Like many entrepreneurs, I was strongly impacted by reading Eric Ries’s seminal book The Lean Start Up. As I formulated a vision for my business, Given.co, and set about the entrepreneurial process of building the company, the Lean Start Up approach was front of mind. This is my story about following the ‘Lean’ methodology.
Ten years ago, I had just landed the job of my dreams working as a researcher for an environmental consultancy in Sydney, Australia. I commuted into work enjoying the intense sun and sat down in my office overlooking the iconic Sydney Harbour feeling smug. However, within months the small firm was on the verge of collapse due to mismanagement and I was back to square one without a job.
The only thing I was left with was some work I had done on biodegradable plastics. Bioplastics were new to me and seemed to have enormous possibilities. This was the basis for what became London Bio Packaging (LBP), a biodegradable packaging company I founded. LBP grew to employ 40 people with a £9m pound turnover.
The journey from Sydney Harbour with an idea to London with a business was not intentionally done according to the Lean model. Rather we believed in the idea, wrote a plan, invested a little capital to get the company going, started small and grew steadily. In retrospect, the only Lean method, which was common sense, was starting small and then scaling as we saw customers loved what we were doing.
As the company got bigger it would have helped us to use the Lean philosophy more when developing new products. But we tended to follow our instinct. This often meant we developed new packaging products, launched them and hoped our customers would like them and buy them. Sometimes they did, other times they flopped wasting time and money.
Fast forward a few years and I sold London Bio Packaging to Bunzl Plc, a FTSE 100 company and the largest packaging distributor in the world. I was free to spend time with my family, travel around Scotland in a campervan and the USA in a mustang before thinking about what to do next.
I knew I wanted to start another company that would follow my passion for purpose-driven businesses (those that aim to impact the world for the better as well as making a profit). I also knew that I wanted to use technology in some way to encourage businesses to be more purposeful.
But how to do this was the question. The Lean Start Up gave me a framework to move forward. I formulated a theory for the business then set about speaking to customers and building a Minimum Viable Product (MVP). I would then follow the feedback and either keep building the MVP or pivot. I was not using all the details in the Lean Start Up book, but following a customer centric approach that I believe is the main thrust of Eric Ries’s thinking.
MVPs and pivoting a startup
This took me on a journey through multiple products and business models. My initial plan was a digital training platform akin to Skillshare or Lynda.com, giving entrepreneurs and startups training on business and how to put purpose at the heart of a venture. The main channel for customer feedback was one-on-one interviews with SMEs. I went and interviewed the owner of a gym, the manager of a food business and the founder of a technology business, to name a few.
Feedback suggested the product needed to be more practical, which led to something akin to a digital accelerator: part online training, part practical introduction to people (like mentors and co-founders) and services (like CRM software) and funding (like Angel investors). I built an MVP, but found it was too complex to execute well on a shoestring. So I decided to focus in on developing one function; the introduction to a mentor service.
We then went back to customers to get feedback before building a new mentor introduction MVP. We also put together a presentation and spoke to investors. It was these investors meetings that provided the next key feedback: the focus was now too niche to build a business that could scale. So, again we pivoted, this time towards comparing a range of services that startups and SMEs would need for their business (which was part of the original digital accelerator product). This pivot meant setting about building our current MVP at www.Given.co.
Given.co is a business services comparison site. We’ve started with comparing business loans. We compare intangible data on the lenders, not just price, so customers know the type of company they are getting into bed with. Providing holistic, intangible and ethical data is how we are fulfilling our original vision to help companies be more purposeful. This pivot meant going back to new product-build phase (although we did not go back to square one completely and were able to build on some of our prior approaches). It also meant re-branding the company to something more suitable and the Given brand was born.
As I write, we are still in early stages and examining MVP feedback. The main mechanisms we have for Given.co are:
- We call and email the customers using Given.co
- We interview SME contacts, recording both what the interviewee does on the screen using the website and also what they say to us
- We get feedback as we market the product and see the response of potential customers
Building a technology product can be a leap into the unknown, so perhaps the most helpful thing from the Lean Start Up has been a framework to reassure us that learning and pivoting are part of the entrepreneurial process. And that sticking with the current approach and gritting it out is not always the way forward. Steve Jobs said “you can't connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backwards” - I really hope in due course I will be able to look back and connect the dots.