Saturday, August 17, 2013

Lean Startup Book Roundup

Earlier this year I got involved with using Lean Startup techniques to help with a new business inside of Adobe. As is my normal style, I read a large number of books to help get my head around the techniques and build up a base of knowledge I could use in the future.  
As an entrepreneur/intrapreneur you have to be able to lie to yourself a little. Otherwise you would just stay at home and not pursue the new idea that you have. But lying to yourself until you ship your product to the marketplace can be expensive and emotionally devastating.

For those of you new to the Lean Startup Methodologies, they are tools that help you stop lying to yourself and check in with reality at all phases of developing your business. My own path with these tools has been somewhat backward. I originally thought we were further along with our business when I picked them up. But as I applied a tool that I thought was appropriate for the phase of development (for instance a retention graph for our private beta), reality would come through and we need to go a step earlier in the chain to find the problem. We finally ended up all they way back at the beginning.

Here are the books I read and what I took away from them.

"The Lean Startup" by Eric Reis :
This is a very inspirational book. It goes pretty fast and doesn't get bogged down. One of the most influential portions for me was the discussion of Vanity Metrics. These are ones that are generally easy to measure and create, but almost always lie and don't provide real actionable data.

I consider this book a great seed of ideas, but too thin on actual implementation and case studies. Read it, get inspired, get familiar with the terms and concepts, then move on to a different book for implementation.

"Running Lean" by Ash Maurya :

I consider this the next book in the series. A key tenet to stop lying to yourself is to go out and interview potential customers in as neutral a way as possible (it it very easy to influence people so they tell you what you want to hear).

Ash does a great job step by step explaining how to use a Lean Canvas (a derivation of the Business Model Canvas) to help clarify your ideas, find target customers, and then go out an do qualitative interviews. He has a lot of examples of how he used these tools to clarify his thinking and provides good guidance when you use them yourself. 

"Lean Analytics" by Alistair Croll  (Author) , Benjamin Yoskovitz :  

This book is good when you have an idea of where you are going. While they talk some about the early qualitative interviews you need to get out and do (in their Empathy stage), I found "Running Lean" much more detailed and useful for doing that. But "Lean Analytics" does point out many common problems in interviewing techniques that aren't really addressed in "Running Lean" and therefore is a nice complement.

"Lean Analytics" has my favorite graphic in it where they list the major lean methodologies that are kicking around and compare and contrast them. They then go ahead and invent their own. That just underscores the fact that LSM is just like Agile Engineering. It's much more about philosophy and culture then any specific dogma. Dogma is good when getting started as it can help prevent you from heading into the weeds, but as you get familiar with the concepts you can be flexible.

This book was my first introduction to many different revenue generation models (I read it before "Business Model Generation") and is great for that. Not only does it cover the models, but also what metrics should be tracked, and has many case studies as to how these were applied in the real world.

The book is also awesome for coming up with "The One Metric That Matters". It can be easy to lose focus with all the things going on, and this is a reminder to regularly pick out what you should be targeting, figuring out how to measure it, and then head for it.

One thing I was disappointed about is that they don't really address anything about the statistical and/or business significance that you can attach to numbers. When starting out at the beginning of a product, you normally have very small sample sizes and it is very easy to be mislead by your data. When working with small sample sizes you need to be vigilant when to consider your quantitative data suspect and just throw it out lest it influence your thinking (see "Thinking, Fast and Slow" chapter 14). Stay tuned for a blog post on this problem area.

"The Startup Owner's Manual" by Steve Blank and Bob Dorf :

I really wanted to like this one. It's intentionally not done in a narrative style and I found it hard to digest. While I occasionally would reference it, I found myself using the other books more often. The book does call this out at the beginning. I think the book would work much better in a classroom setting then how I used it. I found the explanations of _how_ just not fitting how my brain works. The why parts are great.

The book does have a great discussion of the Customer Development methodology (which helped spawn Eric Ries' thinking in "The Lean Startup) and is good for that reason alone. The other parts are useful, and it has some good case studies. I just opened it to refresh my mind while writing this and I saw a few nuggets that I liked.

On a dorky note, I had a really hard time with the graphic design of the book. I didn't like the main serif font chosen, and I found the mixture of serif, and sans serif fonts jarring. I also didn't like the use of whitespace or even the general typographic layout (the leading felt off, particularly in bullet lists). But I've worked at Adobe for 15 years so I'm probably more sensitive to these things.

"Business Model Generation" by Alexander Osterwalder and Yves Pigneur :

Speaking of design, the graphic design of this book is luscious. Do NOT buy this on Kindle. The physical book has a wonderful layout along with useful and interesting imagery. As a business and tech person who has a foot in the visual arts, I found that the graphic design really helped pull me into the book and keep my attention. 

If you have a hard time sitting down and plowing through page after page of text, just go and experience this book. You'll need the tools in the other books at some point, but this will get you started in thinking like an entrepreneur.

This book provides a common language (and visual language) for communicating and reasoning about all the key parts that go into a business, not just a product. It can be used for any kind of business, so certain parts didn't make sense for us, but it was a good start. In the end we ended up using the Lean Canvas from Ash Maurya since it was adapted to fit our space better than the generic canvas in this book.

This book really helped my team come to agreement on terminology and allowed us to communicate more clearly with each other. A canvas is much quicker and more effective then a powerpoint with a long presentation.

As you can see, no one book does it all. That's a good thing since this is a big thing to wrap your head around, and frankly there is no one true way.

I just picked up a copy of "Disciplined Entrepreneurship" ( that has come out of MIT Sloan Business school. I'm thrilled to see the East Coast represent! I grew up in Newton, MA and started working in tech back there before relocating to San Francisco and then Seattle. I've only read the forward, but he starts by recommending all those books above and pointing out that there is no single book to cover all the steps.

Happy Reading!



  1. Excellent list, thank you. I've been involved with an incubator here in Phx and using a similar list, although I had missed "Running Lean" in our set. As for The Startup Owners Manual, I felt like I devoured the first 50 pages where he's introducing the concepts. It was the first time someone had laid out a method and theory that so closely matched my experience doing early-stage product dev, which was exciting to see. But past that I hit a wall and never trudged through the rest. But as you say, it makes a good reference. Since then, I recommend it for that intro and for the process diagrams which give a nice overview to jog the memory.

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