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

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sit on advisory boards and work with VCs. Mike Maples had this thing and I worked with him. There was the Kleiner Perkins thing. I was getting the opportunity to work with very prestigious organizations and do cool stuff. But everywhere I went, I was telling the story about IMVU, and how we were doing this stuff that sounds crazy but it worked out great. The fact that it worked out great didn’t mitigate the fact that it was crazy. So it was a real struggle to get people to take my advice.

And this goes back to the idea that the language is critical. The connection that was really important to me was, I had really struggled as IMVU scaled, as we brought more employees, more executives, more investors on board, every single one of them would have to be indoctrinated into this insane way of working. It was exhausting to be constantly saying, “No, it really is okay. This really does work.” I knew that it worked, but I didn’t know why it worked. So when people would ask me about any hypothetical situation that I hadn’t actually encountered, it was difficult for me to answer. Lack of intellectual consistency makes me very frustrated, if I’m telling people to do something but I don’t know why.

I had just started in the later years at IMVU to read about lean manufacturing and these other theories, and had just started to formulate a set of ideas that could explain why the techniques were working, and how to extend them to new domains and new situations we had never actually encountered. I built these new employee orientation decks. I had just an inkling of understanding. I could not articulate it well. If we had had this language and theory at IMVU, it would have been a lot better and smoother. I feel like we wasted a lot of time debating stuff that I feel has a clear, objective, right answer now. And I wish I could go back in time and say, “It’s okay, don’t stress, here’s what to do.” New employee orientation is one thing, but when I’m meeting with the CEO of a new startup and I didn’t want them to make the same mistakes, that was when I said “Wait a minute, this is a paradigm problem, not just that I hired these guys who don’t get it.” It’s one thing for engineers to say, “Wait, what? Why do I care about better business results?” That’s part of the agile bargain. I don’t care, you just tell me what to do and we follow this system and these rules and the business people figure that stuff out and it works out great. Except it doesn’t work out. But when CEOs weren’t interested in better business results, I knew something was going horribly, horribly wrong.

X: So were you doing a lot of consulting and advisory work after your left IMVU.

ER: Consulting no, advisory work yes. I was doing it as a hobby, so I would have something to do while I thought about what to do next. I assumed I would become a CEO and start a company. That was my plan.

X: But here we are three or four years later.

ER: I know! This thing took over my life. It’s so hard to explain. I started writing a blog because I wanted to have something to show people so that if they think I’m crazy, they won’t call me. It was that simple. I would have these meetings where I’d get all dressed up, shlep over to some startup office, give them my shtick, and they’d want to argue with me and say it’ll never work, that’s stupid. I’m like “You called me!” Life’s too short. So I said, I’ll write this stuff down. And Steve was encouraging me to blog and write. A lot of people were encouraging me to do it. So I said all right, let’s try this out.

But not only was I not seeking the limelight. I was so embarrassed to be writing a blog that I didn’t even put my name on it. It just said “Startup Lessons Learned.” It didn’t say by who. It was just blank. Blogging is cool now but it was not cool then. I didn’t want people to be listening to what I said because I worked with Kleiner Perkins and had whatever fancy title. I wanted people to listen because of the ideas. And also, if they thought it was really really dumb, I wanted to be able to walk away from it without too much consequence. And it’s only because I have to follow my own advice. As excited as I am now to have tens of thousands of subscribers, I was way more excited to have five. The first five subscribers I had, I was like “Wow this is amazing.” I remember writing a blog post asking “Who are you people, why are you reading, what do you want?” And the feedback was very consistent, it was “Who are you? We need to know your story.” It was very clear that if I wanted to have the blog be successful, I had to come clean and speak publicly. And it just started snowballing. That was 2009. And I don’t know, it’s like a big blur.

X: How did this meeting at Floodgate come about? It wasn’t actually called Floodgate then.

ER: I had been working with Mike as a consultant. Part of my story is being the story of being recruited by these people who have an eye for upstarts, I don’t know what it is about Will and Mike, but they saw me as a young person to be cultivated, and Mike had been very supportive. And we used to have meetings at his office to help him look at deals. I don’t know what the topic was. I think he might have asked Steve and me to present at his LP meeting one year. I don’t remember the specifics.

X: And that was really the first time you came up with a formal melding of the Lean Startup idea?

ER: It was the first time I had the courage to say it out loud. It had been brewing a long time, and I had been thinking about it, and I had been using the framework in my advising. I remember very clearly, I went from having arguments with people that I lost to … 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?