Customer, Culture, and Learning: Takeaways from the Lean Startup Conference

Anyone who has ever attended Lean Startup Conference (previously known as Lean Startup Week) in the past knows that this annual event regularly features invigorating speakers that divulge the newest insights and innovations in modern management for a wide array of industries and company types.

Our community flocks to this event on a yearly basis in order to dig deep and uncover the “diamonds in the rough” that are lurking inside the minds of the people inciting innovation within their organizations (who have survived to tell their tale…), and to make sure that no highly-relevant or potentially impactful snippet of information is missed.


The Lean Startup Methodology has had an enormous effect on the business world - some have even referred to it as a cult (which is not 100% far from the truth). Yet despite certain warnings about having “blind faith” in the methodology, we all continue to preach the gospel of Lean Startup because the rigorous cycle of build, measure, learn (or, some might argue, learn, build, measure) has had a marked effect on growth for so many of the world’s most successful organizations.

We attend this event hoping (and expecting) to have a transformative few days, and while it’s impossible to say which exact words will be the trigger to unleash the all-encompassing barrage of swirling thoughts and brand new ideas often accompanying any valuable conference experience, Lean Startup Conference did not fail to excite, empower, embolden and persuade us to take heed of the shifting landscape around us.

This year’s event more than ever before, guided us as organizations to focus on the things that truly matter, and be better at business for the higher good.   

Here are some of the key takeaways from Lean Startup Conference 2018, grouped into three themes that infiltrated this year’s programming:

Click the corresponding images to share these thoughts on Twitter, and feel free to tweet us your favorite takeaways from the event as well.

Also, make sure to watch the replays from our Lean Startup Conference warm-up week virtual series. These sessions take a deep dive into several of the key topics discussed in this article, and are only available for a limited time. Chose your favorite innovation topic and register to watch the replay:

Innovation Strategy
Social Impact
Leadership

Customer

Putting the customer at the center of decision-making inside an organization is not a new concept. Most successful businesses are aware that without customers, their operation would cease to exist.

A concept that was mentioned more times than one at the conference was the idea that organizations must fall in love with the consumer problem, not the solution, and unleash the entrepreneurs within the organization to solve that problem.

It’s not just about empathy, however.

At this year’s event, there was a strong spotlight on ways to gather and utilize customer and market feedback.

Kathryn Minshew, CEO & Founder of The Muse, shared her top tip for getting customer feedback on your product.

She advises that founders distance themselves from the process by saying that they’ve been hired to get feedback rather than coming outright and declaring ‘this is my product.’

In that way, customers don’t feel as intimidated to share their truth, and organizations who deploy this method can get the honest responses they need to make their product better.

Giff Constable, author of “Talking to Humans”, offered the advice of broadening the customer feedback approach to people who haven’t yet become customers, but who are in the market.

Of course it is important to engage with people who have already converted from prospect to customer, but when trying to determine why someone might get held up in the process, it is valuable to reach beyond those who have already been convinced.

And based on his experience at the conference, he went on to publish an article that takes a deep dive into various tactics for generating feedback, and when to use each one. In his article he states, “Interviews give you the greatest insights. Experiments give you the greatest proof.

But, the process doesn’t end with feedback.

There is still the question of delight.

When a customer truly values a brand’s offerings, that is where the money is made. This includes providing positive experiences worth sharing, and digging deep to craft a journey based on data to bring customers to the desired state of “passionate”.

Six time entrepreneur David Binetti made a case for valuing word of mouth over promotional efforts (WOM vs PROM) stating that word of mouth defines the growth curve and is the ONLY source of non-linear growth.

 David Binetti presenting at Lean Startup Conference 2018

David Binetti presenting at Lean Startup Conference 2018

While promotion can shift the growth curve, it alone cannot change the shape of the curve.

Essentially, external marketing efforts can only amplify what you already have, and if what you have is poor growth, promotion alone won’t fix the problem. Adopters also need to be converting from internal avenues (ie: word of mouth) in order to be successful.

In Moves the Needle CEO Brant Cooper’s session, he echos the idea that marketing cannot be the only tool considered for generating passionate fans. Most forms of marketing are tools for amplification that can be used to pour gasoline on the flames. However, as an accelerant, marketing should not be relied upon to start the fire.

Instead, companies need to be focused on building value into their products. In his workshop, Brant discussed how to use the customer journey to uncover the “diamond nugget” and which metrics can be used to bring a customer from intrigued to passionate.

 Brant Cooper’s Workshop at Lean Startup Conference

Brant Cooper’s Workshop at Lean Startup Conference

During the session, participants were able to use the Value Stream Discovery Board tool to hypothesize the behaviors that indicate which state a customer is in, what the business must do to get that behavior (which actions lead to the desired outcomes), and how to measure the ability to do so.

