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Entrepreneur-turned-educator Steve Blank is credited with launching the Lean Startup movement. He’s changed how startups are built; how entrepreneurship is taught; how science is commercialized, and how companies and the government innovate.

Steve is the author of The Four Steps to the Epiphany, The Startup Owner’s Manual -- and his May 2013 Harvard Business Review cover story defined the Lean Startup movement.

He teaches at Stanford, Columbia, Berkeley and NYU; and created the National Science Foundation Innovation Corps -- now the standard for science commercialization in the U.S. His  class at Stanford is revolutionizing how the U.S. defense and intelligence community can deploy innovation with speed and urgency, and its sister class, , is doing the same for foreign affairs challenges managed by the U.S. State Department.

Steve blogs at www.steveblank.com and Tweets at @sgblank.

You can follow him on Twitter: @sgbank.

He will be live on Nov 10 starting at 930 AM PT for one and a half hours during which he will answer as many questions as possible.

  • SE

    Sean Ellis

    7 months ago #

    Hi Steve, very excited that we finally have you on for an AMA on GrowthHackers. My question is around your emphasis on the importance of "getting out of the building." Is there a point in a startup where the founder/CEO should not be getting out of the building on a pretty regular basis to spend time with existing and potential customers? How much is too much? And finally, how would you handle it if other executives are less enthusiastic when the founder/CEO gets out of the building to spend time with prospects/customers?

    • SB

      Steve Blank

      7 months ago #

      Sean,
      When I ran marketing at a company called Supermac, everyone in marketing had to talk to two customers a week. (We had developed a standard script of some basic questions we were interested in and allowed our staff to follow the thread wherever it went.) Then the first thing we did at our staff meetings was to have everyone spend a minute summarizing what they learned about their customers. You’d be amazed how this affected the rest of the staff meeting – and the culture of marketing. Instead of only talking about specific projects we were focused on deeply understanding customer needs and building solutions to solve them.

      If you really want to see the benefit of customer discovery in a startup the founder/CEO should insist that the price to sit around the exec staff table is two customer calls a week.) And because everyone is “busy” Skype/Facetime with a customer counts as an interview.) I would venture to bet that after the first month of grumbling that level of conversation and the quality of decisions changes from faith-based to fact-based.

      steve

  • AL

    Arsene Lavaux

    7 months ago #

    Bonjour Steve,

    Back in 2013, I had the pleasure of meeting you in person in San Francisco (medical startups event at the time).

    In our conversation, I remember that for some reason we touched on the fact that coming from a dysfunctional family appeared to be an advantage to the successful entrepreneur.
    Even more than early age hands-on experiences, such as the one you shared with me from your experience at the Miami airport.

    Do you still feel that way in 2016?
    Could you elaborate why?

    Merci, hope to see you again soon in the Bay Area.

    :)

    • SB

      Steve Blank

      7 months ago #

      Arsene,

      Yes, I still feel the same way.
      It turned out that the two critical skills I had learned growing up in order to survive in constant disorder turned out to be what I needed to excel in chaos and uncertainty (heck, that was how I woke up every day). The first was pattern recognition (if you couldn’t see it coming before others, you were screwed) and second, the ability to shut down external distractions and relentlessly focus on a single problem (staying sane in my home life.) 

      While I might have refined these skills in a different environment, the sink-or-swim daily exigencies of being in the Vietnam War honed them to a fine point.

      These would be the identical skills I would need to succeed later in Silicon Valley. Though I would pay the cost of having learned them for the rest of my life.

      steve

      7 Share
  • EV

    Emily Veach

    7 months ago #

    Thanks for doing this AMA, Steve. Lots of Lean Startup fans around here!

    To what extent are you talking about artificial intelligence in your Stanford courses?

    Follow-up: What's your favorite startup product? I'd love to include it in my upcoming startup gift guide.

    • SB

      Steve Blank

      7 months ago #

      Emily,

      The short answer is we don’t.
      Artificial Intelligence (Machine Learning/Deep Learning/Neural Nets) are simply technologies to solve a problem or a need. (Unless you’re specifically building AI tools or a platform.)

