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Game-Changing Lessons From Lean Start-Up Founder Steve Blank

Steve Blank is one of the founders of the lean start-up movement. In this exclusive interview he unpacks the fundamental mistakes start-up founders make.

GG van Rooyen

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Steve Blank is one of the progenitors of the lean start-up movement. Many of the principles that now form the foundation of the lean methodology were first introduced by him.

His books The Startup Owner’s Manual and The Four Steps to the Epiphany have become indispensable fonts of information for those looking to create a lean start-up. He sat down for an exclusive interview with Entrepreneur SA for this article.

One of your most famous sayings is: Start-ups are not smaller versions of large companies. What do you mean by this?

This seems so intuitive, that I was surprised that in a hundred years, no one ever explicitly articulated this. Existing companies execute known business models.

Related: The Start-Up Crash Diet

That’s a fancy way of saying existing companies know who their customers are, they’re aware of their competitors, they have distribution channels and they know what features any offering should have.

They know all this because it has been figured out through trial and error. So the core thing they need to do is to execute the existing model.

What people never understood is that this is not what start-ups do. For a long time, start-ups were operating like existing companies. The problem was, they were just guessing. They shouldn’t have been executing, they should have been searching for a business model.

This distinction between search and execution had never been articulated. And even if it had been articulated, there were no tools or strategies to do anything with that information. That is where the lean start-up movement comes in. It teaches start-ups how to search for a business model.

You’ve called a start-up a series of untested hypotheses. Why is a business plan unsuited to this situation?

A business plan makes all the sense in the world within a large corporation, when you’re executing a plan. The core of a business plan is a five-year model, which is fine when you’re in an existing company.

That document simply doesn’t work in a start-up, because it doesn’t survive first contact with customers. There is a series of unknowns, so, for a start-up, a business plan is nothing more than creative writing.

You call a start-up a temporary organisation. Why is it ‘temporary’?

A start-up is a fun place to be. You get to bring your dog, you get free food; it’s great. Emotionally, it’s a very satisfying place. But the goal is not to be a start-up — the goal is to become a large company.

Related: 6 Things I Wish Somebody Had Told Me When I Started My Small Business

You want to ultimately exit that comfortable place and scale. So, being a start-up should be a temporary situation.

You’re known for the mantra: ‘Get out of the building’. What exactly is the intention of this instruction? If you’re a founder, you believe you’re a visionary. You believe you understand the problem, and you have the solution, so all you need to do is build the product.

It’s great to be passionate and believe in what you’re doing, but the reality is, you have no facts. So I encourage founders to write down all their hypotheses with regards to who their customers are and what they want, and take that information out into the street.

I tell them to just find ten people who agree with them completely. Of course, rarely do they turn out to be right. About 99 out of 100 find that their hypotheses were incorrect.

So getting out of the building is really the core of the lean start-up movement. By getting out of the building and validating your hypotheses before you’ve spent too much time and resources on your idea, you compress the start-up process, which means creating a business becomes more efficient.

That said, it’s not about ‘failing’. There’s a myth surrounding lean start-up that it’s about ‘failing early’. It’s about learning. Failure implies you’ve completely blown it or simply gone home and quit.

Learning is something very different. We don’t say that scientists have failed because their theory has been disproved. It is a process of discovery. Lean start-up is similar, which is why I call it the scientific method for entrepreneurship.

Customer development is not selling. It’s about listening. Can you talk a little about this and briefly explain what the process is actually about?

If you’re selling, all you’re really doing is overlaying your view of the problem and solution onto potential customers. What you really want to do is to try and understand the problems of potential customers, and how you might solve them.

You need to find out if you have product/market fit. If you don’t find this out, you’re going to struggle a lot more when you do try to go out and sell.

Related: 10 Businesses You Can Start Part-Time

Now, a passionate founder might be able to sell a solution to customers, even if the product/market fit isn’t quite there, but they’ll never have success through traditional sales forces.

How have you seen entrepreneurs — even those who have embraced the process of customer development — go wrong? What are some of the pitfalls and hidden complexities of the process?

The lean start-up methodology consists of just three simple parts. First, articulate your hypotheses. Secondly, get out of the building and test your hypotheses. Lastly, start building minimum viable products (MVPs).

The hardest part of the process for founders is to just get down to business and actually do it. The process isn’t technically difficult, but it can be difficult on an emotional level, because you have to really put your idea to the test.

Also, the fact is, most start-ups fail. Even if you embrace the process, there’s still a high probability of failure. Even if you’re testing, you might find that your initial hypotheses were just wrong. Or you could discover that the idea isn’t scalable. But lean start-up makes entrepreneurship more efficient. Success is never guaranteed. There are simply too many variables involved.

Lean start-up principles have gained a lot of traction in the tech industry, but they can obviously be applied elsewhere.

In a country such as South Africa, where many lack the funds, education and access to technology needed to pursue other avenues, entrepreneurship is often seen as the only path to success.

Could you talk about the role you see lean start-up playing in South Africa?

Lean start-up actually has nothing to do with technology. It’s just a way of testing hypotheses about businesses. SMEs make up the bulk of entrepreneurs, both in the US and places such as South Africa.

