The Lean Startup of Me


Image: The Lean Startup Canvas from

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. 

Can a large organisation be responsive?

Steve Blank, a lean start-up expert has elegantly described the differences between start-ups and traditional large organisations.  

“the 21st century definition of a startup: A startup is a temporary organization designed to search for a repeatable and scalable business model…
The corollary for a large company is: A company is a permanent organization designed to execute a repeatable and scalable business model.”

These definitions are useful and highly accurate. Most large organisations have chosen to focus on efficiency in execution of a business model as the rationale behind their efforts.

However, it is important to note that a corollary may follow but does not always preclude other logical alternatives. Breaking apart Blank’s structure there are a number of different elements in play:

  • the duration of the organisation: temporary vs permanent
  • the process of the organisation: search vs execution of a repeatable and scalable business model
  • an implicit difference between effectiveness of a search and efficiency of execution

Importantly there are other options that could be chosen for these spots in Blank’s definition:

  • Rather than looking at duration we could look at the ability of the organisation to change – adaptability with a scale from the highly adaptable startup to the fixed processes and systems of efficiency oriented large scale organisations.
  • Rather than focusing on process efficiency we could focus on effectiveness of process at achieving purpose – no scalable business models is permanently enduring; they must be subject to eternal change to be more effective and to better achieve the outcomes for which people came together.

From this we can see that there is at least one more logical model to chose. Let’s define a responsive organisation thus:

“a responsive organisation: is an adaptive organisation designed to search for more effective ways to execute a repeatable and scalable business model.” 

Blank is right that you can’t behave like a start-up if you are trying to be efficient in execution and startups should not be judged by efficiency of execution. However there are more than two models for an organisation to choose. Large organisations can be responsive but they need to choose to adapt and be more effective.

Joining Sidekicker

I recently joined Sidekicker as an advisor, spending a little of my time helping this exciting startup grow their business. Sidekicker’s vision is to make it simple for businesses to be connected to local, talented individuals for short term jobs or projects. They supply the flexible and on-demand talent to help businesses grow.

Here’s a walk through why I am keen to spend time with Sidekicker:

Future of Work

I passionately believe we are reaching a turning point in the future of work. People are increasingly interested in new agile and flexible models of work, both businesses and individuals. Many people are more connected to their work than they are the organisation that offers a job.

Sidekicker is an important experiment in how Sidekicks can build portfolio careers that enable them to earn a living working on the projects that they choose and also pursue other projects.

Helping with Agility of Growing Businesses

The local businesses that I meet all struggle with workload. Work comes in peaks and troughs. The volatile nature of business confidence and market changes makes this more dramatic. Opportunities and crises arise at short notice. For safety’s sake growing businesses often hire behind the growth curve.

Adding another person as a full time hire is often a big deal. Most temporary agencies are structured for larger engagements. A casual workforce needs to be maintained. Having an easy ability to bring in talented people for a job or a task offers real solution to an urgent needs. Usually, these opportunities enable a business to realise a growth opportunity or solve a longstanding issue that current people don’t have the time or bandwith to solve.

Opportunities abound

The demand for the better streamlined digital service Sidekicker offers is already evident. A great pool of talented Sidekicks has been built. Local businesses are already taking up the service and seeing the value of jobs done. That’s a great platform on which to build Sidekicker, experimenting with new ways to streamline the processes and build value for all concerned.

Talent matters

Businesses run on talent. Talent is what enables a business to advance, close its opportunities and pivot when required. I’m impressed with the Sidekicks and the quality and diversity of the skills in the team at Sidekicker. You only have to see some of the recent media on Sidekicker to get a sense of the nous & hustle of the co-founders, Jacqui Bull & Tom Amos.

Making a difference

I am confident I can help make a difference for the talented Sidekicker team by sharing my experience in business and my networks. We have already had some really valuable conversations to accelerate growth.
In my experience, a frenetically busy & focused startup team needs the ability to call on others to provide perspective, help shape their thinking or to suggest other options. Of course, it doesn’t hurt that I learn a little from each of those conversations and some of these lessons will find the way to this blog.

Be human

Last week I attended the excellent Products are Hard conference. As excited as I was that a San Francisco event had chosen to run their first event in Melbourne, the day exceeded my expectations with the quality of the local and international speakers and the enthusiastic participation of the audience. After some reflection, here are lessons that I took away from the day:

Success is human: This was the biggest lesson of the day. We often lose the human factors in success in our focus on process, methodology, tools, organisation and technology. Again and again in the day, it was clear human factors are more important to product and startup success. Life is not as easy as a formula, because every team and group of customers differ. If products are hard, it is because people are unpredictable to satisfy, coordinate and influence.

Start with the team: Great products come from great teams. The first idea will be adapted by experimentation, feedback, competition and pivots. Only, a great team will embrace the chaos, have the agility and collaboration required.

CX+Engineering+Product: A great team has the best diverse skills that they can assemble- customer insight and design skills, technical skills to deliver and a broad business skill set to distribute and manage operations for the product. The team should be small (ideally start and stay at teams of 3), have great transparent open communication and not let their role define their contribution or structure of their collaboration.

Assign a customer problem: The best path to success is clarity and engagement. Give the team the autonomy to tackle a whole customer problem. Define value as widely as possible and allow your teams to focus on the whole of the customer problem

Ship, test and learn: Success can’t be predicted. Nobody has a perfect decision making track record. Great products are an evolution from test and learn experiments. You need to embrace this chaos and not cling to fixed ideas. Keep the tests small but gain the advantage of testing often with real customers. Real meaningful data from shipping to customers can focus decisions.

Don’t play safe: Amazing no-fail ideas fail. Tests fail. Teams fail. Businesses fail. The issue is not whether you fail; it is what you learn and how you do differently next time. Playing safe is slow. Protecting against failure builds overhead which slows delivery. The pace of attempts should be high.

Focus on value: Ideas don’t matter. Technology, tools & methodology don’t matter. Not all of the data matters. The best teams focus on results by focusing on the customer actions that create value. That means only doing things that drive value and not being confused by expectations or past patterns of success.

Most of all: If you have the passion of purpose and can share it with others, you don’t need to settle for a compromise existence or other proxies. It won’t become easy, but you will learn much and it will be fulfilling.