      That said, quite a few of our teams in both my Stanford and Berkeley classes use Machine Learning to create innovate solutions to customer problems.

      steve

      • SB

        Steve Blank

        7 months ago #

        And to your follow-up question of "What's my favorite startup product?"

        1. Tesla Model S :-)
        2. DJI Phantom drone

  • LS

    Logan Stoneman

    7 months ago #

    Hey Steve - thanks for joining us today. I recently came across the Youtube video clip you shared of Steve Jobs: https://youtu.be/l4dCJJFuMsE?t=1m28s

    I would love to hear your thoughts on how you think a company, like Apple, might be able to shift away from their focus on "process" and move back towards a focus on "content". What are some initial steps an organization can take?

    As a follow-up, what alarms can content-focused companies set up to alert them when they've moved too far towards a process driven company?

    • SB

      Steve Blank

      7 months ago #

      Logan,

      Unfortunately it starts at the top. If you have a board pushing the CEO to manage for quarter to quarter or even year to year revenue growth, then you are going to have an execution CEO focused on executing the existing business model. Here innovation is viewed as a distraction and a sideshow.

      Short answer - the Apple _board_ needs to decide it shift away from their focus on "process" and move back towards a focus on "content". Depressingly there is no initial steps an organization can take. Apple has plenty of innovation.

      Once the board decides they want to innovate they can find an innovative CEO either from inside or outside the company.

      Just to be clear, Visionary CEOs are great at assuring world-class execution, _and_ they are product and business model centric and extremely customer focused.

      The best are agile and know how to pivot – make a substantive change to the business model while or before their market has shifted. The very best of them shape markets – they know how to create new markets by seeing opportunities before anyone else. They remain entrepreneurs.

      Between 2001 to 2008, Jobs reinvented Apple three times. Each transformation – from a new computer distribution channel – Apple Stores to disrupting the music business with iPod and iTunes in 2001; to the iPhone in 2007; and the App store in 2008 – drove revenues and profits to new heights

      These were not just product transitions, but radical business model transitions – new channels, new customers and new markets–and new emphasis on different parts of the organization (design became more important than the hardware itself and new executives Jony Ive and Scott Forrestal became more important than the current ones – John Rubenstein and Avie Tevanian).

      The first tell if a company has an Innovation/Visionary CEO is by watching who demos their products at announcement time. Visionary CEOs don’t need someone else to demo the company’s key products for them. They deeply understand products, and they have their own coherent and consistent vision of where the industry/business models and customers are today, and where they need to take the company.  They know who their customers are because they spend time talking to them.

      steve

      4 Share
  • SA

    Shaker A

    7 months ago #

    Hi Steve,

    Thanks for being here. I'm a huge fan of yours. Thank you for all that you've done.

    1) I'm in the early stages of starting a e-commerce store that sells higher end handmade goods. Think etsy, but more curated and a little bit more higher end. I don't have any prior experience with anything e-commerce related. I'm self taught when it comes to marketing. The hypothesis is that I can help them find other avenues to sell their products. I'm guessing they're wary about working with me because they're wondering if I can deliver or if i'm just wasting their time, or worse will I hurt their brand. So even though they may have a problem, their skepticism of me stops them from giving me a shot. The problem i'm having is how do I get these potential partners to give me (an unknown commodity) a chance. How would you approach trying to get potential partners to partner with you if you're an unknown commodity?

    2) What are the most valuable lessons you've learned in your career when it comes to growing a business?

    Thanks

  • RB

    Ry B

    7 months ago #

    Thanks for doing this ama, Steve!

    1)How do you look at hiring? Can you talk about some of the mistakes you've made hiring (and also seen others make)? What have you learned about hiring A+ talents?

    2)How do you look at competition (as an entrepreneur and now investor). Specifically when the startup is going up against bigger, and better-funded competitors? How does that affect the strategic plan, if it does at all? What is your mindset when competing against the 800-pound gorillas in the space?

