Plenty has been written in praise of The Lean Startup, so to make my contribution worthwhile, I am going to make it personal. Here are my top 5 lessons learned with lesson 5 being very special indeed: it's about Life Tonic.
Many people out there think that business success depends on one original idea. For starters, most successful businesses aren't that original, but they are good at what they do, they understand their market and continuously adapt to serve their target client base. I am writing this, sitting at Leon, a food chain, which took full advantage of the gap in the market for healthy, tasty, responsibly-sourced fast food. More importantly, it's not the idea but the execution that reigns supreme. As Eric Ries puts it, "Only 5% of entrepreneurship is the big idea, the business model, the whiteboard strategising and the splitting up of the spoils. The other 95% is the gritty work that is measured by innovation accounting: product prioritisation decisions, deciding which customers to target or listen to, and having the courage to subject a grand vision to constant testing and feedback."
Lesson 2: How to find demand for your product? (Hint: don't ask your friends)
Wouldn't it be great to publish a book about kiwi community in London? If you are having this conversation with your mum, your flatmate or your lover, they'll probably say "great idea". Even if you ask your wider circle "Would you pay £10 for a book about kiwi community in London?", you won't get any valuable feedback because saying "sure, why not" and taking your credit card out are two different things.
However, setting up a Facebook page "Kiwis in London", building up an audience, then writing a first chapter, publishing it via a sign-up link and encouraging prospective fans to read it, then generating a conversation will give you a better idea. "Click here to read the first chapter of Kiwis in London - it's free!" is a great tool to assess potential appetite and test whether it's worth going ahead with the project. Incidentally, I've just discovered that Kiwis in London Facebook page already exists. All they have to do now is to come up with a prototype product and test it..!
Lesson 3: I'd swap angel investors for early adopters any day
When I announced to a friend of mine that I am going to quit my job to start my own thing, he said: "Great, I'd love to invest in you!". You might think that's fantastic, but there is something more important than start-up capital and that's early adopters. These are the real angels of the start-up world, because they will take a leap of faith in you and then will spread out the word about you, generating that important word-of-mouth. Think of all the apps that "made it" - they are all obliged to the early adopters for downloading them, trying them and introducing them to their network. Prove your model first, then seek capital to grow your business.
Lesson 4: Failing quickly is a good thing
Ultimately, The Lean Startup model is all about starting small, learning big, testing your proposition in the market and adapting to the feedback you're receiving. You can spend 6 months building up your business plan and doing market research, stuck in "analysis paralysis", invest money, hire a team, then launch your product and spend 6 more months, convincing yourself "it takes time", whereas what you should be doing is following your "baby" with a magnifying glass, set tests and learn from the results.
And if your prototype project fails? Bravo! That's a result, isn't it? Now, what went wrong? And why? In fact, Eric Ries recommends asking "Why" five times to get to the bottom of the problem and find a way to fix it.
Clearly, if you start small and launch quickly, if your first prototype fails, you can rapidly tweak your proposition and march onwards.
Lesson 5: What does it mean for Life Tonic?
This is my favourite bit. Life Tonic did everything by The Lean Startup book. The idea wasn't original: I was very much inspired by Alain de Botton's School of Life. I launched quickly, created "prototype products" to see what the market thinks and didn't over-commit in money terms. I built the website myself, a friend created a logo for me.
Life Tonic hasn't worked out in its original model, putting together talks and workshops in London. I have not sold enough tickets and learned a painful lesson about "bums on seats".
But something interesting came out of that experience: Life Tonic's newsletter subscription base keeps growing as does its social media presence. Through my writing for Huffington Post, I've been invited to review the forthcoming Russian Art and Culture week in November, guest blog for The Steeple Times and was interviewed by the national newspaper in Belgium.
"Every entrepreneur eventually faces an overriding challenge in developing a successful product: deciding when to pivot and when to persevere", writes Eric Ries.
"Are we making sufficient progress to believe that our original strategic hypothesis is correct, or do we need to make a major change? That change is called a pivot: a structured course correction designed to test a new fundamental hypothesis about the product, strategy and engine of growth".
And so I've decided to pivot in two ways:
- I've converted Life Tonic into an editorial content site, changing its strategy to focus on building up content and readership. I will be inviting guest authors to contribute original articles and act as an editor-in-chief.
- I've decided to focus on my original "brainchild" (a hideous word, coming to think of it), Ladies Who Impress. It's a women's forum, celebrating female role models through live events and stories of inspiring women I meet every day. Here my mission is to build up a global community, so if you are not yet receiving Ladies Who Impress newsletters, please subscribe here and join the tribe!
I now have two new websites, I have tweaked to reflect the change of direction, with both businesses not only reflecting what I've learned in the past 4 weeks, but also making the most of my own talents and strengths. Once again, the idea is to try this new vision, test it, learn, adapt and pivot again, if necessary.
I hope my personal lessons made a good read. If so, do share your thoughts or questions below.