An evening with Steve Blank

On Tuesday March 11th, I attended a talk by Steve Blank at the Melbourne Accelerator Program at Melbourne University. One of our Product Anonymous community mentioned Steve was talking so I signed up due to this recommendation. But I didn’t do my homework and I didn’t know what I was getting into.

I was nicely surprised as I walked in – due to the beautiful location that is the Melbourne University Law building, the free book (The Startup Owner’s Manual: The Step-By-Step Guide for Building a Great Company) I was given for the attendance and signs that suggested drinks and food to follow – but I digress…

Steve Blank’s book – The Four Steps to the Epiphany – and his customer development methodology for entrepreneurs launched the lean start-up movement. He was/is a mentor to Eric Ries. Steve teaches customer development and entrepreneurship at Stanford. He is a very intelligent, experienced individual across start-up land and he is also very funny so the hour flew by.

While I didn’t do my research prior to the talk, I quickly realised I needed to sit-up and listen. What pearls of wisdom did I learn? Many! AND I also heard so much that resonated for the product manager.

The session was for founders who presumably are part of the Melbourne Accelerator Program and are getting insight and guidance from that program. Steve took the time to outline what a start up is and isn’t and what makes them different to an existing business.

“Start-ups search for business models. Large corporates already have them and execute on them.”

He talked about why he launched his own start-ups – due to his own frustrations with such questions as what is the “5 year business plan” and the apparent plethora of ideas he had in his head that would mean he always has a something next to try. Steve hates it when companies or people ask for that long term 5-year view, because who has that good of an insight into so many unknowns? He sees that as one of the futile corporate organisational questions which give them a bad name and which start-ups don’t waste time on.

Steve talked about founders being artists. An idea which resonated for me as I had seen this idea previously in some of Seth Godin’s works, Linchpin and the Icarus Deception. He then told everyone in the room:

“if you don’t believe in what you are doing, get out now. Don’t do it. You need to think about this (your idea) when you wake up, when you are in the shower, in other words ALL THE TIME”

Steve believes founders are the type of people who can see a work of art when others see only a blank canvas. They are a set of people who haven’t even been given paintbrushes yet – but they know they need to paint. He talked about incubators and accelerator programs as ways in which you give your artists/founders an art school. In other words, they give you room to learn to wield the paintbrush, room to fail on that first canvas when you use too much red and room to work on your masterpiece. To follow on with this analogy – one cannot learn to paint from books, one must paint.

He went on to say the lean start-up movement writings are not scriptures that one must follow religiously but they are a way in which to encourage and nurture the artist to reach their full potential. The same way an art school may help you understand whether you need acrylics over water based paints, the customer development model and lean start up methodology are there to help you understand whether your art (ie your idea/product/concept) is worthy. It’s a way to find out if you are the only one who loves what you do or whether there is an audience willing to pay for your idea. An concept that is so important for founders, but also for product managers.

How are you going to test these hypotheses (as he would ask his students at Stanford) or guesses (as he would ask those outside Stanford)?

“Get out of the office and test them”.

This statement immediately jumped out as we in the product management and user design communities know it well. It does seem to be a principle that shouldn’t have to be discussed anymore, right? No! Apparently even the guru – Steve – had to be reminded it can be applied everywhere.

Steve had sworn black and blue that the customer development methodology wouldn’t work in life sciences. After quite a bit of chasing, he was finally convinced to step in and work with a group of scientists on bringing a more customer oriented thinking to their work. He set the group a challenge to talk with x patients in 10 weeks. And he found himself proven wrong! Scientists also need to get out of the lab!

One of the audience asked, why would you need to do that if you are curing cancer? Isn’t your need fairly obvious? The answer provided was that you still have to work with many bodies to get your cure to the patient. Any insight, better knowledge and validated assumptions will make that path more likely to succeed if you have tested and validated along the way.

A member of the audience asked about the difference between talking lean rather than doing lean. Steve laughed at this point and said the word pivot has become an excuse for ADHD. In other words, a poor excuse to change direction suddenly off a single data point. Steve’s advice was to apply a 72 hour rule before being allowed to mention any new insight – let alone tie it to a pivot. He suggested having a board or a group of people keeping an eye on the founder to prevent this. I think this also makes sense for a product manager. A lot of the constructs around the discipline of the development cycle are there to help make sure no one is running off a single data point.

Steve had another way of seeing this – a founder cannot be smarter then the collective intelligence of your customers. This is so true for everyone’s product. Anyone can be guilty of continuing to tinker with the product without seeking further input but it’s so much easier for a founder to tell people what to do rather than to get out of the building and hear your baby is ugly! This is a great reminder for product managers working with founders who may be not be used to hearing alternative viewpoints and it also serves as another reminder to get out of the office!

Humility is very important to remember. You or your team or your company may think something is fabulous but you need to test it to know for sure. To that end, the artists metaphor is receiving a standing ovation from the audience as a clear sign of success. Silence in the auditorium might be the moment you know you need to pivot.

Did you attend the talk or have you read Steve’s work?  What are the product management bits that spoke to you?

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