Lean Startups: Learning Over Working Software

Hacker News LinkedIn Google+ Facebook Twitter by Abby Fichtner

The Agile Manifesto, which we created to uncover better ways of developing software, says,

We value Working Software over Documentation

And we do. We’d much rather have actual, real live, working software then reams of documentation proclaiming all the great stuff this as-of-yet-nonexistent software is going to do at some point in the future.

However, agile is also about learning and adapting. And 10 years after it’s creation, one of the manifesto’s creators — Kent Beck — is looking at what agile means for startups. In a startup, he says, there’s actually something we value more than working software.

We value Learning over Working Software

Agile helps us develop software as efficiently as possible – we can bang out quality code really fast with it. But what good does fast or quality do if you’re building a product that nobody wants?

Startups aren’t just small versions of large organizations. They’re about learning and discovery, not execution. All we’ve got are ideas (Kent calls these “almost impossibles”). And so we take these ideas and we think about how we might measure (or validate) whether people would be willing to pay for them. We might build software in order to validate our ideas, but working software is not our goal here. Our goal is learning.

“The unit of progress for entrepreneurs is learning, not execution.” – Eric Ries

The thing is, we can’t measure progress with working software if nobody is willing to pay for that software. In fact, in lean we have a word for that type of software: we call it muda or waste. So when you look at the Build-Measure-Learn loop, our goal is not about quality or even quantity of the software we build, our goal is speed – how fast can we get through this loop so that we can learn what we need to do next. We’re not building software that’s meant to scale or evolve into a final product, we’re simply building whatever we need to test our hypotheses. Sometimes that isn’t even software!

“Lean Startups are driven by a compelling vision, and are rigorous about testing each element of this vision against reality.” – Eric Ries

We want to focus on the fundamental feedback loop between when we have an idea and when we’ve learned whether or not our idea makes sense. Lean Startups are continuously surfacing hypotheses about what will be successful and then testing those hypotheses and assumptions against facts (e.g., if I use this pitch, will others join my startup or provide me with seed funding? If I make this service available, will customers pay actual money to sign up for it?).

“The ultimate goal of a lean startup is to identify where its vision intersects with what reality can accommodate.” – Eric Ries

Our focus starts then not with product development, but with customer development – finding that intersection of vision and reality that we call product/market fit. Once we’ve discovered this through many many quick (& quite possibly dirty!) iterations of Build-Measure-Learn, once we’re ready to start scaling up, then we can switch gears and begin using agile development to help us create quality, working software that can serve as a measure of our progress:

Lean Startup Model

Lean startups might, at first, feel contrary to agile where quality is king and we take great pride in our work as software craftsman. However, I love the idea behind them because once you’ve dug a little deeper, it’s hard to miss how well they mesh with the the lean principles behind agile. Which, of course, was by design.

Why do we need to move beyond agile for lean startups?

Agile helps us when our solution is unknown, but it doesn’t provide much guidance when our problem is unknown. Sure, you can pick some potential customers and ask them what they want, but with this approach, you’re likely to find what Henry Ford did: that if he’d asked his customers what they wanted, “they would have said a faster horse.”

A faster horse, alas, is not the path to the type of disruptive innovation that startups are seeking when working to build, say, the next facebook. These startups need a different approach. And I like Lean Startups because it shares many of the same principles that we appreciate in agile:

  • Eliminate Waste. Don’t waste a bunch of time building something that no one might want.
  • Create Knowledge. Lean startups are all about learning.
  • Short Iterations with a tight feedback loop to allow us to learn and adapt.
  • Fail Fast! If something isn’t going to work, figure it out as soon as possible so we can move on to something that will.

So, I have to agree with Kent Beck: while it is fun to build things, it’s more important to learn the right thing to build.


Learn more about Lean Startups:
» Eric Ries’s Startup Lessons Learned Presentation (video)
» The Promise of the Lean Startup by Eric Ries (article)
» Kent Beck’s To Agility, And Beyond, Startup Lessons Learned Conference (video)
» Lean Startups 101 by John Prendergast, Boston Lean Startup Meetup (slides)