“Lean Startup” evangelist Eric Ries is just getting started
âExcept in very narrow cases, where thereâs breakthrough science that needs patent production, worrying about competitors is a waste of time,â Eric Reis told me. âIf you canât out iterate someone who is trying to copy you, youâre toast anyway.â
Ries speaks with confidence, likely because people seem to listen. In fact, heâs become one of Silicon Valleyâs best salesmen, largely by preaching what seems to be common sense: in order to maximize resources, companies need to find out what customers want as quickly as possible and capitalize on those findings.
Just one indicator of Riesâs power: entrepreneurs from 100 countries watched his sold-out, second-annual “Startup Lessons Learned” conference streamed live recently from San Francisco. (Its aim? âTo unite those interested in what it takes to succeed in building a lean startup,â said Ries.) Another indicator: Riesâs new book, “The Lean Startup”, doesnât come out until September, but is already the 11th-most popular book in the business and investing section of Amazon.
Ries, 32, never expected he would make his mark as a tech evangelist. A Yale grad who studied computer science, he began his career as an entrepreneur while still in school. (He now calls his short-lived startup, Catalyst Recruiting, âa footnote to a footnote.â) But even then he found himself âconsidered not only an expert in programming but in startupsâ by local incubators and two venture firms who asked him to be an adviser.
Heâs quick to note the absurdity of the situation. âWe spent all (of Catalystâs) money on marketing, thinking there would always be more. Based on what I was reading in magazines at the time, I thought the rules for entrepreneurship meant being at the right place at the right time, working hard, breaking all the rules, having great perseverance, then pounding the keyboard some more and having a beer.â
A broader network of people began listening to Ries in 2008, after he began espousing lessons heâd learned as the CTO and co-founder of the 3D virtual world IMVU. Many of those lessons centered on figuring out what works as quickly as possible through constant iteration and customer feedback. (IMVU, which Ries left four years after its 2004 founding, used to toss fresh code into its production cycle 50 times a day, he said.)
Indeed, partly because of his emphasis on trying new code in live environments, he said, âI was always (asked to sit) on advisory boards. But when Iâd suggest that you donât need to trade off between time and quality, people thought I was nuts.â They also kept calling Ries, so eventually, some of his mentors suggested he write it all down. Within six months of writing his first blog post â titled âThe Lean Startupâ â the âidea took over my life,â he said.
It might be more accurate to say it took over Silicon Valley. Though the term âleanâ was first coined in the late â80s to describe Toyotaâs business process, Riesâs pronouncements about lean startups began to strike a new chord last year. Perhaps the high point came when venture capitalists Ben Horowitz and Fred Wilson publicly debated whether the concept of âlean startupsâ made sense. (Said Ries of Horowitz, who wrote a widely read post entitled âThe Case for the Fat Startupâ: âI was flattered that Ben would use me as a straw man to knock down for his own purposes, but his argument was really orthogonal, about having the courage of conviction. It was just controversy-making.â)
The question at this point is whether the âmovementâ has become too popular. Though Ries argued âleanâ has never meant cheap â ââLeanâ has nothing to do with how much money a company raises,â he said â countless âlean startupsâ have taken root in the last three years. And some critics grouse that theyâre so âefficientlyâ run that theyâre keeping talent away from truly promising companies.
It isnât a new problem, argued Ries. âItâs a fact that a lot of skilled people are working at doomed companies, and thatâs bad, because the most precious resource (in business) is the time, energy, talent, and creativity of these people,â he said. âBut when this boom or bubble ends â this insanity wonât last â weâll still have doomed companies.â
In the meantime, Ries will keep honing his own business â as a sought-after expert on constant iteration.
Ries points to the wild success of the daily deals service Groupon, which switched gears before going out of business and has since become a multi-billion dollar phenom. âWe are just at the beginning of this movement,â Ries said. âI think weâll look back and laugh at the way weâve been building companies.â