Ash has been an entrepreneur for more than a decade, and throughout that time he has been in search of a better, faster way for building successful products. He is the author of “Running Lean: Iterate from Plan A to a Plan That Works”
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Bronson: Welcome to another episode of Growth Hacker TV. I’m Brandon Taylor, and today I have Ash Maria with us. Ash, thank you so much for coming on the program.
Ash: It’s a pleasure.
Bronson: Brandon Absolutely. Now, Ash, you’re one of the main characters in the Lean Startup Movement. So you’ve actually written a book on it, literally. You wrote Running Lean, and you’re also the founder of Spark Five9. So we’ll get to your book in just a moment because it’s going to be a lot there that our audience will want to learn from. But let’s start with Spark Five9. Tell us what is Spark 59?
Ash: Sure. So I’ll give you the short answer first and maybe a slightly longer answer. But the short answer is that it’s a company I started fairly recently, and our mission is to help entrepreneurs succeed. And we do this by providing tools, content coaching that help them raise their odds of success. The longer answer is, I’ve been an entrepreneur for over a decade now, and throughout that process I’ve been in search for just better, faster ways for building products, building successful products. And they started a blog, got sucked into the Lean Startup World, which we can talk a little bit more about. And just through that process of blogging and of a book came out of that process, and I realized that a lot of the lessons that I was learning was resonating with other entrepreneurs. A lot of problems I ran, ran into resonating with other companies, as well as some of the partial solutions I started building. And so I decided, you know, I was having so much fun doing that as a site. Why not make that be the full time thing? So I sold my previous previous company, my previous business, and decided I was just going to do this because I just love being with entrepreneurs. And that’s that’s what I do now.
Bronson: Yeah. Is a lot of what you help them with the lean principles, is that kind of the core of your guidance with these startups?
Ash: Sure. That has been the biggest influence, although I will say that a lot of what even goes into my book has just been a combination of many different. So I can just all I can say, it’s all lean and people reading a book but also saying this is not a completely lean startup by the book. It’s just a culmination of many different ideas, experiences that I’ve had and borrowing from many, many different places. But one of the biggest influences for sure has been the Lean Startup, the lean influence.
Bronson: Yeah, on the home page of Spark with the Naicom, you have this great graph where you kind of have the why, the how and the what. And I was like this, you know, the why is to help entrepreneur succeed. That’s kind of the high level what you’re doing it how is practice trumps theory is what you say there. What do you mean practice trumps theory?
Ash: Sure. And maybe just to give credit where credit is due, that that circle, the three circles that you’re seeing is the Golden Circle, which is a concept that Simon Sinek kind of popularized. They introduced. And it’s a very it was a very interesting TED Talk. And he also wrote a bestselling book kind of around that way of thinking about how our leaders communicate their messages of Apple and Dell as examples. Okay. So in this case, countless examples of how Apple communicates well and what they do. So I kind of use that, but as a question specifically. So the why is definitely we want our power. Why is helping our business succeed? The how is practice trumps theory because we believe more of of of entrepreneurship being akin to a martial art. It’s something that you learn by doing. It’s like you can learn how to play golf just by a book or by watching a bunch of videos. You actually have to go out there and play it. Same thing with the martial arts. You have to go and practice. Entrepreneurship is no different. And so everything that goes into my book, into our work is all first is all from first hand experiential learning. It’s either lessons we have learned building products of our own or while working side by side with other entrepreneurs, helping them do the same thing. So that’s where that practice from theory comes from.
Bronson: Yeah. And after the why in the hell, there’s the what, and you break it down to three sections on what you actually use to help these art reviewers. You have tools, you have content, you have coaching under the tools. We’ll get to the lean canvas in a moment because we’ll talk about that when we talk about your book. That’s a part of it there. But you have something called the user cycle. What is the user cycle? What does that tool?
Ash: As a cycle is a product that we built that helps entrepreneurs be able to measure their progress in their startup. So data analytics type of product, it’s analytics as well as automotive parts, CRM, and so essentially helps people. How do entrepreneurs measure the hours that they’re making of their products, be able to then make adjustments, run experiments and improve those numbers?
Bronson: Yeah. Is that available for consumers or is that just something they get when they work with Spark Five9?
Ash: No. We are making it publicly available. We have. So I have a methodology and I will release it. So we have released it into more of an early access form because we want to make sure we are building the right products. So we have today had about maybe 100 customers use the product and we are now slowly beginning to open open the doors and are going in for the next kind of batch of customers.
Bronson: Yeah, I would expect nothing less from you than to test and see what people want before you actually release the product. It would be bad if you didn’t take your own advice, right?
Ash: Yeah, everything including that just by the book. And then funny enough, chapter two in the book is how I wrote the book using the principles in the book, which sometimes blows people’s minds because it’s like a very, very recursive bear.
