The Lean Startup of You

After lots of friends and colleagues pushed it as a must-read, I finally read Eric Ries’ The Lean Startup. In it, Ries suggests that startups need a different, more agile mechanism to create something from nothing—a suggestion that is so very true and often missed in the frenzy of business plans, networking and idea-swapping that forms the stuff of entrepreneurial cultures.  While established companies have clear indicators of success, for startup companies (and individuals) that are in the process of starting something from scratch it’s a little harder to assess “are we making progress?”

I could not help but see how Ries’ philosophy parallels (or perhaps, forms the subtext of) the human dynamic for entrepreneurs. So much of what entrepreneurs battle against does not come from the marketplace but from themselves: their egos, insecurities, fears and hopes.

Here are three of Ries’ manifestos and how they translate to entrepreneurs’ particular emotional contexts. 

1. Validated Learning: Companies test something in the marketplace, get feedback and derive its value to make it better. The same notion is critical for individuals as well. This means immersing ourselves in the industry or sector we aspire to be in. Don’t play into the false assumption that you need more credentials, or it has to be a paid job, or your idea has to be fully baked, before you can start doing the thing.

Case in point: A woman we were working with at The Bunker complained about her job and stated a desire to work with children. Consequently, we advised her to go work with children. Today. Not once she had a teaching certificate, not once she had a job. Today.

So, what are you waiting for? Start doing the thing. Validate your learning without expecting it to be a clean home-run before you can even start.

2. Kanban (Hypothesis Testing): Perfection is the enemy of progress, both for startups and for people.

In a manufacturing context, Kanban is a capacity management system that focuses on optimizing the right end product. For startups, it’s about setting up a system to manage the input of ideas with an intentionality about what you are working with, how you are testing the idea and what you are choosing to jettison or move forward with based on actionable metrics.

For individuals, Kanban is all the more important, yet also all the harder. Humans need a system to honestly evaluate and track the various ideas in our head; we also need to have the fortitude to know when to move an idea forward (based on validation) and when to scrap it.

3. Viral Engine of Growth: The virtuous cycle for companies occurs when they make something that, apart from the investor reaction, elevator pitches and marketing hype, actually works really well! Word of mouth is the primary growth engine for companies, and people will promote products and businesses when they feel that those companies are really good at what they do.

For individuals, the viral engine of growth comes when we hit our sweet spot by aligning our authentic selves with what we are good at and putting that out into the world. People will recognize it as excellence and spread the word.

As such, the work for you is not about looking externally for ideas, but looking internally for inspiration.

To all my fellow fans of The Lean Startup methodology, I suggest you take a page out of Eric Ries’ playbook and look inwards to find what might be impeding your progress. While we enjoy thinking about the work of businesses, the work for entrepreneurs really begins with us. Community, accountability and a good plan that starts not with the business but with you—these are your best assets.


Todd Connor is the CEO and Founder of Bunker Labs, a national entrepreneurship organization dedicated to helping military veterans start and grow businesses. Todd is a mentor at The Garage and a Northwestern alum.