Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Lean Startup Machine Madrid

The weekend of 18-20 of October the Lean Startup Machine held a workshop here in Madrid. I had booked the ticket as a super early bird back in July, thanks to Pierre from guiripreneurs. Last week I was thinking of selling my ticket but then I thought what the heck, give it a try and get out of your comfort zone.

I had no preconception on what to expect neither did I went prepared enough. I am working for a start-up  and I'd heard before of Steve Blank and Eric Ries but other than that, tabula rasa.

Overall I found the experience totally worthy. A lot of interesting talks throughout the weekend and most importantly experience gained. The only thing that I found a bit frustrating it was that the workshop was in spanish and not in english.

Friday Night Pitch

On Friday night you get to make the pitch in fifty seconds which is a very short time when you are almost trembling. Nevertheless I decided to pitch. For me it was like riding a bicycle. If you lose your momentum you fall down. I barely managed through.

The idea I pitched for was simple: use energy consumption data in order to deduct personalized energy-saving recommendations for households. It's actually not such an original idea that came from discussions with a friend of mine that has done a lot of cool stuff about smart energy meters. What really got me is that the, yet unproven, software solutions are based on machine learning. Here is a cool looking one. Since I come from a scientific background I am naturally interested when someone tries to mix state-of-the-art science and business.

There were like thirty pitches and then the fifteen most popular ideas were voted. Mine was among the ones that made it, ranking first, to my great surprise.  So as the "team leader" I had to choose another five to work with me. More people were interested so I had to let some down.

Meet the team

At the moment I thought we were actually expected to build an MVP so I promptly opted for two young tech guys (Xavi and Jon) and a designer (Andres). . The other two members of the team were a project manager in an established company (Isabel) and an entrepreneur (Gustavo). It seemed just the right mix and after this is over I can say that everyone was surprisingly talented. One thing we were missing though, we had no idea what we were supposed to do. For me it was more like a hackathon. It isn't obviously. Each team member seemed to have their own preconceptions and were, likewise, kind of misled. We found out later it that the Lean Start-up Machine process has to do more with finding if your idea resonates with the customer base and not so much about it's execution or other things.

Our team. From left to right: Gustavo, Andres, me, Isabel, Jon and Xavi.


Vadlidation Board

After the teams were formed we were given a board with which we were supposed to work with. It is named Validation Board and supposedly helps team manage their ideas, take action and make informed decisions based on metrics. That's a nice Idea but a very platonic one since we weren't given any sufficient explanation on what the boxes really meant or with what we should fill them.

But let me explain how - I think - this board works. First of all you have to make two hypotheses. The first is about the customer segment you want to focus on. The second hypothesis is to identify a problem that they have, stemming probably from your own experience. After that you have to make a series of assumptions about that customer-problem pair. From all those assumption you choose the riskiest one and set a validation criterion. Then you go out of the building and interact with people in order to see if the criterion holds true in the real world. If your assumption is validated then you propose a solution hypothesis again making assumptions about it and validating the riskiest one by asking more people. If an assumption is invalidated then you go back and change what's wrong in your hypotheses. The whole assumption process is then repeated until you come up with a customer-problem-solution trio that gets validated. Then you can start developing the solution.

Our validation board.
Yes I know it sounds like too generic and arbitrary. From my teaching experience, I came to find out that when a student cannot understand something, two things might happen. Either the teacher doesn't really know their material or that the material is far too advanced for the student. In this case I believe there is no material at all I'm afraid. This became more apparent when we asked some of the mentors to give us some specific guidance and all we got was some one-size-fits-all responses.

By no way this means that there is no value in the Lean Startup Machine though, all the contrary. It just means that it's not something that can be taught in the academic sense of the term. It's a more hands on approach that you get to digest with practice. The validation board helps give a bit of structure to this continuous process, making it easier to identify where you go wrong. But it can't protect you from uncertainty, wrong assumptions, your biases and all the other real world obstacles. Unfortunately, apart from one or maybe two speeches, I didn't see a lot on advice on good practices that help tackle this obstacles.

Guidelines to get the most out of personal interviews with customers. From Jose Antonio de Miguel of yoemprendo.es


If I were to sum up the lessons learned this weekend it will be something like this:
  1. Trust the data: Don't trust your own - biased - hypothesis of what people may want, ask them first.
  2. Find worthy data: It's a continuous process. Repetition, practice, keeping and open mind and repetition makes better in extracting useful information and decreasing uncertainty.
  3. Validate first: Don't spend a minute on developing a product before you are sure people want it.

Hard working teams.

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