The Lean Startup is a Mindset And NOT a Rulebook

By in Customer Development

People have written about how the Lean Startup sucks. You can read some of them here, here or here.

There’s even an interesting thread in the Lean Startup Circle LinkedIn group about it.

It seems like most of the disdain for the Lean Startup stems from the misconception that the Lean Startup is a step-by-step process. Some people see it almost as a repeatable algorithm for startup success.

It doesn’t help that some people summarize the Lean Startup concepts in one-line mantras, such as:

“Get out of the building.”

“Fail fast. Succeed faster”

“Build, measure and learn.”

“Pivot or persevere.”

“Invalidate my assumptions.”

Some people think that if you repeat these mantras to yourself enough times, everything will be OK.

Lean Startup mantras

But these concepts are taken out of context. People take it out of context because when faced in insurmountable uncertainty, people like to be told what to do. As Andreas Klinger wrote in this blog post:

Lean Startup tends to attract people who like to be told what they should do next.

The Lean Startup Rulebook Doesn’t Exist

People who criticize the Lean Startup miss the point. The Lean Startup is a not a commandment or rulebook that must be followed. It’s not a secret step-by-step startup cookbook that will bring clarity to confusion, as Kevin Dewalt said in his blog.

This shallow understanding of the Lean Startup misses the nuances and critical thought required to frame each experiment. It misses the thought process and conversation with your team required to ask the important questions to your customers. You’ve just replaced the hard task of strategy and critical thought with the lazy solution of following someone else’s process.

The Lean Startup Mindset

To me, the Lean Startup is a mindset. It’s about being a skeptic, asking the hard questions and trying to find answers to those questions as objectively as possible. It’s about being driven by curiosity, data and creativity to find a scalable business model. It’s about forgetting everything you’ve heard, clear the table and do factual study like a scientist would.

The Lean Startup is also a set of principles and guidelines. There’s no rule that your MVP has to look shitty or be cheap. There’s no rule that you have to “get out of the building” to test every single risky assumptions you have. There’s no rule that you have to validate ALL of your assumptions.

In fact, in the official Lean Startup website, there is no step-by-step rulebook of what the Lean Startup is. Instead, there’s a page that list out the Lean Startup principles.

The reason for this is that new ventures are complex. To find a repeatable formula to build disruptive business models is tremendously hard. As Ben Horowitz wrote in his book The Hard Things About Hard Things, the hard thing about entrepreneurship is that there are no easy answers.

Critical Thinking Over Framework

When I was doing my MBA at Ivey, I remember my first day in my business strategy class. “I’m going to change the way you see the world,” said my professor Ariff Kachra. He definitely did. Traditionally, strategy profs would just teach strategic frameworks and processes to their students. But Ariff knew that it was more important to ask the right questions, list out the success criteria and understand the trade-offs with each decision.

In the same way, don’t go through the motions of applying the Lean Startup “framework” or “process.” Be a skeptic, driven by curiosity, data and creative. Ask the right questions, knowing that there might be no easy answers.

Need help with asking the hard questions about your assumptions? Schedule time with me for free at

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Photo credit: bwrahbwrah jonguh via Flickr

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