for making reservations to visit your local stores safely
  • Sani-Team – Consulting service to help local restaurants reopen safely
  • Screen360.tv – Cross-cultural education platform using international films
  • Voyage – Global travel advisory platform for pandemic information

 

Rising out of the Crisis: Where to Find New Markets and Customers

The pandemic has upended the business models of most startups and existing companies. As the economy reopens companies are finding that customers may have disappeared or that their spending behavior has changed. Suppliers are going out of business or requiring cash-up-front terms. Accounts receivables are stretching way out. Revenue models and forecasts are no longer valid.

In sum, whatever business model you had at the beginning of the year may be obsolete.

While there’s agreement that companies need to adapt to changing markets, rapidly find new markets, new customers and new revenue models, the question is how? What tools and methods can a C-suite team use to do so?

While the Lean Startup was built with Business Model Canvas, Customer Development and Agile Engineering, there’s an additional tool — the Market Opportunity Navigator — that can help entrepreneurs discover new opportunities.

Here’s how.

Companies have rapidly responded to Pandemic Needs
When COVID-19 first emerged established companies rapidly pivoted. Some focused on remote work, others offered new ways to learn online. Swiss smart flooring startup Technis now helps supermarkets regulate the flow of shoppers. Large companies like GM, Ford and Rolls-Royce began to produce ventilators. Companies in cosmetics and perfume production pivoted their production lines as well. With ethanol and glycerin on hand and equipment required to fill bottles, French luxury giant LVMH has started to produce sanitizer – just like gin and whiskey distilleries across the US and UK have done.

Although the large firms made the headlines, startups also pivoted. For instance, Italian additive manufacturing startup Isinnova used its 3D-printing equipment to produce a crucial valve for oxygen masks. New York-based startup Katena Oncology discovered that a cancer detection tool under development could be adapted to test for coronavirus..

Capture opportunities by building on or repurposing your start-up’s abilities
In these examples CEOs instinctually figured out, 1)  their core , and 2)  market needs where their competencies/abilities could be used.

Rather than running on instinct, the Market Opportunity Navigator can help CEOs figure out their next moves in this confusing recovery. It can provide a big-picture perspective to find different potential markets for your company’s competencies/abilities. This is the first step before you zoom in and design the business model, engage in focused customer development or test your minimal viable products.

Take the example of Abionic, a nanotech startup.

Abionic: pivoting a sepsis test to fight COVID-19
Abionic’s tests can detect allergies, cardiovascular diseases, sepsis and other diseases in 5 minutes. As the pandemic hit, the company’s leaders wondered how their tests could be used in the fight against COVID-19. Using the Market Opportunity Navigator, Abionic realized that their test could diagnose sepsis up to 72 hours before a septic shock would occur in COVID-19 patients.

One of the worksheets below from the Market Opportunity Navigator provides a systematic view of Abionic’s market discovery process: The upper part of the worksheet shows Abionic’s technological assets and the lower part shows how these abilities can be used different market opportunities.

You can download the Market Opportunity Navigator and its free worksheets here.

By looking at their technological abilities, especially in the early detection of sepsis, and clinical data showing that septic shock is one of the key complications of a coronavirus infection, Abionic identified a new market opportunity to help patients suffering from COVID-19. Their CEO Nicolas Durand explains: “If doctors are able to diagnose sepsis up to 72 hours before a septic shock would occur in COVID-19 patients they can prescribe an antibiotic therapy much earlier, thereby potentially saving the lives of millions. In order to test this application of our technology, we deployed our machines at the Hospital at the University of Geneva and see promising results!”

Beyond medical needs: Discovering new opportunities with the Market Opportunity Navigator
Abionic and other companies were able to act fast, as they already possessed technological abilities that, with limited adjustments, could be pivoted or repurposed to the newly identified COVID-19 opportunities.

Yet, because the crisis and recovery will create a “new normal,” additional opportunities will emerge that wait to be discovered by startups and existing companies. Think about looking beyond the immediate opportunities of existing customers and markets, and take a mid- to long-term view on how you can proactively identify new and emerging market opportunities. The three worksheets of the Market Opportunity Navigator help you to:

  1. Identify new market opportunities stemming from your technology or abilities
  2. Reveal the most attractive domain(s) by evaluating the potential and challenges of each option
  3. Prioritize market opportunities smartly to set the boundaries for your lean experimentations

Lessons Learned

  • The COVID-19 crisis and recovery creates fundamental shifts in our economies and societies, and a “new normal” is emerging
  • Winners in this new normal will be able to quickly understand
    • what are their company’s core competencies/abilities, and
    • the new market needs where their competencies/abilities could be used
  • The Market Opportunity Navigator is a framework for this identification process
    • Worksheets and supporting material can be downloaded at wheretoplay.co

How to Convince Investors You’re the Future not the Past

This article previously appeared in VentureBeat.

I just had a coffee with Mei and Bill, two passionate students who are on fire about their new startup idea. It’s past the “napkin-sketch” stage with a rough minimum viable product and about 100 users.

I thought they had a great insight about an application space others had previously tried to crack.

But they needed to convince investors that they are Facebook not Friendster.