Here’s a look at Brant’s deck from the workshop:

Culture

Another hot ticket item being discussed ad nauseum is the idea of crafting *the right* company culture.

For many organizations, culture is a hidden corpse in the basement closet.

Everyone can sense that something is not right, but they don’t know exactly what the problem is, and they can’t figure out where to place the blame. The only indication is a faint stench that bubbles up to the surface when conflict goes unaddressed or malicious whispers waft around the office.

Reid Hoffman’s advice was to do culture well from the beginning, but that seems easier said than done.

Maybe a more realistic viewpoint comes from Bob Sutton, Organizational Psychologist and Professor at Stanford University. He stated that “bad is stronger than good” (in your organization) and advises that companies eliminate “bad” quickly.

If you didn’t have the opportunity to nail company culture in the early days, you can still take the necessary steps to remove “toxic” individuals from your company before they drag down the effectiveness and spirit of the people around them.

According to a research paper written by the Kellogg School of Management, “the cost associated with employing a toxic employee is greater than the benefit of employing a top performer.”

While top performing employees can have a marked impact on profits, getting rid of “toxic” workers and replacing them with “average output” employees can save a company even more.

To avoid hiring the wrong people, Tony Hsieh asks a few qualifying questions when determining if someone is the right fit: “Is this someone I would choose to hang out with or grab a drink with….if we weren’t in business together? If the answer is no, then we wouldn’t hire them.”

He continues on to note that “telling someone to follow a process or procedure does not form a culture. Culture is what people do when they are not following a procedure.”  

In other words, being able to understand how someone might solve a problem without being told what to do and hiring based on those grounds is one way to have a hand in architecting company culture.  

Another problem that many managers face when attempting to promote good company culture is the natural, human desire to avoid conflict.

But Tamara Mendelsohn, VP of Marketplace at Eventbrite, warns that “great culture is not about being nice. Creating an environment of feedback and accountability is what makes a culture strong."

While being supportive is an important quality for any manager, being too nice as a manager can stunt the growth of any team or department. When employees aren’t pushed out of their comfort zone, a culture of mediocrity can develop. And without a strong leader to address regular workplace problems, these issues can create a rift that may lead to employee anxiety, departmental misalignment, and loss of passion for the work.

Instead of worrying about being perceived as “nice,” managers need to offer the necessary constructive feedback and hold people accountable for their responsibilities and actions.

Learning

Possibly the most important staple of the Lean Startup Methodology is centered on generating key learnings and using them to fuel growth.

Bob Sutton mentioned that “learning and being an infinite learner is the key” to building a massively valuable company. Along that vein, the conference was continually abuzz with talk about experimentation, failure, and of course, learning.

Learning from failure (and from progress) is the key to narrowing down the path to success.

In Harvard Business School Professor Tom Eisenmann’s session “False Start: Learning from Entrepreneurial Failure,” he pointed out that “the number one cause of startup failure is the lack of a market need, or the lack of the right solution to that need.”

He notes that in order to avoid failure, lean startup principles are necessary, but not sufficient in and of themselves. Timing, industry, choice of investors, and any number of variables have a tremendous impact on the way a new product launch, marketing initiative, or startup company takes shape.

One thing that is worth mentioning with regard to learning is that the concept “fail fast, cheap, and often” is associated heavily with the Lean Startup Methodology. But, the idea is not to fail fast by cutting corners, the goal is to learn from failure, not fail just for the sake of failing fast.

Final Thoughts

It is clear that the Lean Startup Methodology has brought together some of the world’s most notable innovation and business leaders over the years. And while the application of the methodology is certainly evolving, the experience of connectivity, sharing of ideas, and willingness to expose even the most embarrassing weaknesses in the name of learning has remained the same.

In his opening statement, the founder of the Lean Startup movement Eric Ries brought to light the idea that things have changed over the last 20 years. Back then, it was common for companies to treat their learnings as a competitive advantage. Information was hard to get, so organizations became accustomed to hoarding their findings and guarding them at all costs.

But we are now in the age of information: anything you could ever want to know is within arms reach at all times.  

Eric warns that the largest traditional organizations (post office, insurance companies, government, etc) are under the biggest threat because they remain in the mode of protecting this data and have not evolved the capabilities to shift into the information-sharing mindset required for survival.

And without this change in structure, culture, and mindset, these organizations are primed to be disrupted because the information is out there, and others will use it to their advantage, freely, openly, and without apprehension.  

To them, and to every business entity, large or small, Eric proposes a challenge: “I ask you this one thing - challenge yourself, challenge others, and when you learn a new thing, tell everyone about it.”

So here we are.

What were your thoughts about the Lean Startup Conference? Did you learn something new? Tweet us to let us know.