Thursday, June 16, 2016

Book Review—The Lean Startup by Eric Ries

The Lean Startup is an influential business book by Eric Ries that seemed to really make waves through the software industry and beyond. The premise, reduced to just one sentence: build a “minimum viable product” to get early feedback from customers to avoid the risk of a long development process that results in a polished product that no one actually wants. Being somewhat familiar with the concepts of lean manufacturing, I thought I would see if some of the ideas could be applied to physical product development.

The Lean Startup by Eric Ries

Contrasting with Zero to One

You might get the idea from reading though my discussion of Zero to One that it was pooh-poohing the principles of The Lean Startup. I think in a sense it was and I think it's because that author might have been frustrated by people taking principles from The Lean Startup and applying them incorrectly, thinking that they couldn't build anything big and new. The reality is that different techniques apply to unique situations, of course, and it's possible to build the next big thing while getting early feedback on the portions that make sense, such as a user interface or fundamental design parameters.

Physical Products

There certainly are aspects to learn from in terms of physical product development. Maybe the simplest concept is to get prototypes into the hands of customers early for feedback. This would work great for less complex devices that can take advantage of modern rapid prototyping techniques. The Arduino and Raspberry Pi can interface with sensors and actuators very quickly, while 3D printing, laser cutters, and CNC milling can make prototype parts faster than ever. Ries even gives an example of this for an x-ray imaging mount project for the military.

For very large development projects such as a new emissions level for a diesel engine, this may not apply to some aspects. With the exception of marketing gimmickry, the customer doesn’t care much about what pressure the fuel system runs at, so long as the resulting fuel economy and performance are good. Targets of these characteristics can be determined before the start of development and generally carried through to the end. But other specific features that impact the driver, such as performance feel and the philosophy of when to set off various lights and alarms in the case of issues, can all be tested for user feedback, and should probably be done so as early as possible.

Another, less high-tech, physical example I thought of was for my friend who owns a family entertainment center. He wanted to rebrand the pizza kitchen inside of his facility and was hemming and hawing about what to call it. I suggested that he could simply create a sign at the store with the minimum branding needed to change out the looks, and then he could see how people respond to it. No need to create and launch a full marketing campaign all at once; he could simply set up the basics since customers were already coming in to play laser tag and mini golf regardless. Once he is able to get some early feedback that that concept is good, then he has the option of fleshing out the rest of the marketing.


Overall I really liked this book and how it can compliment the ideas in Zero to One (see my discussion)—it’s another lesson in making sure you apply the right principles at the right time since none of this is cut and dry. I just wish it wasn’t quite so long! Some summary/outline bullets at the end of the chapters or book would have been pretty useful in this case.

A common criticism is that the book doesn't have much to say besides "get early feedback," but I would definitely disagree with that. I found these additional topics very insightful:

  • Finding metrics to measure your progress that aren't just so-called vanity metrics
  • How to define success and know where to focus your efforts
  • How the principles stemmed from the lean manufacturing movement
  • Creating a startup mentality in an area of even a large organization and shielding it from bureaucracy
  • Lots of examples to illustrate the main points

What did you like most or least about the book?


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