Bronson: Yeah, it’s matamata. So, Ash, let’s talk about your book a little bit. Running Lean. Running Lean came out, I believe, in 2010. Is that right?
Ash: That’s right.
Bronson: Yeah. So that makes it one of the earliest books on this whole Lean Startup movement. Did it actually come out before Eric Reese’s book?
Ash: Technically, yes, but I would say that both in both our books, really. Eric, of course, started blogging about Lean Startup. He was the first, first person to do that. He’s the one who coined the term lean startup. But both of us really wrote our books by way of blogs first. So there’s a lot of articles he wrote, a lot of articles I was writing. He decided to take the standard publishing route because he wanted to to amplify his message. And so for that reason, he kind of went through a typical waterfall cycle. And his book that any company, you know, it’s typically it’s a one and a half year cycle. And I took a very nontraditional route while I was writing my book. I began to test it, did a lot of testing around it through by way of workshops. I began to even incrementally release the book out, so I wrote it as I self-published the first edition of the book as a e-book. And so for that reason, I got it to market a lot sooner. And then I revised it almost entirely and came up with the second edition, which then got published and picked up by O’Reilly Media.
Bronson: Yeah. So you could say it’s the first Lean book because it’s the first book that was actually Lean In and of itself, right?
Ash: Yeah. It was definitely a case study and and lean book writing for sure.
Bronson: Yeah, that’s great. So, you know, all these interviews are really for growth. They’re for growth hackers and people try to understand growth kind of at the highest level. Tell us, why do the principles of Lean really matter for growth? And then we’ll get into some of the details of the book. But is there a connection between growth, growth potential and being a lean startup?
Ash: Sure, absolutely. So I will say that in many ways, some of the earliest stages of a startup is all about establishing a strong foundation on which to grow. So obviously pursuing growth just for growth cycles, it’s going to be premature optimization. And so a big tenant in Lean is one of identifying where customer value comes from and one of the tenants there is being able to deliver value before you scale that value out. And so a lot of what my book really talks about kind of in the earlier stages is how do you set up that foundation so that you have identified customers, you can deliver value to them. We want to test those things are small scale, a lot of small scale testing, a lot of validation to make sure value is being delivered. We’re capturing the right value from customers. And then at that point, we we apply the same techniques, the same experimentation techniques to then optimize a plan that is working. So the subtitle of my book is, you know, finding going from Plan A, which is what we where we think we want to go to a plan that works. And so it’s this iterative process through experimentation to get your planet starting to work. And then the growth part comes in when we want to accelerate or scale that plan out.
Bronson: Yeah, so lean really is the foundation for sustainable long term growth. So let’s talk about the sections of your book here. The first section, the part one is called Problem Solution Fit. And then part two is product launch fit. And then part three is product market fit. Now out of those three, we hear a lot about part three. That’s kind of the buzzword right now, the product market fit, you know, PM fit, it even has its own kind of shortened version, right? We don’t hear a lot about part one problem, solution fit or maybe not as much in a high level. What is the problem? Solution fit?
Ash: Sure. So in a nutshell, it’s basically trying to find problems that are worth solving before committing any time to them. So many entrepreneurs, when they get hit by an idea, they just get so enthralled and passionate about the idea, mostly around the solution, how they’re going to solve this thing. They don’t spend enough time setting the right foundation, not just for growth, but even this idea having any merits whatsoever. And so we just rush into this build cycle and in the hopes that we’ll build something valuable and then maybe run into this scaling problem, problem solution that kind of turns it around and says, before you invest any time building, you can get outside the building and go validate whether this is something worth pursuing. So first book was a great case in point. I had no interest in writing this book because to be honest, I was too busy running my own business when I got and many of these were in were inbound requests. So some of my readers were pulling this out of me saying, you know, you should write a book because it’s it’s good content. It would make for a good book. And I started this process of validation that we can talk about some of the things that I did there. But it was this process of validation to convince myself that if I was to invest any time, even in two or three months or maybe six months of my life, that it would be for something. There would be some goal at the end that that would make me feel like that was not time spent.
Bronson: Yeah. So how did you validate? I’m interested.
