MassTLC unConference Session Summary: Dodging Bullets that Kill Startups (LEAN Startups)

Occam’s razor states that the simplest solution is usually the correct one.  When you ask the question, “why do most startups fail,” the simple, and often correct answer is, “because of a lack of customers.” The main message of John Prendergast’s session on “Dodging Bullets that Kill Startups” was to focus on your customer as early and as much as possible, so that your business can avoid that common cause of death.  John is a disciple of the “LEAN Startups” principles created by Eric Ries, which acted as the basis for the tenants he covered during his session of the unConference.

Create an “MVP”

An MVP, or Minimum Viable Product, is the absolute minimum features that would satisfy your customer’s most basic needs.  As a LEAN startup, your goal is to quickly and effectively create your MVP, so that you can deliver it to your customers.  However, the reason for this is not to drive early revenue; rather, you’re releasing your product at this point in order to learn from your customers.

When you release the MVP, you’re accomplishing 2 key goals. First, you’re getting customers to not just talk to you about your product, as you would in market research, but also open their checkbook; you don’t really know anything about your customer until they make the decision that your product is worth paying for.  Second, because you and your customer know it is an MVP, they understand it will be improved based on their needs.  With this in mind, you will have an open channel to designing the full product they want and will continue to pay for.  It is often easy to develop your product in a bubble in your offices or labs. By creating the MVP, you avoid creating a feature intensive, expensive product that doesn’t actually satisfy your customer.

Facts Live Outside the Building

At the center of having a LEAN startup is bringing the customer into the development process. This means delivering them the MVP and then having in place the proper communication and metrics to properly assess their responses to the product.  You need to ask them, “what are your pain points?” and evaluate their behaviors in using your product.  Most customers are ineffective at describing the product they need, because they don’t always know what is at the heart of their problems.  By watching their actions and understanding their key obstacles, you can tailor your product to what they need most.

Scaling a Company is your Last Step

In the dotcom era, you often heard about companies growing as quickly as possible in the hopes of gaining immense market share. Given the success rate of those companies, LEAN Startups likely has a point in suggesting that staying small and agile initially is best.  When you are small and dealing with only your core customers, you can focus on learning from them and perfecting your product; your burn rate will be lower due to fewer employees, and the smaller customer base will be more manageable for maintaining communication.

This harks back to some of the concepts found in the book, Crossing the Chasm. Author Geoffrey Moore suggests using those early adopters, who are anxious to be a part of the development process, to better position your product before reaching the early majority of customers.  It is in reaching those early majority customers, which represent significant sales that requires scaling, that creates the “chasm” companies often fall into.

Test, Analyze, Iterate, Repeat

In the end, the principles of LEAN Startups is about bringing the scientific method to the business side of the equation.  You need to measure everything you’re doing related to your product and understand what works, what doesn’t and what is needed.  The only way to know this is to test.  If you’re product is a website, that means trying things like an A/B test.  If you’re creating a physical product, you need to have customers using it and observe  how they use it. Regardless of the product type, you should be giving them short surveys and calling them. As John said, “call God himself if you can get his number!”  When you perform these tests you can then evaluate the results and improve and reshape your product; you can add features that are needed, while avoiding mission creep.

LEAN Startups is all about your customer. Get them involved and you’re much more likely to create a product that will satisfy and maybe even delight them.  Through this process you will also build a personal relationship with them, which is quite likely to improve the chance of continued revenue from them;  your product will be exactly what they need and they may even feel some ownership and loyalty to you because of how the product evolved with their input.

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There is a lot more to learn about LEAN Startups.  John was kind enough to tweet additional resources, which you can find here:

Lean Startups Meetup GroupLean Startups Google Group, Steve Blank’s BookBlog, Eric Ries’s BlogMIT Event, and another blog

MassTLC unConference: Can We Build on the Momentum?

Across Twitter, the blogosphere and professional media, there is an obvious consensus: the MassTLC unConference was a resounding success.  Everyone has been talking and tweeting about the energy and enthusiasm that permeated the event.  I believe everyone left with a renewed feeling of optimism for entrepreneurship in New England and a new set of contacts that will be helpful in whatever ideas, ventures or initiatives they are pursuing.

I have no doubt that, on an individual basis, everyone will greatly benefit from the unConference.  However, the greater question is what larger goals may now be possible because of it. A list of action items were created during Scott Kirsner and Tim Rowe’s session called, “Turbocharging the Entrepreneurial Culture in MA.”  These items require a diverse group of people in the community to come together to address issues big and small.

Being a “greenhorn” in the community, I’m not sure how I can help in some cases, but I want to do my part.  I look forward to launching the site being built by myself and some colleagues to help young entrepreneurs  by providing a consolidated source and aggregate for events, resources and other pertinent information.  In addition, if anyone needs any young entrepreneurs to aide in any of the tasks through man power or just a different perspective, I am certainly willing and I believe I know quite a few others who would gladly get involved as well.

