Posts Tagged 'lean startup'

Merry Xmas!…now shut up and start coding.

Just about every entrepreneur I’ve met in Silicon Valley knows how to write more than a few lines of code. The ones that don’t are constantly looking for a partner to build their dream product. You know, the one that will make them a billion dollars. I’d guess you’d have to count me among them. But waiting around for a dream co-founder doesn’t cut it around here. That’s why this Christmas I’m writing code.

I haven’t written a line since high school when the two languages I knew were Pascal and MACOS. In case your wondering, MACOS wasn’t even a proper language, only worked on my Apple II series, and stood for More of A Crappy Operating System. I don’t even know what it was, but it sure wasn’t Mac OS X. I used it for my bulletin board system (BBS for those that remember pre-www). I never saw an instruction book, not sure there was one, but I was able to understand the basic syntax easily enough and hack code from different available sources into something vaguely resembling what I wanted. But that was over 16 years ago. I have no business writing code professionally, but sometimes business requires you to do something unprofessional.

The lack of a critical skills is something that we all have to deal with at some point. Whether it’s the ability to program, an understanding of supply chain flow, or just market knowledge. The difference between a successful entrepreneur and one who goes from one idea to the next is more than likely a function of how they deal with those missing resources. In the startup world, you’re always out of resources, so it makes sense to develop some coping strategies.

No Excuses – Do It Yourself

The biggest problem I usually have in getting things done is usually myself. There’s a ton of things I’d rather be doing than writing code. (Hell, there’s a lot of things I’d rather be doing than writing this blog.) Among them? Cookies, guitar, and Avatar came out this weekend. None of those things can be an excuse, but motivation is an easier hurdle to overcome.  Even worse is the excuse of “I don’t know how.” As in, “I don’t know HTML, CSS, Javascript, Java, or PHP.” Worse still is “That’s not my job.”

When I started my last job at Secude, I didn’t know a thing about IT security and couldn’t for the life of me understand cryptography, let alone what a Diffie-Hellman was supposed to be. It was daunting beyond belief, especially when asked to go and learn about a new P2P encryption technology and report back to our engineering staff on the technical details. I cannot imagine a job I was less qualified to do. The fact that my technical partner for the assignment spoke halting English to match my halting German was no help. Could I have given up? Sure. Could I have assigned the work to someone else? Probably. But I wouldn’t have gotten the information and perspective I needed to do my job for the next four years.

Learn or Die

The business of business is learning. If you’re not learning, you’re probably losing money. Knowing how your business works from the bottom to the top is the only way you’re going to understand your value chain. Do you have to sweep the floors on the factory to be a good CEO? Well, maybe not. But you do need to know how important it is that the factory floors are clean, something that a lot of big-shot CEOs probably don’t know. When machines get dirty, they break. When the floor gets slick, your company loses big in workers comp. Even five minutes sweeping the floor in the factory could give a lot of CEOs a bit more appreciation for the janitor and make them realize that cutting the janitor’s salary and having a disgruntled employee doing a half-assed job is probably more expensive in the long run than paying a decent wage for decent work.

Little gears push the big gears and every aspect of the value chain can be critical. That thinking and the drive to reduce muda (waste) came out of lean production thinking when Toyota discover that they could improve productivity radically by just shifting some machines around. Chihiro Nakao, the great lean production thought leader, was no stranger to getting his hands dirty. In Lean Thinking, Womack and Jones related how Nakao and Takenaka worked over the lunch hour with crowbars to move Wiremold’s massive machines into the proper sequence for single-piece flow while the local engineers, workers, and managers just stared at them with their mouths wide open. That’s no excuse thinking.

Knowing isn’t Understanding

For those that think you can learn something without doing it yourself, good luck. There are a lot of people far smarter than I that can, but I can’t. I need to learn by getting my hands dirty, and I learn up to three times as fast when I’m actively engaged in a task than when I observe someone else doing it from afar. Observation will lead you to know facts, doing will lead you to understand processes. I need to know processes. Even if we bring on two more engineers tomorrow, I’ll greatly benefit from the experience.

Why not outsource?

Why go through this exercise? Surely it would be better to just outsource a task like front end coding and it’s probably more cost effective than me doing it. Well, sometimes, and in fact we’re exploring several outsourcing options for our front end web development for startupSQUARE.com. But sometimes managing outsourcing can be just as time consuming as doing it yourself. The ability to communicate effectively with outsourcers and reduce communication overhead is directly related to your own understanding of the process.