Ash: Sure. So there are a whole lot of techniques there. And so maybe just the classic example is that before you build a product, you know, just going and trying to communicate that out to customers, whether it’s by way of a smoke test, by putting up a landing page and seeing if anyone likes, if anyone gives you their email address, if anyone preorders. Those are all different ways for gauging demand and gauging interest. So in my. Because I had a blog, I had a at least an early adopter audience in mind that I knew who they were. So since they were asking me for the book, I just went around and asked them back and said, Why do you want me to write this book? In some ways, trying to talk them out of the idea. And, you know, they came they came back and pretty much gave me a unique value proposition that eventually became how I differentiated my book. And they said that there wasn’t a shortage of all this content, but they particularly connected with my how to approach to men. And if I wrote a book that kind of covered that in great length, it would be a great resource. So for me, that that was step one is understanding, you know, what this what would be the differentiate the differentiation of this book. And then I went and wanted to make sure it was a problem solving. So I did a back of the envelope calculation. Everyone underestimates how long projects take. I thought this would be a three month project, you know, tops. So I did a back of the envelope calculation and figured that if I got 2000 people to come in buying this book for ideally pre-ordering this book, then I would at least break even. And that’s how I kind of that was the basic math I did. And so I didn’t go into writing this book. I went and put up a landing page first and popular, you know, and spread word about it. And through that process, once I hit a thousand users, that’s when I really took that. I took this idea seriously for the first time. Until then, I was doing all these little experiments to get to problem. Solution.
Bronson: Yeah, that’s great. How long did it take you to get to a thousand emails? Was that a short process or a long process?
Ash: So I was not as short as as I anticipated or I would if I’d put it out there. It took about two and a half months. So when I first announced that in March of 2009, I believe it was not until early summer that I really hit that number. Yeah. And again, during that time, I was not obsessing over the books. I’ve been I’m obsessed over many products that have gone nowhere. So I was too busy running my other business, my other products. I put this out there. I would periodically check in and tweet things out and make sure the numbers were, you know, where we’re kind of steadily climbing. But that’s all I needed was more mostly getting it to that thousand mark versus trying to, you know, start fantasizing about the content of the book necessarily.
Bronson: Yeah. And, you know, back in 2009, when you put up that smokescreen, that landing page, you know, lean wasn’t a household term. It’s become very popular. But back then it was something very new that you were on the edge of. And so you really were a few steps ahead of kind of the rest of the industry. So I would expect to take a few months where if you were to put out a version to this book, you take you one day to 2000. So just the landscape has changed so much because of your work and other people.
Ash: Right. Absolutely. And most people launching any business, because I always hear this now is that people say, well, you know, it’s very easy for you now because you have a platform. You can put any product out there, you know, 37 singles and put any product out there. And there’ll be a you know, there will be hundreds of people just lined up to do a beta test for you. And I tell them that, yeah, but they didn’t start out that way. They all had to start with product one. And it does take time. It’s not over. There’s this myth of the overnight success is something we need to get away from. It’s important to build a platform. It’s important to have access to customers, but you have to start with zero customers. Seth Godin has this famous blog post that he did when he started blogging. He was blogging for people because he was so far out. No one was reading blogs back then, but he kept doing it. And I think for the first several months he only had three people. And now, you know, he’s got hundreds of thousands of people that follow him every day.
Bronson: Yeah, it goes back to what you said. You know, practice trumps theory. If you actually practice entrepreneurship, you realize really quick that nothing is successful right away, that it takes so much work and so much, you know, tenacity and so much time that all these misconceptions are spread by people who don’t really run startups that can figure out cause.
Ash: And it makes for an interesting story. You know, the person, you know, student in dorm creates Facebook and overnight success. It’s just one of those things where we love that and they don’t they miss the the the all the hard work that went kind of in the middle there.
Bronson: Yeah. Now, underneath the problem solution fit, the first thing is really the lean canvas. And now we’re not going to do a deep dove into this because it can be its own thing. And there’s actually a whole book now just on the lean canvas itself, but at a high level. What is the lean canvas? Just in case people aren’t familiar with it and so they know how it fits into really finding a problem. Solution fit.
Ash: Yeah. Yeah. So I’ll yeah. So I’ll give you a very high level description of what kind of underlying even just a bucket and in general. So I would say the epiphany that I had was realizing that too many entrepreneurs fall in love with the solution, but the solution they build isn’t the real product office startup. The real product is a business model and ideally a working business model. And when I kind of took that, you know, once I realized that I was able to apply a bunch of principles that I knew from the product development world to the process of starting up. The first one is the. Fight and conquer. You are building a very complicated tackling a very complicated technical project. You would break it up into its component pieces and systematically tackle it. That’s what the first principle in my book is about. It’s about documenting your planet. So you take the process of starting a business and you break it into its component pieces, and that’s what link cannabis helps you do. So traditionally we would use business plans to do this. We’d make entrepreneurs go away for weeks or months writing a 60 page business plan document. The problem is that nobody ever reads it. It’s this document that the entrepreneur kind of starts writing. They don’t know the answer, so they start making up stuff or they start looking at Gartner reports and using big numbers to make this sound somewhat intelligent. But is all that going to work? Fiction. Most planets don’t work. The problem is, or the the goal isn’t creating a perfect plan, but it’s really creating a model or a plan. And that’s where the lean canvas comes in. It lets you take your business idea and kind of decompose it into these component blocks. They’re just mind building blocks, and you can put it all on a single page. So it’s a one page document. It takes you 15, 20 minutes to create the first version. The most important thing is it creates a conversation. You take a one page, even if you print this out and go into a Starbucks and talk to a potential advisor, potential investor, potential team member, co-founder, and show them this one page document, say, this is what I’m trying to do. The other side cannot help but read it and not help but have a half an opinion about it. And that conversation is where the true success lies is where the real learning lies. Shallows. What kind of canvas? Let’s see there.