    3)Back when you were still starting and growing startups how do you decide what you have to work on today (I'm sure you have a lot of fires to put out every day)? How would you go about setting short/long term goals (taking into consideration what you now about managing lean startups)?

    • SB

      Steve Blank

      7 months ago #

      Ry,

      Let me start with your first question, hiring:
      Decide whether you’re hiring someone to help search for the business model or to help execute a business model you’ve already found (same is true is you’re looking for a job – are you going to be searching or executing?) Are you looking for a visionary or an operating executive?

      The job spec’s for the same title differ wildly depending on whether the job requires search versus execution skills. Founders search, operating executives execute.

      Startups (and their investors) really, really screw this up.

      steve

      3 Share
  • BW

    Brand Winnie

    7 months ago #

    Hi Steve,

    Thanks for doing this AMA. If you could give founders one piece of advice, what would it be?

    -Brand

  • RU

    Roman U.

    7 months ago #

    Hello Mr. Blank,
    First of all, thank you for doing this AMA. A few years ago, at the age of 12, I took your "How to Start a Startup" course and fell in love with entrepreneurship. You are truly a role model to me and I appreciate the opportunity to ask you some questions.

    1. What role does college have in an aspiring entrepreneur's life? How is it different from someone with another, more conventional, career trajectory?
    2. In order to be a great founder, is it important to have a background in engineering?
    3. What do you think about the new Mavic Pro DJI drone? (see post above)

    Thank you,
    Roman

  • MS

    Maria Samarina

    7 months ago #

    Steve, you've created the Investment Readiness Level for startups and investors, so they can make better decisions. We took your concept and decided to scale it in a hope it will help to level the playing field, because getting funded is a huge pain. 97% of all venture funded startups have male CEOs, mostly white, from elite universities, so you are in trouble not only if you are female but also if you are from a second-tier university (only 14% get funded, comparing to 78% stanford grads). The question - how would you envision a technology that seed funds startups using the Investment Readiness Level? Why and why not it will work?

    • SB

      Steve Blank

      7 months ago #

      Maria,

      Short answer is that startup portfolios are a "hits-based" business. Much like picking winners in movies or music. Hard to pick the individual ones, so you invest in a portfolio.

      Using metrics should be tool but not the only criteria.

      Just for background....
      NASA and the Department of Defense developed the Technology Readiness Level (TRL) to estimate technology maturity of how close a project is ready to ship. It sets various milestones and scores the project on a scale of 1 to 9.

      I developed the Investment Readiness Level (IRL) to estimate commoditization maturity. It’s modeled after the NASA TRL. Given that startups following the Lean Methodology collect a ton of data, I realized that we could use that data to measure how far the startup has gotten in validating each part of its business model canvas hypotheses.

      That said, having these two metrics for technology and commercialization risk is just the beginning of what world class VCs look for in an investment. Great VCs acquire pattern recognition skills which encompass evaluating the team (are they superstars? Complementary skills?), the market opportunity (existing market? Disrupting one? Creating a new one? Can it be huge?) cash requirements (venture scale? Industrial scale?) Competition (regulatory barriers, rent seekers, fast followers, etc.) Path to liquidity (acquisition, IPO years, decades,) etc.

      steve

  • TK

    Todd Kuslikis

    7 months ago #

    Hi Steve, I'm wondering if you have any "go-to" strategies for testing the value proposition of a product without building it. For example, running facebook ads to a landing page that states the USP and testing conversions. The challenge I have with this approach is that some products seem to sound foolish at first (imagine founders of Snapchat or Twitter running FB ads to test the idea). Thoughts?

    • SB

      Steve Blank

      7 months ago #

      Todd,

      A few thoughts.
      Start testing the riskiest assumptions: What’s the most important thing that needs to be true for your idea to work?

      Start with cheap and fast experiments when uncertainty is high. Invest more with decreasing uncertainty. 

      Use a business model canvas and a Kanban board to track experiments and results.

