Lessons from The Lean Startup: The Build-Measure-Learn Loop

Eric Ries author of The Lean Startup
(In a series of posts I’m going to outline the core concepts from Eric Ries’ “The Lean Startup.”)
Eric Ries’s book, The Lean Startup, has been highly anticipated. Those who have followed his blog and talks have been eager to see these ideas expanded and assembled in one place. When my pre-ordered copy arrived in the mail, it cut right to the top of my reading list. Now, more than ever, when I hear an entrepreneur outline his or her startup strategy, I ask questions to see if they’re using Lean practices. If not, I give them an earful. If startups internalize this dramatic approach, we will see much higher success rates.

In this series of posts I’m going to pull out the key concepts from the book. This is not meant to be a proper review or a substitute for reading it. It’ll be more of a cliff’s notes. This way I’ll have something to send people when the topic of Lean Startup comes up at a party and I don’t want to seem as geeky as I actually am (at least in the moment). So here goes…

The Build-Measure-Learn Loop

At the core of the scientific process of the Lean Startup is the Build-Measure-Learn loop.
This is the concept you’ll probably refer to the most, at least on a day-to-day level. Lean Startup says that your leap-of-faith hypothesis, the nidus of your idea, that concept you believe in, has to be validated as soon as possible. While Steve Blank says “get out of the building,” Lean Startup says “do an experiment.” You do this by building an instrument of measurement (a minimum viable product), measuring in concrete terms how it fares, and deriving actionable learning from the results.

Ries is quick to point out, however, that you’re really going to be planning this experiment in reverse. He says: “we figure out what we need to learn and then work backwards to see what product will work as an experiment to get that learning.”

In other words:
What do I want to learn?
How do I plan to measure it?
What do I need to build to conduct that experiment?

My mom is a research psychologist and I grew up talking with her about how studies and experiments are engineered. There are a lot of similarities here.

Speed through the loop.

Ries emphasizes that this is an ongoing process and product development needs to be set up to minimize the time it takes to go through each turn of the wheel. The result is that product decisions are made with the expectation that there will be specific, quantifiable metrics that result from each one. If you can’t measure the result, why do it?

Achieving failure.

Clear goals have to be set throughout. This is how you’ll know if you’re succeeding or not. Achieving failure means successfully reaching a worthless goal. As Ries says, if your goal is just to “see what happens,” then you will certainly succeed. Unfortunately, “what happens” might not do you any good or get you closer to product/market fit.

Approaching your startup through the lens of build-measure-learn means getting it out there as quickly as possible. Don’t build in a black box, don’t engineer something huge in stealth mode. As Ries defines it, a startup is “a human institution designed to create a new product or service under conditions of extreme uncertainty.” Each time you test your crazy assumptions, you are mitigating some of that uncertainty.

A startup is like a laboratory, you are the scientist exploring new territory, new reactions, new interactions. You have no results if you do no experiments. No matter what, it will be a long road before you find product/market fit, so keep checking your compass.

[There will be more posts in this series, briefly outlining The Pivot, Minimum Viable Product, and other core concepts from Eric Ries’ “The Lean Startup.”]

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