5 kinds of startup waste you are probably guilty of

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When you're just starting out and have limited resources, either them being time, money or skills, waste can make the difference between the life and death of your startup.

Waste cam take many forms, but there are a few that are really common and you are probably guilty of without realizing.

Lean manufacturing and defining waste

Before we dive in it's worth looking a bit closer at the definition of waste and where it comes from.

Lean startup has deep roots in Lean Manufacturing and the Toyota Production System.

There's three major things that Lean Startup borrowed from Lean Manufacturing:

  • Kaizen - improve your business operations continuously. This is the learn part of the Build-Measure-Learn loop that characterize Lean Startup
  • Muda - waste, which occurs when more resources are consumed than are necessary to produce the goods or provide the service that the customer actually wants. In a startup this also includes anything that does not result in learning
  • Genchi Genbutsu - Go to the source to find the facts to make correct decisions, which translates to customer development and getting out of the building

1. Building something nobody wants

This seems obvious and yet ask anybody doing their first startup, especially if they have a technical background, and they will have completely skipped problem validation.

You look at any of the Lean Startup leaders and the message is always the same: your first plan/idea is never going to be the one that makes it.

That implies that building anything before having validated the problem and solution has a high chance to be waste.

2. Your early adopter is a human being with a pulse

I have written before about the importance of focusing on early adopters because it's another thing that makes the difference between the life and death of a new business.

Too often I hear first time entrepreneurs describing their ideal customer as anybody in the world with an internet connection, but there is an old adage

selling to everybody is selling to nobody

Especially in your early days it's fundamental to pick a niche and find that first customer to work with.

The more specific you are the more likely you will be to attract that person and manage to have useful conversation with her.

Getting specific will feel like giving up a huge chunk of the market, which is why people stay horribly generic, but ultimately any successful product started with one customer.

3. Building a MVP to validate the problem

The best definition I've ever heard of MVP is:

the minimum amount of work to build something in order to validate your current hypothesis

What I hear from most people however is much more akin to:

a bare, incomplete, version of the product I want to build

That can waste a huge amount of resources as more often than not, especially if you are just starting out, you don't need to build anything to test your riskiest hypothesis (which is likely to be about the problem and be best validated with customer interviews).

A smaller waste, but still waste, is often represented by mock-ups and landing pages. They feel leaner than building a product, even if minimal, but the real issue is again the attitude to follow the clique rather than answer the right question: what is the hypothesis that you need to validate and what do you need to build it to validate it?

There's certainly a time when UX for example becomes your riskiest hypothesis and by that point you may need to build something, even if that could be just some canvases with paper prototyping.

4. Surveys your way to success. Or not.

Surveys are often cited as the best solution to validate an idea, but that completely misses the point of qualitative versus quantitative feedback. There is a place for both and mixing them up can lead to building the wrong thing.

When you are validating the problem you are largely in exploratory mode. You're looking for stories about your customer's current life, how they experience the problem and what they are doing today to address it.

Getting that with a survey is impossible: too many open questions and people won't fill it up; use drop downs and multiple-choice answers and you are heavily biasing the results.

A rule of thumb is to validate qualitatively first and then validate the qualitative feedback quantitatively. This generally translates to talking with customers, finding a pattern and then using that pattern to create a survey that you can send to a clearly identified segment.

5. 50 shades of blue

I'm all for validating copy, call to actions and so forth, and I totally believe in the power of figuring out with data what color your CTA button should be like.

I am afraid however, and you should be too, of getting lost in a local maxima. A/B testing is good to refine a value proposition and increase conversion, but it's the wrong tool to validate a problem.

What's more, being inherently a quantitative tool, it only makes sense when you have enough traffic to experiment with. Especially early on you're unlikely to have a lot of visitors and will have to turn to paid traffic, which means money spent on the wrong thing if you haven't qualitatively nailed the problem yet.

What's the biggest form of waste you ever seen?

I'd love to hear your story and add to this list of common forms of waste so please chime in in the comments below. Thanks!

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