Recently, six members of the Bright team attended the Lean Startup Machine (LSM) workshop in San Francisco. This fast-paced weekend workshop seeks to teach aspiring startup-ers all about Lean Startup methodologies. From 6 p.m. Friday to 6 p.m. Sunday, we managed to rally around an idea for a new company, validate it with customers, design and build a landing page, and gather signups with over $100,000 in value. Not bad for a cloudy SF weekend.
Our idea started when Kyle, one of Bright’s front end engineers, discussed a pain point with decorating his new apartment. He wanted his place to look nice and reflect his personal style, which wasn’t easily achieved—going to IKEA would get the space furnished quickly, but it’d look like everyone else’s place. Hiring an interior designer seemed too expensive, and shopping was a time burden. What to do?
We took this concept and turned it, after many customer interviews and a few pivots, into Cozy District, an online interior design marketplace. The concept: those in need of decorating help could post their jobs, get free plans from interior designers, and purchase a whole room (or home) full of furniture in one place, at a serious discount.
We started out thinking that our customer base would be like Kyle: men ages 25-40 who had recently relocated in an urban environment. We intercepted unsuspecting citizens outside a coffee shop in Russian Hill and tried to validate our ideas. We found that women were much more interested in design services, so we adjusted. We also interviewed interior designers at home furnishing stores, and found that many of them consulted on the side and were comfortable providing design advice digitally.
We adjusted our business concept and revenue model throughout the research process, and then quickly set up a landing page to try to acquire customer signups. In a few hours (with the aid of some marketing magic) we had over 40 signups from furniture-seekers all over the country, with budgets as large as $20,000. Not only were people interested in our services, they were ready to spend an average of $3,000 with us!
While we at Bright don’t really intend to go into the furniture business, we were pretty impressed with what we had achieved in just a few days. We each collected our thoughts on the Lean Startup Machine workshop below, and we hope our experience can inspire others to think Lean!
Team Member Feedback:
Aaron: Product Manager
Going in, I wasn’t sure how much I would take away from Lean Startup Machine; however, I found the workshop to be quite insightful. Too often, PMs and designers lock themselves in a room and try to think through problems without ever interfacing with users. It turns out, internal debates without user feedback are not only more difficult than just going out and talking to customers; they can also lead you down the wrong path, which wastes time and resources.
LSM provided teams with the guidance and encouragement to get scrappy and validate assumptions early, before you actually build anything. This is extremely valuable advice, especially if you work for a company like Bright, where we have a million and one ideas, but a limited amount of time and resources to execute our top priorities. I’m excited to try out what I’ve learned at Bright, in real-world scenarios.
Ed: Founder of Bright.com
Lean Startup is a great way for mediocre companies to lose talent and great companies to make their teams even better. I would compare taking a group of brilliant engineers, product managers, and designers to this event to Slim Jim buying their meat workers an all-expenses paid trip to a PETA rally. It sounds risky to send your team somewhere that encourages them to leave corporate America and start their own business, even if they’ll learn important lessons about how to more intelligently tackle problems at their current jobs.
My 48 hours at LSM went something like this:
It’s scary as hell at first. Within moments of arriving, I met a large group of people who were excited to leave their companies and start the next big thing. Great talent is the most valuable asset of any technology company, and losing it can be a big problem. I’ll even admit: I wondered if the weekend was going to turn into a disaster.
LSM seeks to change the way you build awesome solutions for your customers: you are taught to validate assumptions by speaking to potential customers before there is any real product development, to identify if the problems you’re trying to solve actually exist. The LSM speakers teach you not to lead the potential customer to telling you what you want to hear, but instead let them speak about their own pain points. If you find that customers are interested in your solution, then you can move forward and build low-tech prototypes. In other words, you are told not to do much coding beyond building a landing page (if needed) and to get scrappy. This is unquestionably the most valuable part of the weekend. Many companies (ourselves included) have wasted time on a solution to a problem that the customer never had.
LSM reminded me that sometimes people drink way too much Kool-Aid (most of the attendees were drunk as a skunk on LSM juice). The Lean Startup process is a great way to determine how to validate a problem, but it is not an entire method for building a business. We found that they frowned upon us spending time trying to determine whether the unit economics (in other words, the business model) were actually sustainable. We were also called out as the “biggest spenders” for spending $550 on Google Adwords over the weekend to determine what it would cost us to acquire each customer. As with anything in life, try to take the good advice and leave the bad aside.
I would recommend to most companies that they step outside of their comfort zone and go check out Lean Startup Machine or other Lean Startup workshops. I highly recommend having people from different parts of the organization attend, and not just product managers. It’s a great team-building process where you get to feel the emotional roller coaster of building a theoretical business over a 48-hour period. By the end of the weekend, your product managers will be more open to new ideas and everyone else will be more vocal about their ideas.
