With all the co-living spaces, one-day insta-education conferences, and blogs-to-replace-boardrooms out there espousing the mantra of growing lean, one could be forgiven for thinking that entrepreneurs jumped on the concept as soon as someone thought of it. As it turns out, not so much. In a long profile on Xconomy, Eric Ries, the face of the movement, who helped crystallize the concept along with Steve Blank, goes back to a time before lean and the genesis of what now seems like conventional wisdom.
First, of course, came the failure. Well, actually, in Mr. Ries case, it seems like two failures before an eventual success were the charm. All three also all happened to be social networks, of a kind.
It started with There, a company founded in 1998 to build 3D social virtual worlds.
Every company has to cross the chasm. We didn’t believe in the chasm. We thought we could just start with mainstream customers. There were actually no products in history that had the kind of response we were looking for. We used to say stuff like, “We want to be the next Microsoft, the next AOL.” And we were building the kinds of products a mature company might build. But if you go back and look at version 1 of AOL, every product goes through its adoption phases. There is no skipping a grade. It’s not like we debated this internally, we just had these beliefs—I call them “shadow beliefs” now—that we never spoke out loud.
Then there was the failure of Catalyst Recruiting, an employment site he founded where college students shared profiles with employers:
At the time, it was hard, it was really depressing. I was very upset. I felt very embarrassed. I had put all of my social and political capital into this thing. I had promised all kinds of people that this was going to be a big success. My roommates were employed there. We always joke—we had the first two-thirds of The Social Network experience. It was just like the movie. But the part where anything good happens, we never had that. But this was actually a good experience, because so much of what I work on with entrepreneurs now [is similar]. When you are on the brink of failure, it often looks just like the movies. You always expect that that customer will walk in magically, just in the nick of time, just like in the movies. But hey, you know what? They don’t.
Finally there was IMVU. This social networking service was an avatar-based, the “Build, Measure, Lean” ethos that defines lean start-ups began to take shape.
This was 2004. The agile [software] manifesto was three or four years old. Extreme programming had been around a few years. Unit testing was just starting to enter the mainstream understanding. Continuous integration was considered as advanced as one could reasonably get. Pair programming was still considered nuts. But I wanted to do stuff like continuous deployment, which didn’t even have a name at that time, because it was considered something that only a truly crazy person would do. I wanted us to take agile into the business.
But were the people buying what Mr. Ries was selling? Not initially:
I started writing a blog because I wanted to have something to show people. I would have these meetings where I’d get all dressed up, schlep over to some startup office, give them my shtick, and they’d want to argue with me and say it’ll never work, that’s stupid. I’m like “You called me!” Life’s too short. So I said, I’ll write this stuff down. And Steve [Blank] was encouraging me to blog and write. So I said all right, let’s try this out.
And the rest is start-up history.