The Lean Startup of Me

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Image: The Lean Startup Canvas from https://leanstack.com.

Every career choice is a hypothesis. Test yourself on your proposition and be prepared to pivot and adapt.

Starting Myself

When I left my corporate role, my initial plans were a little vague. I knew I wanted better balance in my life. I knew I wanted to have a bigger impact on my personal purpose and I was prepared to make changes. I was deliberately taking time off to reflect but I wasn’t yet sure of whether I wanted another job or to start a business.

Because I had been involved in a startup, I had followed the development of Lean Startup thinking with keen interest. I also had ongoing conversations, with founders using the approach. As I pondered what to do with my career, I realised I had a chance to do the lean startup of me.

Expand Your Hypotheses

I had a few ideas of what I wanted to be involved in as I searched for new work and roles. These were my initial hypotheses. Some of these have proved to be valuable. Many were ruled out quickly because nobody else was interested in my offer or because the circumstances didn’t deliver the returns or impact on purpose that I wanted.

A simple example was that I initially thought I had an opportunity to work with startups or medium sized businesses. Firstly, these proved to be two completely different hypotheses with little overlap. In both cases, I found when there was money to pay mostly they didn’t want advice, they wanted outsourced management, access to my networks or some other proposition.

Also, I quickly discovered my initial hypotheses were too narrow and limited.  People also started to offer me opportunities to do things that I had never considered before. Some of those opportunities, like the chance to join Change Agents Worldwide, to go to Do Lectures Australia, or the opportunity to work on development of a corporate university helped me expand my sense of what was possible.   

Working through the hypotheses and pushing myself to consider the widest possible impact on purpose changed the work I do and the organisations that I chose to target dramatically. Along the journey I stopped looking for a job and became a consultant actively working in the future of work, customer experience and leadership (and starting up the business of me).

Relentlessly Test Hypotheses

You don’t know until you do. The only way to determine whether a proposition you have offers value is if someone is prepared to pay you enough and consistently enough to do it. There’s two points there: 

  • You need to do stuff
  • People need to pay you consistently

When you are starting yourself up, there is a phase of networking and building profile. The danger is that networking and profile can be all consuming. Coffee and conferences can become your job. Growing networks can become your only return. 

Get in and do things. Think like a startup and push yourself to do work every day. If you need to create a project to work on it, then do so. I found the best sales tool was when I was suddenly unavailable due to the volume of work.  People started calling with work because I didn’t have time for coffee.

It surprised me how many people expected me to do work without being paid for it. I have done a few of those activities, not for the much offered ‘exposure’ but to prove to myself & others the value I can bring in an activity. However, once that is proved once it is time to make money or move on. Continued offers to work for free is a failed test of a hypothesis. Some times people will only pay when you’ve said no several times first. 

Be Lean

Invest small and widely. There will be lots of temptations to put all your eggs in one basket, but remember each opportunity is a hypothesis to be tested. You don’t want to over invest in a proposition that won’t continue. I have turned down investment opportunities, jobs and partnership opportunities for this reason. I ended up deciding the best current scale for my business is me supported by amazing networks of the best talent from around the world, Change Agents Worldwide.

When someone asks me to go all in, I work with them to start with a small test instead. That way we both get to work out what is working and how much we want to invest together.

Remember time is the commodity that you have in greatest scarcity. Allocate your time to investments in your future with care. When people are wasting your time or don’t value it, allocate your time elsewhere.  

Build Platforms

The power of a platform, channels or a consistent community is the ability to run many tests at once. Startups use platforms to learn faster. You can do the same.

Your network is a platform. Strengthen it (remembering your network is not your job). Your thought leadership activities are another platform (remembering it rarely pays the bills). Work with people who have platforms to run better and faster tests on your propositions.

International Working Out Loud week was born out of some casual conversations and unmet needs. It was a fun experiment. As we work to develop the idea further, it offers a platform for additional experiments in the potential of working out loud as a proposition to help others.

Pivot or Persevere

Every day as you test your hypotheses you are going to adapt what you do. You will make small and large pivots. When things work you will persevere and work to scale them like mad. 

