Eric Ries and the Origins of the Lean Startup Theory—The Full Xconomy Interview

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there was no new model. There was just this vacuum that I accidentally walked into and then got pulled in a million directions.

I mean, the first big talk I gave was at the Web 2.0 Expo in 2009. That was only two years ago. I was on the junior stage, the unrecorded stage. And the number of people who showed up at that talk blew my mind. That was when I knew I was on to something. That was April 2009. And then by a year later I had gone from nobody to the main stage, that was a big deal, and in the meantime I had traveled, I think that fall I was on the road full time. It was very fast.

X: What’s it like being a guru?

ER: I don’t like that word.

X: Then how would you describe your current role?

ER: I used to know what I did extremely well. I used to program computers. I was good at it. I used to manage people. I was really good at that. What the hell do I do know? I don’t know. Ironically, becoming an author solves the cocktail party problem a little bit. Now I just say “I’m an author, I’m writing a book.” The truth is that anybody who makes their living as an author, consultant, or public speaker really does all three together. That is kind of the holy trinity of this industry. So that’s what I do.

X: For your income, just to be nuts and bolts about it, you charge for your conferences; you are writing a book that will have a price tag on it; and you have speaking engagements for which you get paid fees.

ER: I am very well compensated. I have no complaints. People have been incredibly generous. And last year, I built and then shut down a whole consulting business around this. I made a lot of money as a consultant, then I decided I don’t like consulting. I don’t enjoy that job as my primary source of income, lucrative though it is. In order to do consulting at scale you have to build a consulting company, and organizational politics give me a headache. I can take a certain amount but I can’t do that full time.

X: In one talk I just watched, the second Web 2.0 Expo talk in April or May 2010, the last slide you showed was the Gartner Hype Cycle. Already, at that point, I think you were saying that Lean Startup was past the Peak of Inflated Expectations and was somewhere around the Trough of Disillusionment. Where do you think you are now?

ER: Could I have seemed any more naïve? Listen, I don’t even know. This thing has grown so much bigger than I could ever have imagined. We had a very specific backlash that I was thinking about at that time. I thought that was the trough of disillusionment. The truth is that the Gartner Hype Cycle is not real. These things happen in waves. We keep going, and you reach new audiences, and then they become disillusioned. There was the whole Fat Startup thing. It was almost like an officially organized backlash. And we won. I felt like we had an existential challenge and we came through it successfully. I thought that would be the end of it. But now the hype has grown much bigger than that. I’m allergic to hype. I don’t like it when companies pound their chests. So this is a very strange position to be in.

X: I want to ask you a few questions that are probably among the backlash type questions you got but I think they’re still relevant. And one of them has to do with the question I wanted to bookmark earlier, about vision. You said that the problem with vision is once you have one you can’t fail. I’m still personally more on Will Harvey’s side, meaning I’m of the view that customers don’t know what they want, so the only way to build an amazing new product is to divine what customers will want once you’ve shown it to them. Arguably this is the way that Steve Jobs has become a tech messiah.

ER: You got it. I am on Will Harvey’s side too. The most emotionally satisfying part of this has been that Will and I are no longer adversaries. We came out of this really good friends. We learned how to find a synthesis here that is actually more productive than the positions that either of us had before. I don’t want to put words in his mouth, but I believe he’s on board. He was right. Customers do not know what they want. No startup has ever had any success at all without vision. In fact my new belief, is that a true visionary like Will is much too precious a commodity to waste.

And I didn’t understand what that meant. I really didn’t. I signed up to be Will’s deputy because I believed in where he wanted to take us. I wanted to see it realized and I viewed my job as to make it happen. The reason we had so much conflict was, … Next Page »

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Wade Roush is a freelance science and technology journalist and the producer and host of the podcast Soonish. Follow @soonishpodcast

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2 responses to “Eric Ries and the Origins of the Lean Startup Theory—The Full Xconomy Interview”

  1. Wait…now that we built it leveraging Lean Start-up principles…”THEY WILL COME?” I understand the “Customer Development” component of Lean Start-up…but am still missing ideal strategies to generate new customers and users, especially for B2B startups providing a “disruptive technology/solution”

    It sounds like all you now need to do next is implement a sales/marketing 2.0 tool, add a “PRICING AND PLANS” section on your website and hire some internal telemarketers?

    Sounds like a single point of potential failure to me…Should these start-up’s also target big company “C-Suites” and communicate their value prop towards “C-Suite” sponsored initiatives? Should a “top down” sales approach be ignored? “Bottoms up” / viral approach only?