Here’s what I suggested they do:


Mei and Bill are building a better version of an on-demand help service like TaskRabbit. And “better” didn’t do it justice. They have a unique insight about the nature of interactions between customers and service providers I’ve never heard before. If they are correct, they’ve found a unique combination of customers and value proposition that made these customers want to immediately pay and repeatably engage. The early indication from their minimum viable product is that they found early signs of product/market fit. Even more interesting, their product might have a much higher initial order size and much greater lifetime value than existing on-demand help services.

All good. So what was the problem?

Their immediate problem was that investors, even seed investors, were convinced that the market segment Mei and Bill wanted to enter was littered by failures. And as soon as they described the space, investors rolled their eyes and passed.

Creative Destruction Meets Risk Capital
Like all entrepreneurs with an idea burning bright, Mei and Bill thought they were the first to invent water, air and fire.

When you’re young you believe that the world sprang into existence yesterday (or at least when you started college) and anything older than three years ago is ancient history. Ignorance of the past and disdain of the status quo are part of how innovation happens. As companies get larger and individuals get older, most get trapped in dogma and aversion to risk. Meanwhile cultural taste, technology and platforms evolve, and new things are possible that might not have been just years ago. The cycle of creative destruction of the old being replaced by the new continues, fueled by angel and venture capital.

And therein lies the catch – investors have longer memories of failures than new entrepreneurs. When you’re describing the future, most of them are remembering the past.

To See the Future Understand the Past
So Mei and Bill were facing two problems. The first was obvious; they needed to know how investors viewed their space. Second, they needed to know how to make it clear that the world had changed and that they had figured out how to solve the problems that cratered previous entrants. To do so they needed to learn six things:

  1. What companies in their space came before them?
  2. Why did those fail?
  3. Which investors got burned?
  4. How has the market/technology/customers evolved since then?
  5. What’s Mei and Bill’s unique insight that makes their startup different?
  6. Who else is playing in their space or adjacent markets? And how could they make that a strength, not a weakness?

What companies in their market came before them? And why did those fail? Which investors got burned?
Mei and Bill needed to understand the past so they could fund the future. I suggested they do some research by reading founders’ and investors’ public post-mortems of what went wrong. CBInsights has a collection of 300+ startup failure post-mortems, and Crunchbase has a startup failure database. Both of these are required reading. And others exist.

Finding these lists is just the beginning. Since Mei and Bill were networking, there would be a lot to learn if they talked to the founders of startups that built products similar to theirs, but didn’t make it. I pointed out you can get these meetings if you tell them what you’re trying to build and let them know you’d like to get smarter from them. You’d be surprised how many founders will agree to chat. (At least those who’ve recovered.) Ask them, “What did they wish they knew when they started? What did they learn? What would they do differently?” And most importantly, “Did your investors understand the space? Did they help trying to find scale? Would you take money from them again?”

Out of those same lists (CBInsights, Crunchbase, etc.) keep a list of the investors who lost money on those deals. Not to avoid them, but to call on them when you’ve learned why you won’t make the same mistakes or have a better insight. Getting introduced as a team who solved a problem that they’re familiar with may not get you funded, but if you pique their interest you will get a post-doc of the market and space as it existed. Your job is to process that information and understand what’s changed/what you will do differently to not fall victim to the same fate.

How has the market/technology/customers evolved? What’s your unique insight? Who else is playing in their space or adjacent markets?
Once you have a grasp of the past you can realize it’s just a preamble to the present.

Put together a single slide that graphically shows the evolution of the space you’re in. You’re trying to show what’s changed to make your startup economically viable today. What’s changed? Platform changes (web to mobile), faster technology (3G to 4G to 5G), commoditization of tech (Cloud). Has consumer behavior changed? Emergence of the sharing economy (Uber, Airbnb), brands no longer important (Dollar Shave Club)?  All these examples ought to point out that the world (technology and market) is a different place now – and the opportunity is even bigger.

Finally, given what you’ve learned about the past, what’s your insight about the future? What do all these changes mean? What are the core hypotheses of why this is a potentially huge business going forward?

Understanding how the space has evolved, gets you from past to present. Understanding competitors and adjacent players allows you to map today to tomorrow.

When I asked Mei and Bill if they could draw the direct competitors and adjacent players, they pulled out a trusty X-Y competitive analysis chart which made me want to shoot every management consulting firm that ever existed. The chart not only didn’t say anything useful, it gave Mei and Bill false comfort that they actually understood anything about the space around them.

Instead I suggested they start with a Petal Diagram. Rather than focus on just two dimensions of competition, this allows you to show all the adjacent market segments like leaves in a petal.

You label each leaf with the names of the market spaces and the names of the companies that are representative players in these adjacent markets. You use this chart to articulate your first hypotheses of what customers segments you’re targeting.

Then follow up the Petal Diagram with another slide that says, here’s our unique insight that’s been validated by customer discovery. And why now is the time to seize the opportunity.

If you’re talking to the right investors, this approach can generate a high-bandwidth conversation because you’ve given them an opportunity to critique your analysis of failure, risk, insight and opportunity.

It was a lot of information for a coffee and I thought I may have overwhelmed Mei and Bill with a fire hose of opinions. But the next day I got an email that said, “We’re on it. We have the first two interviews with ex-founders in our space scheduled.”

Lessons Learned

  • If you’re in a market that previously ate up lots of investor dollars, remember:
    • Investors have longer memories of failures than new entrepreneurs
    • When you’re describing the future, most of them are remembering the past
  • Remove those obstacles by educating yourself and investors about why the time is now
  • Carpe diem – Seize the day
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