Entrepreneur

Lean startups aren’t cheap startups

(Editor’s note: Serial entrepreneur Steve Blank is the author of Four Steps to the Epiphany. This column originally appeared on his blog.)

At an entrepreneurs panel last week questions from the audience made me realize that the phrase “

For those of you who have been following the discussion, a Lean Startup is Eric Ries’s description of the intersection of Customer Development, Agile Development and (if available) open platforms and open source.

A Lean Startup is not about the total amount of money you may spend over the life of your startup. It is about when in the life of your company you do the spending.

Over its lifetime, a Lean Startup may spend less money than a traditional startup. It may end up spending the same amount of money as a traditional startup. And I can even imagine cases where it might burn more cash than a traditional startup.

Lets see why.

In times of abundant venture capital if you miss your revenue plan, additional funding from your investors is usually available to cover your mistakes. In other words, you get “do-overs” or iterations without onerous penalties as long as your investors still believe in the technology and vision. In times when venture capital is hard to get, investors extract high costs for failure (down-rounds, cram downs, new management teams, shut down the company.)

The key contributors to an out-of-control burn rate are 1) hiring a sales force too early, 2) turning on the demand creation activities too early, 3) developing something other than the minimum feature set for first customer ship.

Sales people cost money, and when they’re not bringing in revenue, their wandering in the woods is time consuming, cash draining and demoralizing. Marketing demand creation programs (such as search engine marketing, public relations and trade shows) are all expensive and potentially fatal distractions if done before you have found product/market fit and a repeatable sales model. And most startup code and features end up on the floor, as customers never really wanted them.

Therefore when money is hard to come by, entrepreneurs (and their investors) look for ways to reduce cash burn rate and increase the chance of finding product/market fit. The Customer Development process (and the Lean Startup) is one way to do that.

In Customer Development your goal is not to avoid spending money but to preserve your cash as you search for a repeatable and scalable sales model and then spend like there’s no tomorrow when you find one.

This is the most important sentence in this post and worth deconstructing.

  • Preserve your cash: When you have unlimited cash (internet bubbles, frothy venture climate,) you can iterate on your mistakes by burning more dollars. When money is tight, you look for processes that allow you to minimize waste. The Customer Development process says preserve your cash by not hiring anyone in sales and marketing until the founders turn hypotheses into facts and you have found product/market fit.
  • As you search: Customer Development observes that when you start your company, all you and your business plan have are hypotheses, not facts –and that the founders are the ones who need to get out of the building to turn these hypotheses into customer data. This “get out of the building” activity is the Customer Discovery step of the Customer Development Model (seen below).customer-development
  • Repeatable: Startups may get orders that come from board members’ customer relationships or heroic, single-shot efforts of the CEO. These are great, but they are not repeatable by a sales organization. What you are searching for is not the one-off revenue hits but rather a repeatable pattern that can be replicated by a sales organization selling off a pricelist or by customers coming to your web site.
  • Scalable: The goal is not to get one customer but many – and to get those customers so each additional customer adds incremental revenue and profit. The test is: If you add one more sales person or spend more marketing dollars, does your sales revenue go up by more than your expenses?
  • Sales model: A sales model answers the basic questions involved in selling your product: “Is this a revenue play or a freemium model going for users? Something else? Who’s the customer? Who influences a sale? Who recommends a sale? Who is the decision maker? Who is the economic buyer? Where is the budget for purchasing the type of product you’re selling? What’s the customer acquisition cost? What’s the lead and/or traffic generation strategy? How long does an average sale take from beginning to end?”Finding out whether you have a repeatable, scalable sales model is the Customer Validation step of Customer Development. This is the most important phase in customer development. Have you learned how to sell your product to a target customer? Can you do this without running out of money?
  • Scale like there is no tomorrow: The goal of an investor-backed startup is not to build a lifestyle business. The goal is to reach venture-scale (~10x return on investment.) When you and your board agree you’ve found a repeatable and scalable sales model (i.e. have product/market fit,) then you invest the dollars to create end user demand and drive those customers into your sales channel.

If you confuse Lean with Cheap when you do find a repeatable and scalable sales model, you will starve your company for resources needed to scale. Customer Development (and Lean) is about continuous customer contact/iteration to find the right time for execution.

Photo by Lee Carson via Flickr


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