Startups only fail when they fail to learn


If you look at most blogs and talks about Lean Startup methodologies it'd be fair to conclude that it's all about iterating and eliminating waste.

That seems a good recipe for success, however if you're not focusing on learning you're as good as a perfectly tuned car without steering wheel.

The build-measure-learn loop

Truth to be told some people are talking about the learning aspect as part of presenting the build-measure-learn loop:


This is the iconic image of Lean Startup even if it seems to have almost fallen in disuse over the last year.

And there is actually a better alternative, at least one that I prefer, the hypothesis-test-learn loop:


I like this better because it even more clearly points out the focus on learning by framing the three phases in relation to the scientific method of experimentation.

Learning is so important for two reasons:

  1. it transforms a failure in a success
  2. it creates a feedback loop that informs your next iteration

It's not a failure if you learned something from it

It's a known fact that most startups fail and I've yet to meet somebody that says it feels good to fail. It's also true, however, that nobody ever succeeded at the first try. That implies that failures not only is likely, but it's a step to success.

The great discoveries of our world were made on the shoulders of the people that came before and failed. Failure is an enabler.

But only if you learn from it.

The only true failure is the one where you crash and burn without knowing why and then go on to repeat the same mistakes.

What's your next iteration going to be based on?

You say you're Lean because you're iterating, but what are those iterations based on? Having spoken to a bunch of people I'm often hearing arguments along the lines of: oh. I take the large project and chunk it up in 2 weeks sprints.

I'm sorry, but that's not iterating, that's just breaking your work down, which is absolutely great, but also nothing to do with Lean (and it's not Agile either).

Iterating depends exclusively on learning. You do something, figure out if and how it works, or doesn't, and then based on what you learned decide the next move.

Never stop learning

There's an infinite amount of things you can learn about a business and in fact I'd posit that established companies that failed largely did so because they stopped learning.

These are 4 areas you can constantly learn more about:

Your customers

Through the lifetime of your company, if you are successful, you'll move through different customer segments and the only way you'll succeed is if you learn more about that new segment and adapt your offering and/or create new products to serve them.

Your revenue streams

As you grow you'll likely be adding services and or products and with that revenue streams. Those need to be tested like anything else, you'll need to learn more about price point and hidden costs, maybe partner with someone to enable that business model.

Your partners

Most companies can't do everything by themselves and will rely on partners to either produce or deliver the goods. Those partners will likely have needs that change over time and your best bet to leverage them is to keep learning about them.

Learn about the changing market

The market will inevitably change so you'll have to constantly learn how that affects your offering and adapt as needed. I feel this is the one place that costed a lot of companies their leadership in a given market.

What's the most useful thing you ever learned?

How have you applied lessons learned from an experiment to your next iteration?

Join the community of Lean Startup practitioners

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