So, my question for you, reading this right now, is how, in any way big or small, are you able to help tackle these action items?

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I also wanted to use this entry to summarize and consolidate everything that happened at the unConference.  As I’ve been reading, listening and watching the reactions to the event, I’ve compiled those all into one place.  Below, you will find every piece of content I know of on the internet (sans individual tweets praising the event) that has been generated as a result of the awesome unConference.  If I missed anything, please comment with the link and I’ll update the list.

The Center of it:
Professional Media:
Bill Warner’s Blog/Photo essay of opening
Session Media:
Bill Warner’s discussion of “starting a company with no money”
Adam Zand’s Collection: http://www.utterli.com/AdamZand
PR Improv:
Music 2.0
SKirsner & TRowe:
My earlier entry w/ List
Picture of session: http://yfrog.com/2pzx9j
Lean Startups
Meetup Group organized by John Prendergast, who led the session: http://www.meetup.com/Lean-Startup-Circle-Boston/
Google Group: http://bit.ly/ewVJs
Steve Blank’s Blog: http://steveblank.com/
Build a Community, Not a Network
Quote of the day:
“Some of you are so smart that you take something that should be an instant failure & turn it into a 4-year failure.” -Bill Warner
“Why, @pistachio asks, are we going up against Silicon Valley as ‘Boston’ & ‘Providence,’ not New England?” -@ Pistachio

Links related to the event itself:
unConference website
MassTLC Website
The Pre-Event Session Wiki
The Sessions Listing Wall
MassTLC Blog

Pieces by the Professional Media:
Mass High Tech
Scott Kirsner’s Friday 5
NECN Coverage
NECN Reporter, Scott Montmimy

Blog Entries on the overall unConference:
Bill Warner’s Blog/Photo essay of opening of event
Bill Warner’s Video of the Event
Bill Warner’s collection of 83 Photos
Brough Turner’s Blog

Specific Session Contemt:

“Starting a Company with no Money”:
Session Audio

“PR Improv”:
Session SummarySession Audio Part 1 & Part 2

“Music 2.0”:
Session Audio

“TurboCharging the Entrepreneurial Culture”:
Session Summary,  “The List”, Photo 1, Photo 2

“Firing Founders is VC-101: How to Keep Your Founder Job”
Session Summary

“Build a Community, Not a Network”:
Session Summary, Photo

“Dodging Bullets that Kill Startups”
Session SummaryLean Startups Meetup Group, Lean Startups Google Group, Steve Blank’s Book & Blog, Eric Ries’s Blog & MIT Event, and another blog

Quote of the day:

Based on number of reTweets:
“Some of you are so smart that you take something that should be an instant failure & turn it into a 4-year failure.” -Bill Warner

Based on importance to improving our community:
“Why are we going up against Silicon Valley as ‘Boston’ & ‘Providence,’ not New England?” -@ Pistachio

MassTLC unConference Session Summary: Build a Community, not a Network

Everyone in the entrepreneurial community knows about Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn and blogging and yet many aren’t using them to their full potential.  To help correct this, Cort Johnson and Joselin Mane teamed up to present ideas behind using social media and social networks to build a real, vibrant community.  They were a great team that drew on their personal experiences with social media to lead the session.  Cort is the leader of the DartBoston community that has recently emerged as a key organization for young entrepreneurs, while Joselin runs Boston Tweetups, which helps broadcast local events through Twitter.  There were quite a few skeptics in the audience that they seemed to have convinced by the end of their session.

The heart of their message was to “facilitate a connection.” That means being more than a Twitter name and a random photo.  You need to build a net of all your content across the web.  Link your Twitter account to your blog, your blog to your LinkedIn and Twitter accounts and so on.  By doing so, it allows anyone who finds you to immediately learn all about you, from what you write about (your blog), to what conversations you’re taking part in (Twitter) to what your background is (LinkedIn).

A few tips they suggested:

Use the same picture for every site.
This builds continuity and allows people looking for you from any site to immediately know they found you.

Follow the 90/10 Rule
90% of what you write and tweet about needs to be adding to the conversation and sharing ideas. To not offend people you can only be self-promoting at most 10% of the time.

Find ways to move the conversation offline
All the social media and networks are great, but nothing beats a face to face meeting to build a great relationship.

Use “Reverse Mentorship” (credit: DartBoston co-founder @Alexa)
If you’re not familiar with all the online social tools, consider asking a young person for help.  They can teach you the basics and set you up with the right accounts and tools and then you can help them with some career mentoring.

Have a Plan
It’s not just about being on Twitter. It’s about choosing all of the networks and sites you want to be on and how you’re going to use them together.  You can start out looking to just explore and better understand them, but you need to then formulate a plan for utilizing it for your business or brand.