They could be a dry cleaner or a database consultant, it really doesn’t matter. And this is a major category where the principles of lean start-up apply.

Related: 8 Musts to Start Your Business With Little to No Capital

You also need to look at the fact that tech-based start-ups are becoming increasingly affordable to launch. The price of starting one has dropped by a factor of a 1 000 over the last few decades. You no longer need $4 million to create a software start-up; you can do it on a laptop.

So lean start-up makes entrepreneurship accessible. You might need money at a later stage to scale, but you can get started without spending anything.

GG van Rooyen is the deputy editor for Entrepreneur Magazine South Africa. Follow him on Twitter.

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Start-up Advice

9 Quotes Every Entrepreneur Should Live By

Entrepreneurship takes great perseverance. Failure is common. In fact, it is expected. Over 75% of venture-backed start-ups fail.

Jennifer Keithson

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Entrepreneurship takes great perseverance. Failure is common. In fact, it is expected. Over 75% of venture-backed start-ups fail.

There are great learning opportunities that present themselves when we fail, but we must be willing to continue on and try again in order to learn anything at all.

It can be quite an arduous task to strive for your own means, to create your own vision and to rally the support within yourself that starting and running your own business requires.

Thankfully, we’re not in it alone. The wisdom of others can greatly ameliorate the process learning from our missteps and hiccups.

Taking from sagacious investors, inventors and thinkers can help you pick yourself up and make something meaningful out of your quest to become a successful entrepreneur.

By studying the thought processes of other entrepreneurs, we can become more enriched and more aware of how to approach the challenges we face in business and in life.

Here are 9 quotes every entrepreneur should live by:

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4 Tips To Secure Funding For Your Start-up

Here are 4 tips to help you secure funding for your start-up.

Ellie Martin

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Entrepreneurs seek to create new and ingenious ideas. Successful business owners are adept at looking at things in new and interesting ways. Their creativity fuels everything they do. Blazing through the initial steps of opening your own start-up can seem like a breeze if you’re endowed with this creative mojo, but you still may find yourself stuck at the very last step of starting your business.

Finding funding is undoubtedly the most difficult part of starting a business, and securing it requires the most creativity of all. Still, you can only stretch your creativity so far. Luckily, there are a few ways you can improve your chances of getting the money you need, regardless of whether you decide to attract angel investors or venture capitalists, or if you decide to apply for small business loans and grants.

Here are 4 tips to help you secure funding for your start-up:

1. Seek alternative funding opportunities

Before taking out a massive bank loan, consider these other funding options:

The vast majority of entrepreneurs either use their own funds to start their business or borrow money from friends and family. According to Forbes, 90% of start-ups fail, with 25% of them failing within their first year of operation. Due to this rate of failure, if it really is impossible for you to attract investors or secure venture capital, it is still best to avoid putting up your own money. Before draining your personal savings account, look into other options, such as crowdfunding. Research small business grants as well, as these can help cover gaps in funding.

2. Write a top-of-the-line business plan

If you’re interested in attracting investors, you’ll need a solid business plan to lure them in. Regardless of how wonderful your idea is, you must communicate that idea effectively and back up your claims with thorough research. A tightly organised business plan has the ability to assure investors of your industry know-how. It will give them a picture of how you plan to run your business and how accurately you can assess and address risks.

An entrepreneur who has a business plan with a punchy executive summary and a precise market analysis in hand is more likely to attract shrewd investors than one with only an inspired (and undeveloped) idea.

Related: Business Plan Format Guide

3. Network, network, network

The absolute best way to find investors is to network. Generally, you never want to cold call investors with your business ideas. You want to build relationships naturally with those in your industry and in your local community. Talk with other business leaders and go to local events. Offer to help other entrepreneurs and established business owners. They may return the favour by introducing you to reliable angel investors or they may steer you to a venture capital firm that helped launch their start-up. They may even offer to pitch in some of their own cash, if they really take to your idea.

Moreover, to make sure your networking efforts are effective, try to pinpoint the audience who would be most interested in your idea.

“Network selectively,” advises American author and entrepreneur, Steve Pavlina. “Take the time to build a profile of your ideal customers, and target your networking activities to reach them. Speak to those who are already predisposed to want what you offer.”

Building connections is a vital part of creating your business. You’ll need to build new ones and strengthen existing ones, not only to get the funding you need in the short term, but also to survive as a business in the long term. 

4. Be prepared to compromise

Asking for funding for your startup means experiencing failure time and time again. Most of the investors you’ll encounter will pass on your idea. You shouldn’t take this to heart. It’s all a part of the process. You may find that in order to get the funding you need you’ll have to give a small piece of the business over to an angel investor.

Your first crowdfunding effort may fall short, and you might have to incorporate feedback from backers and implement changes to the core of your idea to crowdfund successfully the next go around. Don’t be too rigid with your vision. If you’re willing to make some slight changes, you could have a much better shot at landing a deal.

