Entrepreneur

Lean startups and 4-hour bodies: How Eric Ries and Tim Ferriss tell stories on the web

If you want to highlight a product, build a landing page. If you’re an internet marketing guru, make a squeeze page. But if you want to start on online movement — and maybe sell a few books, speaking events, or other products along the way, create a “smart site.”

Author, speaker, and general startup guru Eric Ries should know. His movement, highlighted in his book The Lean Startup, is almost impossible to miss in the startup community. And he’s eager to build and market in simple, minimum viable product ways.

“People are stuck on massive legacy technology,” Ries told me. “Anything new they want to do, there’s an approval process, versus with a tool like this one you can just get started immediately.”

But smart sites are a new type of website, built in two weeks for less than $5,000 … with heat-mapping analytics, A/B testing, goal tracking, and logging built right in. Everything on the otherwise standard HTML and Javascript site is built around a story, and that story is told on just one single webpage … which can get long, but never feels long.

“This is for everyone that wants to tell a story or start something great,” says Chuck Longanecker, whose Digital Telepathy firm created the concept of smart sites for Ries as well as Tim Ferriss of 4-hour body fame. “Sites don’t necessarily need pages, and working with people with like Eric challenged us to change the way a site could be.”

The key is story.

Part of Eric Reis' Lean Startup website

Above: Part of Eric Ries’s Lean Startup website

Like Ries’ lean startup philosophy, a smart site is focused on one particular story. The story of your app, perhaps, the story of your project … or the story of your life. That focus on story ties all the elements of the site together.

For example, Ries’ site theleanstartup.com begins with an introduction: a full-screen photo, a headline, and an email sign-up form. After a “learn more” click, the browser view scrolls down to a teaser: three key benefits of lean. A third click gives you the heart of the story, an overview of the principles of lean startups. A fourth goes even deeper, as does a fifth, a sixth, and more.

Each time, you stay on the same page. And each time, you’re presented with a bit-sized chunk of story — never too much, always just enough to want more. A chapter, you might say, with a cliffhanger ending that you just have to click to find.

It’s a deceptive simple design ethic.

“I was really looking for something different,” Ries says. “It’s especially important to me that the site is not just a good marketing tool, but also a good example of the lean philosophy.”

And it all lives on a single page, tied together with elegant, logical steps, each of which is a user’s click indicating interest, engagement, and, ultimately, desire.

The ability to keep those clicks coming, of course, resides in the power of stories, of narrative. Stories are how we’ve shared information from the beginning of time, Longanecker says. Stories are what has connected us against the backdrop of campfires and coffee, and stories are how we interpret our world — and ourselves.

So storytelling was a natural metaphor for smart sites. The challenge is that storytelling is an art, not a science. And yet, Digital Telepathy has found a way to add both.

“Content is king, but you can’t just plaster it all over the page — you have to kind of currate the story,” Longanecker says, and therein lies the art. “You don’t necessarily know the best way to tell a story off the top of your head … you need to test it, iterate it.”

That’s where the built-in analytics come into play, and therein lies the science.

That science means that built-in A/B testing allows Digital Telepathy to play with the design and the story while the site is live, testing to see what works, what’s better, and what needs to die a quick death on the cutting room floor. Built-in analytics from Optimizely and KissInsights help, and more are coming.

The difference versus a standard website is immense, Longanecker says:

“Your website knows what its objectives are the day it goes live, and it’s giving you all this information on the backend,” he told me. “The design’s never done, it can always get better.”

I asked Longanecker and Ries who smart sites work for, who they’re optimized for.

Ries obviously uses smart site technology for the Lean Startup, among other sites, and he’s joined by diet, health, and learn-anything guru Tim Ferriss. These are examples of movements accompanied by products, but startups are also a core demographic — Longanecker cites companies in or exiting from Kickstarter, Y Combinator, and TechStars as a core demographic.

But it’s clearly not for a large corporation, and on purpose. It’s more focused than that.

“I don’t think HP corporate is going to call us soon,” Longanecker says. “However, it’d be a great page for HP for hiring.”


We're studying digital marketing compensation: how much companies pay CMOs, CDOs, VPs of marketing, and more, with ChiefDigitalOfficer. Help us out by filling out the survey, and we'll share the results with you.