An example: a new CEO outsources his fabulous idea for a new website to a team of four engineers but development falls behind schedule. Solution? Of course! Add more engineers! This would be laughable if it didn’t happen so often. I’m sure every engineer in the world by now has had to explain patiently to their boss that nine women cannot have a baby in one month. If the CEO had spent a decent weekend locked in a room pouring over source code, that would be well understood. You can’t have four people editing the same line of code.

My Just Deserts

So here’s what I hope to get out of this exercise:

  1. Comparative Advantage – I won’t go into the economic theory of this, but in a nutshell: it’s better for my skilled engineers to work on the important back-end stuff. I can waste my time with the “Follow me” button you see on the side of the screen.
  2. Understanding – Knowing the rough difficulty level of a task allows me to plan resources and our hiring strategy better. It also allows me to set more realistic expectations and goals.
  3. Sympathy – You’ll never catch me yelling at someone for being late on a technical issue again. Instead, I’ll roll up my sleeves and try to help by doing research and finding sample code.
  4. Respect – Aside from a better understanding of the tasks my technical co-founders suffer through, I we also develop some respect for each other with the fact that I’m willing to dig into things if necessary. After all, I started a company at least partly because I didn’t like the environment of my last job. Mutual respect among co-workers is the only environment I really want to work in.
  5. Get things done – At the end of the day…our product needs to get out of alpha and it’s going to take no excuses hands on deck to do it.

So this Christmas, send me a link to your favorite PHP resource or your resume if you’re an engineer. But in the meantime, I’ll keep coding. Merry Christmas, Happy Holidays, Seasons Greetings and all that! Hope it’s a good one, and I hope I’ll be able to post about a snazzy new startupSQUARE.com website in the coming New Year.

Best regards,
Tristan

Note from SV New Tech Meetup

This evening I went to the SV New Tech meetup in Palo Alto, CA hosted by Vincent Lauria and was again impressed at the release early, release often mentality that pervades Silicon Valley. But since enough has been written about the theory and execution of lean startups, I thought I’d mentioned an application which I don’t know has been tried: Music.

I’ve played music since I was four years old and played in more than one band. Actually I’ve released more than one album to the deafening silence of no audience, so I have to wonder if the lean startup / customer development methodology could help aspiring musicians. But more importantly, would any musician dare to try it?

Most people go into music “for the art,” which is code for “I don’t want to admit that I’m a narcissist looking for attention and sex.” They come with the inviolate idea that this is “my” music and it’s an expression of “my” personality which is not open to compromise and certainly not open to being influence by the audience. In doing so, they often sign themselves up for years of self-flagellation as they play to spartan rooms of only the bestest of friends who can stand to see them play for the 30th time this year. Sounding bitter yet? Don’t worry, I loved it and would do it again, probably in the same way.

But still, is there really just one way musicians can express themselves musically and get creative satisfaction from it? Most musicians loves a number of different genres and will play in a number of different bands. We all have different facets that we can display to the audience, whether it’s a polka, swing tune, or death metal march. So why do we pretend it’s any different than starting a business or developing the next big software startup? If a front-end web developer announced that they wouldn’t make the signup button bigger because it clashed with their artistic expression of their soul, it would be laughable. So why not with music?

As I mentioned, no one gets up on stage without an implicit desire to be seen, so let’s be realistic about it and listen to the audience. As with software startups, have a soft launch and see what styles of music work for you. Don’t worry about a few wrong chords, is there a market for this music/product? Do you have product/market fit? If not, time to find a new product, or start shopping your product for a new market.

I think a good twenty pages could be written on how to apply lean startup methodology to bands, but I’ll leave that for others to write. But one last thing, what type of bands do you think have the highest success rate? My guess is cover bands. Not because they’re tapping into a pre-existing market as a low cost competitor (although that certainly helps). Many cover bands take their built in audience and then branch into their own material, testing it in front of a live audience of their target customers and seeing what works. Huh…sounds like customer validation to me.

Cheers,

Tristan Kromer


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Author

Tristan Kromer's Profile Pic

Tristan is an entrepreneur that loves solving problems and getting his hands dirty. He manages the primary business functions of startupSQUARE.com and is strongly committed to the customer development process. An entrepreneur at heart, he has been involved in a variety of ventures for the past 13 years including IT security, music, real estate, and marketing. His most recent position was working as the General Manager of SECUDE International LLC in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam. Tristan will gladly play you a game of chess.