      Optimize your experiments (aka MVPs) for learning. Don’t simply build a smaller version of what you intend to build.

      steve

      5 Share
      • DS

        Dan Smith

        7 months ago #

        Add a comment if I may, the kanban I use for testing doesn't move anything to "Done" until we have checked off the column "Learning".

  • AA

    Aldin A

    7 months ago #

    Hey Steve,

    Great to have you here!

    1)What, in your opinion, are the top qualities founders need to succeed?

    2)How do you go about empowering employees at your previous companies? How do you instill an ownership mentality in them?

    3)What do you think are the top skills/traits that a manager needs to have to bring out the best in their employees?

    Thanks

    • SB

      Steve Blank

      7 months ago #

      Aldin,

      The the top qualities founders need to succeed are passion, determination, resilience, tenacity, agility and curiosity. It helps if the team has had a history of working together, but what is essential is mutual respect. And what is critical is trust. You need to be able to trust your co-founders to perform, to do what they say they will, and to have your back.

      The founding team CEO is the first among equals in the founding team. Ironically they are almost never the most intelligent or technically astute person on the team. What sets them apart from the rest of the team is that they can project a fearless reality distortion field that they use to recruit, fund raise, pivot and position the company. They are the ultimate true believers in the company and have the vision, passion and skill to communicate why this seemingly crazy idea will work and change the world.

      In addition, the founding CEO thrives operating in chaos and uncertainty. They deal with the daily crisis of product development and acquiring early customers.  And as the reality of product development and customer input collide, the facts change so rapidly that the original well-thought-out product plan becomes irrelevant. While the rest of the team is focused on their specific jobs, the founding CEO is trying to solve a complicated equation where almost all the variables are unknown – unknown customers, unknown features that will make those customers buy, unknown pricing, unknown demand creation activities that will get them into your sales channel, etc.

      They’re biased for action and they don’t wait around for someone else to tell them what to do. Great founding CEO’s live for these moments.

      steve

      4 Share
  • BS

    Bala S.

    7 months ago #

    Hi Steve, thx for the AMA.

    In 4 steps to epiphany you talk early on to keep the costs low as much as possible (especially before reaching the 'Technology Life cycle adoption curve'). What suggestions would you give 'today' to a sole founder /early stage startup at this point?

  • DH

    Dani Hart

    7 months ago #

    Hi Steve,

    What an honor to have you on here today. Thanks for joining!

    When it comes to building a movement, what were the biggest challenges in the initial stages? And even the challenges you face today.
    Do you have any suggestions for companies that are trying to push a new methodology, even when the majority of the audience is still very much in a traditional mindset with no reason to change?
    Do you think your work will move beyond the foreign affairs and defense? Obviously energy is a big part of the challenges you're working on, but I'm curious where you see environmental and clean energy regulation and innovation falling into your path of work (if at all).

    Really looking forward to what you have to say!

    Cheers,
    Dani

    • SB

      Steve Blank

      7 months ago #

      Dani,

      Funny you frame it as "building a movement." I never thought of it like that. On day one I just had an Epiphany - a sudden flash of insight - that we were building startups the wrong way. I decided there and then to figure out how to build them more efficiently. While today I can describe the insights in Lean in 15 minutes, deriving them and writing the Four Steps to the Epiphany took me three years.

      But once I had done that I felt I needed to share it with the world. I remember trying to describe Lean to VCs in Silicon Valley and professors at Stanford Business School and literally getting laughed out of the room. It didn't matter. I knew I was on to something.

      When Eric Ries became the first practitioner, and I sat on his board watching him build the first Lean Startup, I knew this was real. Eric became the "Johnny Appleseed" of the movement prostlytizing the virtues of this new method.

      Berkeley's business school and then Stanford Engineering school gave me the time and platform to enhance the methodology. The National Science Foundation adopting it gave it a stamp of approval I could never have hoped for.

      steve

  • SK

    S Kodial

    7 months ago #

    Hi Steve

    What verticals, industries etc outside of tech startups have you seen good adoption of Lean Startup techniques?
    Why do you think its those people that have adopted it and not others?

