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What is Lean?

The Lean Principal

The term “lean” has come back into vogue, but it’s been something that’s been around for a while. Lean was coined to describe Toyota’s business during the late 1980s by a research team headed by Jim Womack, Ph.D., at MIT’s International Motor Vehicle Program.

Toyota logo

The principal of lean is to maximize value to the customer while minimizing waste. The use of customer is simply anyone that is seeking value for compensation. Waste is not allocating people, process, or technology as efferent as possible to produce/deliver this value. Value typically takes form as a product or service or what I call an offering.

Lean practice seeks to deliver more value with fewer resources than what you do today. More than just another “program”, it is core to your company’s ideology. The management of time, people, process, and technology (verticals) changes to an attention on the offerings (value streams) threw (horizontally) these resources (the verticals) to the customer.

Out of necessity I’ve applied lean principals since founding my first startup in 1998 and hope to share some of what I’ve learned.

The following sections will target lean for the purpose of a consumer web 2.0 SaaS offering, as it would be too lengthy to differentiate the nuances between service offerings, and even the application of lean for commercial software offerings.

Lean for Startups

Launching a consumer Web 2.0 SaaS startup is kind of like jumping out of a plane and building a parachute on the way down. The idea is to produce a MVP (minimum viable product) before you hit the ground. It does not have to be the best parachute in the world, it simply needs to keep you from death. Once you land on the ground relatively unharmed you can get back on the airplane and improve the parachute. Just remember that changes to your parachute the second time could kill you 😀

HC-130 jump

Your MVP is a strategy for market testing of a value proposition. You’re asking yourself – what is the minimum set of feature/functions your product or the minimum deliverable of your service can provide before there is no perceived value. I say ‘perceived’ because customers are often unaware of the true cost of production for the product they buy. Instead, they simply have an internal feeling for how much certain products/services are worth to them at that time. But I digress…


Start by performing some due diligence to figure out whether you’re building an offering people actually want and whether it’s possible to acquire customers cost-effectively. I’ve listed several tools to help with this. I use google to gain insights into market trends and I then survey people. You can always ask questions of experts if you need a second opinion.

Find Collaborators

I’d love to tell you that you can ask questions of experts as if they were your co-founder, but you’ll need more time, talent, and money than what advisers can provide. The tools section lists  resources for finding a co-founder.

Pick a Brand

This day and age you need a good domain name. Use 5 short key words to find a domain that is unique, has .com available (unless .ly or .me is used), is easily to type and remember.  I particularly like to use this generator that allows you to see what is available.

As for your UI (User Interface) – stay with the Twitter Bootstrap or use jQuery UI. Most developers know these.

If you hare graphically inclined you can design your style guild with a free tool. For the rest of you just purchase a Logo Design software (I’m too cheap to pay for a designer for v1 of an idea)

After you’ve acquired your domain name, you’ll want to float your branded pre-beta parking page to collect emails. You can build out a full registration process later.

Get Building

You have this supper cool idea, you’ve done your research, you have collaborators, and even a brand! This is always a great feeling, but now your ready to build something.

Thought I’ve worked with the Microsoft stack for 20 years ( I drink the kool aid, but do not have a tatoo) for Fortune 500 enterprise scale solutions nothing beats Free Open Source tools for a bootstrap startup. If you developing a complex commercial product that relies on integration with other platforms you might have to consider saying with C#, or Java. I often advise people to go with what they already know, but here is an opportunity to apply the right tech to the right solution

I was able to pick up Ruby on Rails in 2 weeks and would have you consider doing the same.

This one is simple: Agile is lean development. Know it, use it.

Early Adopters

Early adopters improve the MVP in providing considerable and candid feedback to allow you to refine future releases. In exchange for being exposed to problems, and annoyances of early adoption the customer is often given attentive support and preferential pricing, terms, and conditions. This is more common for commercial software where the early adoption pool is small. The first few people to signup are the early adopters and might not know it. If your MVP goes viral, you’ll have to react quick (good problem to have).


Use twitter, LinkedIn, Youtubefacebook page and others to socialize what you’re doing.

Watch Reaction

Google analytics are a good way to analyze who, when, where, and how people are using your product. The biggest thing missing though is why?

Rinse and Repeat

Dove shampoo

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