Be Lean, But Don’t Buy It as a Silver Bullet

Posted on 10. Jul, 2012 by in Developers, Funding, Startups

Yes, there’s a lot to like about ‘lean’ startup methods.  But don’t gulp it without question.

I’ve been following–or practicing–“cutting edge” business methods for longer than I want you to know. Try this.  You’re familiar with “agile development,” right? But how about quality circles?  Or Total Quality Management?  How’s about Six Sigma? I’ve lived through them all. And I can attest to the fact they all shared something in common with the latest “lean startup” methodologies buzzing around the cubicles, incubators, and co-working spaces we inhabit: All promised revitalization, growth, and great, good fortune.

But those early panaceas did something else:  They came, and then they went.

So whenever I encounter a similar silver bullet these days I just wanna reach for one–as in the kind that stars in a beer commercial. If I popped the top on a cold one every time I heard someone say “pivot,” “persevere,” and “minimum viable product” I’d have a drinking problem.

Those are  terms popularized by Eric Ries in his best-selling book, “The Lean Startup: How Today’s Entrepreneurs Use Continuous Innovation to Create Radically Successful Businesses.”  You must know him.  He currently enjoys guru status in entrepreneurial circles.  He’s been lionized most recently in a Wired magazine profile, which also noted how his philosophy is currently making its way out of the startup scene and into big blue-chip companies such as General Electric. Even Harvard Business School is offering a course based on his work.

I’ve read the book. I’ve recommended some of its practices.  I’ve embraced some too as my own startup conceives, develops, and consults to technology-fueled media startups. I confess I concur  with the precept at the heart of the lean approach: Even the most brilliant and experienced people don’t know enough to outwit newly emerging, rapidly changing, and increasingly complex markets, especially when it comes to products and business models without precedent. That’s especially why a startup is based more on faith and less on fact. The market hasn’t spoken. As a result,  the only prudent way to give birth to a business is to test and test and test.  According to Ries, it’s about deploying the  same scientific method we learned in grade school:  State a hypothesis and then experiment to prove it.

Humility counts. This inherently more humble approach to business represents a refreshing contrast to the entrepreneurial hubris that typically struts its stuff down the streets of Palo Alto. Or the egotism that fills executive suites throughout the business world, for that matter.  I’ve personally been witness to monumental miscalculations by the best and brightest who couldn’t have been more certain of themselves, what with their MBAs, lofty titles, fat salaries, and corporate perks.

Still, I’m just not–n-o-t, not–willing to become a flag-waving member of the lean startup “movement,” which Ries started calling it as soon as Page 14 of his book. A movement? Really? Like civil rights?  Environmentalism? The Arab Spring?

When someone touts a practice as a movement that’s the telltale sign of fad surely destined to fade because it invariably over-promises.

While they’re rare, others refuse to guzzle the zero-calorie Kool-Aid, too.  The Wired profile pointed out one certainly worth noting: Respected Silicon Valley venture capitalist Ben Horowitz who’s said in his own blog post that, to hell with skinny, startups need to be fat–monied and rapaciously profligate enough to dominate a market before someone else does.

Brit fit. One of the most outspoken and quotable curmudgeons I found lives from Silicon Valley–in Surrey, South of London, in fact.  Maybe distance makes the head grow stronger, because 47-year-old Nick Pelling, a serial entrepreneur, pulls no punches.  Consider his screed on the 10 reasons why “lean startups suck”

For all its reliance on the scientific method, Pelling declares that “lean” isn’t science at all; it’s only validation is anecdotal. But Pelling’s main rap is that it’s naive. “A lean startup is only really self-fundable,” he says. And the reason is that, in the real world, people aren’t willing to give their money to someone who wants to conduct “experiments” with it. Instead, someone willing to stake a business wants confidence, comfort, and proof you know what you’re doing

“What kind of a ‘contract’ can you have with a business angel by taking this approach?” Pelling asks. “It’s a key disconnect with the way people actually behave.” The sources of capital “don’t want to fund your industrial education,” he says, concluding that Ries doctrines “are much more about learning than about leaning.”

I’m not as strident. There are “lean” methods and tactics you might well find applicable and fruitful. Nevertheless, I won’t, and you shouldn’t, take the approach for what it’s not—and it’s not a silver bullet.  There’s only one of those that delivers on its promise, and I’m about to pop the top on it right now.

Patrick Houston is the co-founder of MediaArchitechs. He is a former SVP for a new media startup, a GM at Yahoo, and editor-in-chief at He can be reached at


Leave a Reply

Our privacy policy