  • AA

    Anuj Adhiya

    7 months ago #

    Hi Steve,
    One pain point i keep hearing about (and read about) is the trap of the local maximum.
    What advice do you have to raise the odds of not falling into that trap and finding the true global maximum?

  • AA

    Ashley Aitken

    7 months ago #

    A new market seems very attractive but you rightly suggest it is a very difficult prospect (time and money) to develop. Similarly, taking on a market leader is very expensive. Should (practically) all startups focus on a niche or low cost resegmented market? Ignoring clone markets for this discussion...

    • SB

      Steve Blank

      7 months ago #

      Ashley,

      That would make a very boring world.
      We would never have had Apple, Facebook, Uber, Aribnb, Tesla, SpaceX, etc.

      It depends whether you're in it for changing the world or making money. There's no right answer. Just the one that matches what your passion is.

      steve

  • AA

    Ashley Aitken

    7 months ago #

    Hi Steve, thanks for answering questions.

    How can we encourage more startups to search for a repeatable, scalable and viable business model rather than just execute an unproven business model?

    The feeling of achievement, the feedback from peers, many of the incubators and accelerators, government programs, and traditional investors, all seem to encourage execution (with a bit of "fail fast" and "build-measure-learn" thrown in to be small-el lean). As well, when money is short sales and growth seem more important than hypothesis testing. It saddens me to see in many cases it (premature execution) leads to living dead startups with no place to go and, if they get significant funding (premature scaling) leads to a quick death.

    Thanks, Ashley.

  • PD

    Pranav Divakar

    7 months ago #

    Hi Steve, Thanks for doing the AMA here.

    As an Entrepreneur, at what point do you decide that your product has reached the Product Market Fit stage?

  • DO

    Danielle Olivas

    7 months ago #

    Hi Steve,

    Thanks for joining us today.

    How do I know when to quit?

    Thanks!

    • SB

      Steve Blank

      7 months ago #

      Danielle,

      That's a great question. And you framed it the right way. Sometimes I get asked "_when_ is the best time to quit?" The answer I alway offer is "When it is right for _you_."

      But how do you figure that out? For me there are a few heuristics:
      1. No job is worth your health.
      2, When you no longer bound out of bed to get to work
      3. When you no longer enthusiastically recruit
      4. When you no longer tell everyone how excited you are about what you are building
      5. When you are putting your family or partner into financial stress and they don't share your passion and vision.

      steve.

      8 Share
      • DO

        Danielle Olivas

        7 months ago #

        Thanks for your response, Steve. Those are excellent points and worth paying attention to.

        Cheers!

  • DS

    Dan Smith

    7 months ago #

    Steve

    Would love your thoughts on establishing a cadence for running experiments and testing of your business model? Are there benefits to consistency of experimentation? Some tests may require more time to execute and so wondering how to maintain a certain velocity of purposeful experimentation

    Thanks so much. You're the man.

  • GH

    Glen Harper

    7 months ago #

    Hi Steve, thanks so much for being on our AMA. How has your thinking about the Lean Startup evolved over time? Looking forward to your response.

    • SB

      Steve Blank

      7 months ago #

      Glen,

      In the decade or so since I wrote the Four Steps to the Epiphany and described Customer Development, the Lean Startup has evolved dramatically. We’re finally building a management stack for innovation.

      First, Eric Ries observed that Agile Engineering needed to be paired with my Customer Development process. Eric gave a name to the feedback loop I drew and called it the Pivot – brilliant. And refined my “minimum feature set” into the “minimum viable product” also brilliant.

      Next, Alexander Osterwalder codified the distinction between a business plan and business model and gave us a single page (the Business Model Canvas) to describe it.

      Third, putting the Lean Startup on the cover of the May 2013 Harvard Business Review, gave large companies permission to use Lean as a tool for continuous innovation.

      Fourth, the Lean class I started at Stanford was adopted by the National Science Foundation for teaching scientists how to commercialize their innovations. It has since been adopted by the entire US research agencies and parts of the Department of Defense.