Recognise also that somethings that work don’t scale. For example, I have put on hold plans to work with a range of startups in favour of working on a few businesses like Sidekicker where we share a view of what it will take to realise a big potential.

I don’t see my pivots as failures. They are just opportunities to wait for better timing, a better understanding of a client segment or a better proposition. I know I will do work with more organisations in healthcare or more medium sized businesses. It is just a matter of finding the right proposition. While I wait I work still, building capabilities that will help in that eventual proposition.

Be Uniquely You

When I started my work, I wanted to be like all the other successful people. Over time, I realised my unfair advantage was being me.

My skills and experiences are relatively unique at least in the markets that I am working in. That is a very good thing. Trying to make myself more like others dilutes my unique value.

Some people won’t like your uniqueness. You also won’t enjoy working for them. If being you is not good enough for some, that is a failed test and it is time to move on and find someone who wants you for you.

The Lean Startup of You

You don’t need to quit your job, start a business or to become an independent consultant to apply lean startup thinking to your career.  Start asking yourself how you create the most value, how you can do more of that and experiment to make it possible.  You might find it requires a change of job over time but a lot can be accomplished right where you are now.

The power of a lean startup mindset is accelerated learning.  Make sure you are putting what you learn into new actions. 

Working Out Loud is the Lean Start-up of Knowledge

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Working out loud enables early validation and engagement of others in ideas. By putting ideas to the test early when formed only to a minimum viable level wasted effort is avoided and the ideas move to fruition quicker. In this way working out loud reflects the value creation approaches of lean start-up.

Working out loud on Minimum Viable Ideas

One of the exercises in Harold Jarche’s PKM in 40 days program is around Narration of your work. I am a huge fan of working out loud and initially I wasn’t sure that I had much to learn. However, I took a risk and learned something new.

My experiment was to apply some lean start-up thinking to a concept that I am developing and put it out in a minimum viable form and seek feedback on how to develop that idea further in a relevant community. In this case, the idea was represented in minimum viable form as a single diagram and a story of where I was headed. Minimum viability in this case is just enough information to convey the information and test the key hypotheses that I wished to explore. 

We are used to fully thinking things through before sharing them. I am especially cautious around this. We are told that sharing something incomplete might be dangerous as people might form an incorrect impression or might copy the idea. I’d hate to miss an opportunity around something that seems important to my work. We are not use to putting minimum viable ideas forward for debate. 

However, perfecting ideas beyond that point in the quiet of our own workplace often means that when they are delivered they fall flat, miss the mark or need further work. How often have you worked long and hard on an idea that you believe in to have the “is that all?” response? I know it too well.

Working out loud brings Validation

My experience of narration was really powerful validation.  The diagram has drawn a great deal of support and feedback.  People have encouraged me to flesh out the tools behind the work.  They have suggested next steps, connections and applications that I can leverage further.  I have even had volunteers offer to work with me and someone offering to coach me in the lean start-up of this concept.

Working out loud clarifies Hypotheses

The other aspect of this experience was that working out loud enabled me to better understand the hypotheses that were a part of the work that I was doing. Had I gone on alone, I would have just buried these assumptions in the work.

Framing up my engagement of others as a test of the ideas pushed me to understand what were the key hypotheses that I needed others to confirm. Testing the assumptions reduces the risk of investing more time in the idea.

Working out loud reinforces Learning (Permanently Beta)

Because I and others know the idea is in development, improvement is part and parcel of sharing the work out loud. I don’t feel obliged to defend the work as I have less invested. I can be more dispassionate about the feedback of others as to how to improve the work. I learn more faster.

Work out loud to create value

Working out Loud with a Lean Start-up mindset can deliver powerful value in the creation and sharing of knowledge. As knowledge work becomes more important in the future of work, we need to be more effective and faster in our creation and sharing of knowledge. Practices like working out loud will drive real value the productivity, effectiveness and engagement of knowledge workers.

Scaling enterprise sales

Selling to enterprise clients is the new black. However, enterprise sales rarely comes easily.  The challenges highlight where businesses need to innovate to engage enterprise customers.  

