Run Lean

The  Lean Startup hit bookshelves in 2011. Author Eric Ries productively focused many entrepreneurs, executives and investors on a singular problem—designing the right solution for the right user in the right context to address the right problem. The method, adapted from Toyota’s Lean Manufacturing, simply proposes the age-old insight: employ user-centered design methods to design better products and better business.

Designers will find it instructive to watch a coder discover design. Or rather, invent his own version with different labels. You may be reminded of an earlier iteration, when Clayton Christensen’s “Jobs to be Done” presented a business academic’s attempt to reinvent design theory without recognizing the long history and proven methods of the field of design. Both offer valuable additions to the genre. Ries and Christensen translate real experiences and tangible problems for their respective audiences, with specific insights for the digital entrepreneur and the MBA student respectively.

lean startup book cycle

Eric Ries witnessed the pain of failed design first-hand. From his catbird seat in the chief coder’s chair, he led production for his startup’s core offering. His team scrambled to assemble an elegant solution that, in the end, failed to solve the user problem. They worked long hard hours to proudly produce an expensive sweat-and-tear-soaked dud. Heartbreak at least offers important lessons.

Ries came full-circle back to the age-old lessons of design, or even further to the ancient wisdom of Hippocrates.

Start With Your Customer!

Think about the last time you visited a physician with an unknown pain or illness. Every first-year medical student understands the vital sequence you experienced (unless you chose to consult Michael Jackson’s doctor. Or Donald Trump’s). Diagnose pain. Test for cause. Check again. Then test your prescription before you build an entire regimen of treatment.

Your doctor doesn’t just say “take two aspirin”. It’s followed by “…and call me in the morning.”

Designing without thorough understanding of your user is like prescribing medication without diagnosing the patient. It’s the height of arrogance (though we all have this natural instinct). Ries and his team fell prey to designing to a complex and untested set of assumptions. Or worse, they were designing for themselves.

Startup entrepreneurs face countless challenges to “thread the needle”—to hit the sweet spot to bring the right product to the right market at the right time. This is not about getting lucky. Luck is the worst backstop in the designer’s arsenal.

Design is Hard. Innovation is Harder.

Designing a great product demands plenty of challenges. Designing a first-ever product is considerably harder with higher risk. Doing all that while also designing and building a business around it—a startup company—multiplies the risk and reward geometrically.

Startup Design = Organization Design

The Lean Startup compounds (and to some degree confounds) the lessons of product design with the challenge of building a lean company. Ries offers an alternate language to describe the iterative method of empathy and prototyping well-known to all design students.

Distinguish your product design from your business design. Startups present a much, much harder challenge.

Thread the Needle

To bring your new product to market in the right way at the right moment, while building an enterprise of talented people who can work together effectively (synthetically as a team, cost-effectively as a business) is like flying through a narrow and fleeting intersection, mostly invisible, while racing against competitors, the clock and dwindling cashflow.




Reis describes these three stages as Vision, Steer and Accelerate. These are the lessons of Startup Design, not to be confused with product design.

As a product designer, these are the more trenchant lessons. As a business designer, you should heed Ries’s experience, though personally I think you’ll get more from Horowitz’s Hard Thing or Dan Collins Good to Great and Great by Choice.

Ries knows his stuff; an articulate commentator on these challenges. He earned his insights the hard way and speaks compellingly on those lessons. You’ll find him prolifically represented on youtube.

His book, though commendable, fails to clearly distinguish the exercise of designing product from designing the company. The issues and audiences, methods and metrics differ vastly. (I know; I suffered the opposite problem and feel it to this day with deep regret, designing a great startup company with an insufficiently differentiated product.)


Ries offers lessons in tactical wisdom. As you study his thoughts, remember to ask yourself which problem you hope to solve: great product, or great startup. Parse his lessons accordingly.

Make Better.

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