In closing: I got scared, I learned to get out of the building and talk to customers early and often, I stayed away from the Kool-Aid, and I still had a good time.
Justin: Product Management & Marketing
Having read Eric Ries’ book, Lean Startup, I went into LSM with a baseline knowledge of the Lean movement. Having the opportunity to listen to the mentors and speakers discuss their very real implementations of Lean methodology, and to go through the Lean process with a product idea completely unrelated to Bright, proved to be a tremendous experience for me and the rest of the team.
After going through a pivot and validating our core assumptions about who would be interested in Cozy District, I was able to hit the ground running and help acquire our first customers through Craigslist and Adwords. Within 12 hours we had over $122k in our theoretical sales pipeline from those customers. I fully plan to implement pieces of the Lean process and the Javelin board into how I vet new ways to position and market Bright’s products going forward.
Katie: User Experience & Visual Design
LSM was pretty priceless in getting our founder and our product team to experience understand first-hand the value of validating business assumptions with real people. I’ve been conducting user interviews and usability research at Bright since the start of 2013, and LSM provided a wonderful opportunity to get my co-workers more involved and excited about user feedback. I found it pretty hilarious watching PMs and engineers running after people on the street, fighting through the awkwardness of approaching a stranger for feedback on our ideas. That’s a big insight into user research: it can be awkward! But it’s also worth it.
I hope that the enthusiasm my co-workers developed for validating ideas before pushing code extends in the future to new features developed at Bright.
Kyle: Marketing & Engineering
The Lean Startup movement was relatively new to me, and prior to LSM it wasn’t a business practice I was immediately familiar with. My background extends heavily from a scalable marketing standpoint. My view had always been to visualize the revenue model, even if we haven’t fully or thoroughly developed our user demographic.
Utilizing the practices that LSM has in place was definitely an eye-opener. It was a great lesson in learning to pivot, time and time again, to make sure we were reaching the users we really wanted to target. Having us get out on the street and individually interview people offered a perspective that we may not have gained otherwise. Our marketing-driven instincts came out, and we might have taken Cozy District beyond the scope that was necessary. However, the user acquisition exercises were extremely insightful and I will definitely do my best to work those practices into our everyday challenges.
Lisa: VP of Product
When I originally looked around for product management training for my team, I was looking for something that would combine training in light agile methods (aka SCRUM) and customer development. I had previously attended several agile training workshops and a startup machine bootcamp by Women 2.0. While I enjoyed the agile training sessions, there was an indisputable quality of “fire in your belly” in the bootcamp weekend that I thought was engaging in a special way. I hoped that the Lean Startup Machine workshop would be a great combination of the two. In fact, I was thrilled to see that the weekend surpassed my—and most importantly, the team’s—expectations, and that everyone enjoyed the experience.
The initial challenge was convincing people to come. You see, Bright is a very flat, consensus-driven organization and getting people excited enough to drop their weekend plans was not easy. However, once we sat down on Friday afternoon to brainstorm ideas, I could feel that the excitement was starting to build up. By the time we broke for the night around midnight on Friday, we were pumped to hit the streets the following day to test our hypotheses.
While we didn’t win—we broke a few rules along the way, including spending over $500 to drive traffic—we learned a lot about ourselves and about how to think about product iterations. The first lesson was how to avoid the trap of jumping to a solution right away. Working with the Javelin board made it very clear how many inherent assumptions there are underlying any product idea. Who is the customer? What is their pain point? Are they interested in my solution? Are they willing to pay for it?
Asking those questions of real customers prior to any development starting was another key learning. And the truth is, you only need an hour or two at the maximum, some courage and creativity, and very open-ended questions. You’ll narrow down the answers very quickly by talking to real people, not sitting in a room hypothesizing. I see this step being skipped so often in environments where engineering resources are readily available. The temptation to tell the engineers what to code is just too strong. I see that with our founder and our PMs—their job is to “figure stuff out,” spec it, and give it to engineers. The Lean Startup process made us aware of this habit. The increased awareness will hopefully enable us to hit the pause button next time and validate assumptions before executing.
The final lesson was that shared ownership is key. This is a major tenet of agile software development and one that is best experienced in practice. Having a tight group of cross-functional experts who participate in all phases of the process—from coming up with the idea, validating assumptions, and executing—is tremendously productive and fun. It was amazing seeing Kyle, an engineer, and Aaron, a PM, chatting people up on the streets and learning about their needs. It was great to see all of us admit where we were wrong and move on together, as a team. Fail fast; succeed fast.
As I look forward to the future at Bright, I’m encouraged by this short experiment and optimistic that we have the tools and insight to organize our efforts in a way that promotes fast iteration, assumption validation, and shared ownership of product development among engineers, designers, data scientists, marketers, and PMs.