With the successes of organisations like Workday, Amazon Web Services, Yammer, Salesforce.com and others in selling to enterprises, many entrepreneurs are looking to generate revenue for their start-up by selling to enterprises.  Over recent years I have spoken to many people, keen to sell services to large organisations.  Like all good entrepreneurs they are keen to move fast and scale their businesses.  However, few have invested time and effort in how they will scale their distribution to enterprises.

David Sacks CEO and co-founder of Yammer gave a recent talk to Khosla Ventures that highlighted the challenges of enterprise sales:

  • Enterprise sales aren’t viral.  You might be able to win enterprise users with a click, but money takes sales effort.
  • You need a sales team to get the sale and you can waste a lot of time and money with a poor performing sales team.
  • You need to know your buyer or you can waste a lot of time navigating organisations and dealing with many parties
  • You need to shape your buyer’s perceptions
  • The enterprise rarely has one mind and you may find conflicting agendas, decision rights, etc.  It is not uncommon to have technical, finance, legal and other gatekeepers who need to be satisified before a check is cut by the buyer.

Sacks called for start-ups to put as much effort into innovating distribution as they do their product. Any business to business sales business should do the same.

These lesson reflect what any business to business organisation has known for years.  Enterprise sales is a demanding body contact sport where the rules and the opposing players keep changing.  So how do you do it better than the average depends on how your design your innovative sales model to leverage these insights:

  • Be ready to be right first time.  Enterprise buyers are time poor. If you don’t have your questions or your pitch clear, then don’t expect them to wait for you to sort it out.  These are first impression sales so you want to create and maintain a positive momentum from the get-go.  Plenty of great ideas died at the doorstep because the sales person wasn’t ready to sell.  Make sure your team is capable of delivering the message.  Spray and pray can do more damage to your reputation.  In many cases, there are few buyers of your solution and unlike consumers they rarely forgive.  In a social era, enterprise buyers increasingly know each other and collaborate on insights into vendors.
  • Collaboration is better than going alone.  Leverage internal change agents and partners who can help you understand the organisation, the agendas and find the buyer. Invest time in research before you act. There is enormous power in having someone inside the organisation who can work the system for you and supply you with the right information to go forward. Too many perfect fits fail because meetings don’t get followed up.  Just like internal change agents, partners who have already done the leg work on that or similar organisations are ways to accelerate your efforts.
  • Understand the buyer’s needs.  What your product does is irrelevant.  How much the users love it is irrelevant.  Your feature differences to competitors are irrelevant.  Your analyst ratings are irrelevant.  Don’t confuse the tool with the result.  What matters most to corporate customers is the problem that they are trying to solve today. Make sure your pitch is meeting their strategic needs.
  • Help the organisation understand value by solving their need exceptionally well.  The decision criteria in organisations can be as bewildering as the choice of solutions that the organisation faces.  One thing is clear to every company the amount of money that they are being asked to put out the door.  The better job you do demonstrating real value is a multiple of that specific cost, the easier your sales job is.  We are not talking promises or soft benefits.  We are talking demonstration of real hard value.  If it can’t be demonstrated by a pilot or experiment in the organisation then you will need to invest in case studies with role model global organisations that everyone else wants to copy.
  • Manage a pipeline of sales opportunities:  Enterprise sales take time.  Providing continuity of management over time is important to maximise your chances and minimise waste.  Managing a pipeline enables you to assess continuously where each deal is at, assess prospects of success, kill bad deals quickly and shepherd customers through from suspect to prospect to opportunity to purchase decision to order and then through to implementation.  
  • Plan for and design for servicing of the account to realise value. Winning a licence fee or a service fee is well and good. However, unlike consumers you can rarely leave a enterprise client to its own devices to make the value from your product.  The multiple agendas mean that there will be changes, new questions and always new agendas. If you want to retain and grow their business given all you invested in a sale, treat sales and service as a continuum.  You will need to plan to support your customers to grow the use of your product and leverage that to grow your revenues.

As Sacks argues, you need to innovate in your distribution model. Enterprise sales don’t just happen. If you want to scale, enterprise sales you will need some new magic. My advice is to focus your distribution model innovation on the key issues because a better solution to these issues combining service design and sales will deliver big advantages down the track.