“There is no point in building a mousetrap, if there aren’t any fucking mice around,” said Patrick Vlaskovits, leaning his back against the wall in the kitchen of General Assembly. The broad shouldered Californian was in town for the weekend as an advisor to the aspiring entrepreneurs participating in Lean Startup Machine, a 48 hour event where 12 teams conceived, built and tested a business. “A lot of engineers are great at building things, but not at finding out what customers really want.”
Welcome to the human side of debugging a business. In some ways the weekend resembled the numerous events put on locally by companies like Foursquare and Etsy. But instead of just hunkering down at their keyboards, the aspiring entrepreneurs staked out coffee shops and blasted their social media streams to connect with potential customers and uncover flaws in the marketing and direction of their new born product.
“You get that same adrenaline rush as a hackathon, rallying with a team and trying to create something in such a short period of time,” said Obie Fernandez, who just sold his web design and development business, Hashrocket, to move to New York and launch a startup. “But instead of focusing on coding, tacking on features and accessing APIs you’re doing what engineers hate, which is engaging with real people and trying to find the ways in which the company might succeed or fail.”
Teams of four and five were spread around the General Assembly, some on the long tables, others sprawled out prone on couches. One was tucked into a closet. “You guys are working on travel stuff right?” asked Giff Constable, another LSMNY advisor. “My mother in law is on the line, she’s a flight attendant in Australia. Who wants some feedback.”
The Lean Startup methodology is the brainchild of Eric Ries, who has parlayed his success as a blogger on startups into a position as a book author, startup guru and entrepreneur-in-residence at Harvard. The focus on stripped down companies that don’t raise big venture funding and put a premium on market research is attracting a lot of attention in the press. With the boom in seed funding for tech companies in New York, it’s an interesting time to be preaching a reliance on less capital and a focus on scientific testing as opposed to passion and perseverance.
“We have both lived through the ups and downs of the tech world of last decade. We know a downturn will come in the next few years” wrote Hunch founder and angel investor Chris Dixon, a long time reader who met Ries for the first time this week. The Lean Startup approach, Dixon believes, will help startups prepare for when the party comes to an end.
Ries is the co-founder of IMVU, which bills itself as the “World’s Largest 3D Chat and Dress-Up Community” and was the proving ground for his philosophy. The company threw away 40,000 lines of code when they trashed their first product, not because it wasn’t working, but because it became clear to Reis that customers were really interested in something else. “Visions are not created, they are discovered,” he told the bleary eyed teams at General Assembly putting the finishing touches on their second or third pivot.
The last Lean Startup Machine held in New York was open to all comers and cost just $50 to enter. This time around participants had to apply and pony up $250 for a chance to spend the weekend immersing themselves in the LSM philosophy. Hyper-connector Trevor Owens helped to organize the local chapter of LSM and guide teams over the 48 hour marathon build.
“For me it’s about getting outside the bubble,” said Daniel Loreto, a former senior engineer at Google, who worked on search and data extraction. “A lot of what happens at Google is about grinding out the technology to make it a little better. You can see a product like Google Wave would have benefited a lot from more user engagement and feedback before it launched.”
There is an evangelical tone to the reaction from some participants, especially the younger aspirants.“I have no reservations in declaring that this weekend was a life changing event,” said Ben Solari, a junior at UConn majoring in finance. He’s decided to stop focusing on building a career on Wall Street, after some customer development exercises taught he wasn’t alone in feeling like finance was a manipulative art. “I can address that issue as soon as possible by “pivoting” and working my ass off to do what I love and that is to be involved in a startup of some kind.”
For the more experienced attendees, there was some sadness in putting a good idea out to pasture. “We had to take old yeller out back and shoot him, twice,” said Craig Lipka. Their original concept, Project Jesus, was a online platform for startup founders to practice their public speaking. When that flopped, they decided to pitch it to executives, but that market was taken. So in the final eight hours the team shifted gears and produced Lardspotting, which lets users take pictures of their meals and crowd source the calorie count. Gives a whole new meaning to Lean Startup Machine.
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