Securing funding for your start-up is no easy task, but it is certainly not one you have to do alone. Enlist the help of friends, family, and business associates to help you craft a superb business plan, meet other entrepreneurs and investors, and make revisions to your idea. Use their input to help you find other ways to fund your start-up, such as small business grants and crowdfunding. Use these 4 tips for securing funding for your start-up, continue researching your target market and refining the way you approach investors. Without a shadow of a doubt, if you’re willing to seek the advice of others and compromise when necessary, you’ll find a way to fund your start-up.

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Start-up Advice

7 Strategies For Development As An Entrepreneur

What follows are seven simplified yet key strategies to develop yourself as an entrepreneur which are a hybrid of the authors’ practical experience and what he has learnt from very successful entrepreneurs, coaches, and consultants over several years.

Dirk Coetsee

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What lies behind you and what lies in front of you are tiny matters compared to what lies inside of you” – Ralph Waldo Emmerson


I am an entrepreneur, I surround myself with business minded people, I am privileged enough to be mentored by great leaders. I speak to visionaries, I write about them and learn from them.

What follows are seven simplified yet key strategies to develop yourself as an entrepreneur which are a hybrid of the authors’ practical experience and what he has learnt from very successful entrepreneurs, coaches, and consultants over several years.

A wise man once told me, “A higher level of consciousness does not mean you are better than anybody else it just means your mind sees from a higher vantage point and therefore you see clearer than most.”

Related: 8 Entrepreneurs Share Their Best Advice For When The Going Gets Tough

Those wise words lead us into explaining the first strategy:

1. Expand your consciousness

Simply put your consciousness is nothing but what you are aware of. By increasing what you are aware of through experience, study and honest self-reflection and by inquiring deeply into every aspect of your business as to increase the quality of your awareness you are enhancing the quality of your experience as an entrepreneur.

The second strategy often referred to as priming or framing is commonly used by successful entrepreneurs:

2. Priming or framing

Priming or framing is creating a positive mindset first thing in the morning which builds mental strength and the capacity to face the day with a very good attitude. This is, in essence, done by creating a morning ritual or habit for yourself which can take whatever form you prefer, as long as the outcome of it is a stronger and better you.

Some prefer meditation and/or prayer. Others repeat affirmations in the mirror. Some take the quiet early morning hours as the opportune time to read and learn more about their craft. Exercise is another way to start your day in a positive way. See this exercise of Priming or framing as an investment earning compound interest over a period of time.

nelson-mandelaGoogle whom any famous leader or entrepreneurs’ mentor was and a name or many will most certainly pop up. Nelson Mandela’s’ mentor was Oliver Tambo, Warren Buffet holds the Dale Carnegie certificate proudly displayed on his office wall in high regard, the famous investor Ray Dalio is still coached by Tony Robbins.

Related: (Podcast) Being An Entrepreneur Is Painful

That explains why you should:

3. Be willing to be mentored

When I facilitate training or a coaching session a common objection to being mentored is: “ Yes , but I do not know anyone that could mentor me.”

Honestly, what a lame excuse. Most servant leaders understand that it is part of their duty to society by leaving other servant leaders and/or entrepreneurs behind and are actually just waiting for your call.

It is really as simple as that, make your list of people that you look up to and want to be mentored by and call them, sincerely tell them how much you admire them and ask for guidance and mentorship. To those whom knock sincerely a door will be opened.

There is no such thing as a “self-made man” as everyone has received some help in some shape or form along their journey of entrepreneurship.

It is much harder to give up on something that you really have worked hard for over a long period of time as opposed to something that you have approached with half-hearted intent and little effort.

Therefore:

4. Hard work compounded by smart work

Hard work is not only something that you should do to stay ahead of the competition but a necessity in order to build resilience.

When you have lost sight of your purpose and vision as an entrepreneur decision making becomes drastically harder, your morale might be affected negatively, and your bank balance might suffer as a consequence.

So:

5. Ensure that you have constancy of purpose and a clear Vision

A very effective way of priming and/or framing is to remind yourself of your purpose and vision every morning. Make your Vision and purpose visual by displaying it clearly at your office. An entrepreneur cannot talk regularly nor enthusiastically enough about his or her vision and purpose. When you have not wholeheartedly bought into a vision and purpose how can you expect your team to?

ian-fuhrThose whom embody servant leadership of which the founder of Sorbet, Ian Fuhr is a prime example know that unconditional giving as a principle not only builds character but empowers others so that we can not only grow as businesses but as people.

Related: 10 Young Entrepreneurs Under 30 Share Their Start-Up Secrets

That is the reason for:

6. Giving without expecting anything in return

When you give of yourself unconditionally you have a true servant heart and your clients will not only be loyal, but they will love you in general. Giving unconditionally feels good and receiving unconditionally places no burden on you and creates a wonderful and vibrant work atmosphere, generally speaking.

When you only take a stand on your principles and values during good times yet allow them to crumble in the face of challenging times “your house is divided and cannot stand”.  Your principles and values must become ingrained practises and not just frivolous words.

Taking the aforementioned into account:

7. Have non-negotiable principles and values that you live by

As an example, if when respect is a non-negotiable value that you live by you will refrain from losing emotional control and will be willing to walk away from a conversation where someone dis-respects you.

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