Why Scientists Trump Engineers, or What the Hell Is a Lean Startup Anyway

Posted on September 17, 2014 by Evan Burfield

Within the pantheon of startup buzzwords, there is perhaps no term more dominant than lean startup. It is almost impossible to find a credible startup anywhere in the world that doesn’t describe themselves as lean. I know. I’ve tried. Not only do entrepreneurs use the term lean but they delight in throwing around the jargon of lean startups — words like iterate, product market fit, and the always popular pivot. Lean has even penetrated the corporate world and government. GE is making the lean methodology required reading for aspiring executives. The White House has created a swat team of lean development experts with 18F.

Despite all of this excitement, the only thing greater than the buzz about lean startups is the level of confusion around what lean thinking actually involves. This is unfortunate because understanding lean really is incredibly important for the success of startup founders.

So what is the lean startup methodology? Let’s start with the text book definitions. 

According to www.theleanstartup.com:

The Lean Startup provides a scientific approach to creating and managing startups and get a desired product to customers’ hands faster. The Lean Startup method teaches you how to drive a startup-how to steer, when to turn, and when to persevere-and grow a business with maximum acceleration. It is a principled approach to new product development.

Hmm. It sounds kind of like defensive driving. Let’s check out Wikipedia:

Lean startup is a method for developing businesses and products… [that] shortens their product development cycles by adopting a combination of business-hypothesis-driven experimentation, iterative product releases, and… “validated learning“.

What does this actually mean? It’s defining buzzwords with even more buzzwords. The unfortunate thing is that there are some really crucial insights buried in the jargon. It’s with this in mind that I take my own stab at explaining this idea for entrepreneurs and investors–and institutions who want to work with them.

The essential truth of the lean startup methodology is simple: it’s better to be a scientist than an engineer.

When most first time entrepreneurs sit down to build a company, they instinctively think of entrepreneurship as an engineering challenge. They have a problem that they want to solve and a vision for what the solution looks like. They sit down and draw out the blueprints for that solution and how they’ll turn it into a business. Those blueprints are traditionally referred to as a business plan. They take their business plan and break down all of the work necessary to execute on it. Whether on paper or merely in their heads, they end up with a giant project plan with all the steps and critical paths necessary to get them to a magical milestone: launching their business.

This approach is seductive for a number of reasons. First, it’s easy to understand because it’s linear. You simply have to work incredibly hard moving from one step to another with success waiting just after that magical launch moment. Second, it provides regular reassurance of progress as you tick tasks off the list. You can tell yourself that you’re X% of the way to success based on your project plan. Third, it tempts founders into the dangerous hubris of thinking that they are visionaries, rather than cultivating the ability to listen intensely to customers.

There is one crippling problem with the engineering approach: the odds are pretty close to 0% that the blueprint that you’re building toward is right — and in fact it’s probably very wrong. As a founder, if you lack the humility to recognize this from the beginning then no amount of reading blogs about lean startups will help you.

Rather than thinking of yourself as an engineer, you should think of yourself as a scientist. You need to be incredibly passionate about the problem that you’re solving but incredibly humble about discovering a scalable business model and product that solves it.

Scientists start with hypotheses that they test through experimentation with the real world. Lean founders start with business model canvases that they test through experimentation with actual customers.

Scientists ensure that each experiment is falsifiable, meaning that a successful test is often one that proves the hypothesis wrong. Lean founders do the same thing — with the goal of quickly eliminating possible approaches rather than justifying their preconceived ideas.

Scientists construct the simplest experiments that allow them to test their hypotheses. Lean founders build minimum viable products or features — often simply a landing page to test a particular message or customer acquisition strategy — rather than rushing to build any feature or infrastructure unnecessary to the immediate goal of finding a scalable business model.

In short, the lean startup methodology is simply the scientific method applied to discovering scalable business models. Once you really internalize that truth and why it’s important, the rest of the jargon and buzzwords suddenly make a whole lot more intuitive sense.

Of course being a scientist is a famously lonely and frustrating pursuit. So it is with being a lean founder. Approaching your startup as an engineer feels good, right up until you crash into a massive wall of failure. Approaching it as a scientist feels like a little bit of failure every day. If you have faith in the process though, each of those failures is moving you closer to building something truly extraordinary. The persistence required to fail a little bit each day in pursuit of a much greater good is rare though. Managing your emotions, staying focused, and really listening to what the customer data is telling you is what separates great founders from ones parroting what they hear on TechCrunch.