      And of course there are now tens if not hundreds of books by other authors and smart thinkers building on these ideas. All of them great contributions.

      steve

      2 Share
  • JP

    John Phamvan

    7 months ago #

    Hi Steve
    Could you talk more about Hacking for Defense and Hacking for Diplomacy?

    • SB

      Steve Blank

      7 months ago #

      John,

      The Hacking for Defense & Diplomacy classes were born at the intersection of innovation on the battlefields of Iraq and Afghanistan and Lean Innovation in Silicon Valley.

      We had five goals for the classes:

      1. Teach students Lean Innovation – the mindset, reflexes, agility and resilience an entrepreneur needs to make decisions at speed and with urgency in a chaotic and uncertain world.

      2. Offer students an opportunity to engage in a national public service. Today if college students want to give back to their country they think of Teach for America, the Peace Corps, or Americorps or perhaps the US Digital Service or the GSA’s 18F. Few consider opportunities to make the world safer with the Department of Defense, Intelligence Community, State Department or other government agencies.

      3. Teach our sponsors (the innovators inside the Department of Defense (DOD), Intelligence Community (IC) and State Department) there was a methodology that could help them understand and better respond to rapidly evolving asymmetric threats. (By rapidly discovering the real problems in the field using Lean methods, and then articulating the requirements to solve them, defense acquisition programs operate at speed and urgency to deliver timely and needed solutions.)

      4. Show our DOD/IC/State sponsors that civilian students can make a meaningful contribution to problem understanding and rapid prototyping of solutions.

      5. Create the 21st Century version of Tech ROTC by having Hacking for Defense and Hacking for Diplomacy taught by a national network of 50 colleges and universities. This would give the Department of Defense (DOD), Intelligence Community (IC) and State Department access to a pool of previously untapped technically sophisticated talent, trained in Lean and Agile methodologies, and unencumbered by dogma and doctrine.

      See the classes here:
      http://hacking4defense.stanford.edu
      http://hacking4diplomacy.stanford.edu

      steve

  • FB

    Frank Bautista

    7 months ago #

    Hello Steve,

    Which do you prefer doing?

    Acting first before taking aim or
    Planning carefully before execution?

    If it depends how do you know which approach is much applicable in certain situations?

    • SB

      Steve Blank

      7 months ago #

      Frank,

      None of the above.

      1. Figure out what the goal is
      2. Keep my eye on the prize and ruthlessly eliminate obstacles in my way
      3. Constantly get customer input on whether that's the right goal and course correct/pivot if necessary

      steve

  • JD

    James Dunn

    7 months ago #

    Hi Steve

    Do you believe that you need to be in Silicon Valley to succeed?
    If yes, what advice would you have for folks that, for whatever reason, can't move there to raise odds of success?

    • SB

      Steve Blank

      7 months ago #

      James,

      Short answer - is yes, it increases your odds.

      This is a real conundrum of entrepreneurship in the 21st century. Entrepreneurs are now everywhere. Information about entrepreneurship is available instantly everywhere. Amazon Web Services makes computing horsepower available everywhere. And yet,...

      Capital is not evenly distributed. If you want to raise millions, tens of millions or hundreds of millions it's more than likely not in your local community. If you want to live and breath with tens of thousands of startups and get benefits of a information dense innovation ecosystem it's more than likely not in your local community.

      That's why there are innovation clusters - in Silicon Valley, Beijing, Herzliya. Clusters of industries have always existed - for cars, entertainment, steel, finance, etc. Tech is no different.

      steve

      2 Share
  • AA

    Ashley Aitken

    7 months ago #

    Sometimes I think finding problem-solution fit is harder than product-market fit. Many startups seem to struggle to find problem-solution fit or just proceed assuming what they have is good enough with the predictable unhappy ending. Your thoughts?

  • AA

    Ashley Aitken

    7 months ago #

    Is there an ETA for your (hinted) book with Evangelos Simoudis on corporate innovation?

    Most corporate innovation still seems like theatre or traditional from idea to prototype to market...

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