Sites/Tools to Consider
Twitter help: Twitter’s help section is great for getting you started.
OneForty.com: Tools for better utilizing Twitter can be found here, including ratings and reviews for each by other users.  It’s started by local entrepreneur @pistachio.
Mashable.com: Provides news and information on all things social media/networks.

“Research, Listen, Contribute”
In the end, this is really the key. The conversation is happening online with or without you, so why not be a part of it? There are many opportunities to hear both what people are thinking about in your industry and about your brands.  Get educated, get involved and you can forge great relationships that can then be brought into the real world.

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In the end, it’s all about what you’re interested in doing.  As was mentioned at the “Bootstrapping PR” panel discussion at WebInno23 earlier this week, it’s important you’re passionate about doing this; like most things in life, you’ll get out what you put in.

If you know of any other key tools for getting started or have any thoughts on building your online presence, please add it to the comments.

MassTLC unConference Session Summary: TurboCharging the Entrepreneurial Culture in MA “Active – In Process – To Do List”

Yesterday at the MassTLC unConference, Tim Rowe and Scott Kirsner led an event  entitled, “Turbo-Charging the Entrepreneurial Culture in MA.”  Those in attendance were charged with creating a list of every organization and event they knew of in the community.  It was truly an impressive group effort that created a list I don’t think anyone would have been able to build on their own that morning.

If you were at the meeting, you’ll recall a young member of the audience chimed in about how he had built a wiki on his own to try to make sense of all the events that he was able to slowly discover. For the past year, I’ve been building that wiki to include not only events, but organizations, resources, some angel and VC groups, the many summer programs and more.  It started out as something for myself out of frustration in trying to grasp the overall picture of the Boston entrepreneurial community, but soon turned into a group effort amongst myself and a few colleagues to try to create something of value for others (i.e.- a full, organized, detailed website built around the information we stored on the wiki and a crowdsourced community to keep it up to date and interact).   So, for now, below you’ll find the list created on the white board from the session yesterday.

{Update: The site is live! Please go to www.GreenhornConnect.com to see the resources all listed. Feel free to use the “Contact Us” option at the site to share any ideas, questions, comments or feedback. Thanks!}

Here’s the list (Active=occurring, In Process=In Development, To Do = Items suggested to start doing to improve the community):

Active Events/Organizations:

TechStars
WebInno
StayInMA
unConference
“Bettina’s Women CEO event”
Mobile Mondays
Open Coffee
Tech Tuesdays
Mass TLC
Social Media Awards
Microsoft NERD
MIT 100K competition
MIT Enterprise Forum
MIT E Center
Swiss Nex
Boston World Partners
Boston Post Mortem
DARTBoston
Mark’s Guide
TCN: The Capital Network
Business Innovation Factory
The Quest for Innovation
Innovate MATech
Mass Innovation Nights
Awesome Foundation
Beta Spring
TIE Boston
TIE Boston Leadership Group
BetaSpring
BetaHouse
Vilna Shul
NECINA
BYTE
Boston Young Entrepreneurs
OneIn3
Common Angels
Launch Pad
Mass High Tech
TedX
Summer @ Highland
Mass, It’s All Here
Genotrope
Green Tech Media
InnoEcoBlog (Scott Kirsner)
Xconomy
UNH Mentoring program
WPI Venture Forum
The Funded Founder Institutes
TYE (Helps w/ HS Business Plans)
CCC: Cambridge Coworking Center
UMass UDC

In Process/Development:

MassChallenge
VentureCafe
VentureFizz
Venture Well
Gary’s Guide
TCN Student Fair
Propel Careers
Northeastern University IDEA
Dog Patch Labs

Items to Add/To Do:

– Break down school silos
– Virtual unConference
– Open employer (non compete) Badges
– Court acquisition heavy businesses to the region
– Micro-investment matching mechanisms
– Organize more practical meetings (i.e.- not networking…mission based)
– Let more green horns in (i.e.- Give young entrepreneurs a shot to work in startups)
– Coordinate VC “reprogramming” of mentalities
– Build a wiki of information
– MassTLC: Coordinate challenges
– Have heads of various groups/events meet
– TC50 Event in Boston
– Connect students w/ companies more
– Have more thought leadership in the region

{Update: The site is live! Please go to www.GreenhornConnect.com to see the resources all listed. Feel free to use the “Contact Us” option at the site to share any ideas, questions, comments or feedback. Thanks!}

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I believe the website we’re building will significantly better serve the community than a simple wiki list, so I’m not sure where that leaves the content I have on the wiki I made until we launch. I’ll try to update what’s happening with the wiki/website my team is working as we progress.

I’d love to speak with any of you with continued interest in this issue. Please feel free to leave a comment/suggestion or send me a message on Twitter (@Evanish). Thanks!