Bronson: Yeah. And if people want to, they can just do a search and they can get, you know, the Lean Canvas PDF, it’s a one page pdf, they can print it out and use it. And when you say it’s one page, it’s not one page of solid writing, it’s one page of blocks and pictures. I mean, it’s, it’s like you can put a few sentences on it and then you filled it out, which is why you say you can take 15 or 20 minutes, but there’s actually more knowledge in that one page than in most business models. And that’s why people can have an opinion because, you know, it’s it’s discernable what’s actually going on because it is so visual.
Ash: Right? And it’s an incredible tool and it works for a number of reasons. One, you know, the point you just made it, it’s so concise and it forces you to get to the point faster. If you were in an ad with an ambassador or there’s the metaphorical 32nd elevator pitch or the elevator ride conversation, you have to be able to get your job very quickly. So in some ways, it’s easier to write a 60 page document because you can just ramble on forever. But to force yourself to think critically, to put the most important words on the canvas is actually can be quite tricky and hard. So I forces you to actually do that. And that’s kind of a very, very powerful exercise.
Bronson: Yeah. You know, there’s this great Abraham Lincoln quote and I don’t know it verbatim, but after writing a letter, he apologizes at the end of it that the letter wasn’t shorter because he didn’t have more time. Right. Wait a second. And it takes more thought and more care and more time to do something more concise than it does to ramble on. And so the lean canvas really is the business proposal, the business, you know, paperwork of the new start ups, I believe. Now, you also mentioned earlier customer development. It’s a phrase that we hear about all the time. And part of problem Solution Fit is really interviewing your customers. And you talk about two kinds of interviews, the problem interview and the solution interview. Tell us about those briefly. What are those?
Ash: Sure. So so the whole notion of customer development is to go out there and validate something about the product that you’re going to build. And many times, even before you actually build up to access that process, the validation. And there are some. So I would argue that there are actually maybe three ways of doing or there are two, two main ways of doing this. One of them is just going out and observing customers. And that’s where you kind of formulate these hypotheses and what the pain points are, what their needs are. And you can do this just by physically going to where your customers hang out. Being a fly on the wall and just watching them. You can do this online by going into discussion forums and chat rooms and seeing what they’re talking about, what issues they might be raising. So all that kind of falls under the realm of customer research. But once you have those hypotheses, you not have to go and test them. And that’s where these interviews come in, the problem interviews and solution interviews. And the goal of the problem interview is to make sure that we have identified the right customer. So I might think that I’m trying to build a service for, say, you know, busy parents with young kids. And so I want to go and validate whether the problems that I have in mind are the problems that they also kind of resonates with them. And they also feel like they are they’re bringing up problems to go solve. So the problem interviews, we’re not really pitching anything about the solution. We go into these and we have these casual conversations with customers, but they are very scripted and structured and we are kind of outlining a short story about what motivated us to build this product, what problems we were trying to solve. And then we turn when we turn it around like a good interviewer does, and let the customer speak. So they might say, Oh yeah, these are problems I have as well. And you know, they are very important and unimportant and they have a lukewarm response. You may not be on something when they get physically excited and they say, Oh, this is something I’ve been trying to solve for months and, you know, you lose a lot of money, lost time. They’re frustrated. You know, those are the kinds of emotions you want to see come out and that there is also not enough in the problem interview. You want to then go a step further. If summer tells you this is something they want solved. You want to ask them, well, what are you doing about it today? And that’s a lie detector that you can build in, because if they say this is a great problem, go tackle, you know, yes, build this and I will buy it. And you ask them, what are you doing today? And they turn around and say, Well, I’m doing nothing as I’m waiting for someone to solve it first. Then that may be one of those nice to have product categories where they think they want this, but when you build it, they don’t actually buy it because they, you know, they’re just too busy with other things. So the whole idea of the problem interview is to gauge your customers, gaze gauge their problems and understand what their existing alternatives are. What are they doing to solve those problems today? Once you get this information, it’s almost I always tell people this feels like cheating because you go and first ask customers, you know what it is they want built and they give you all this ammunition because you have lowered their defenses. You’re not pitching to them. But once you have all this information, you can then go and design the perfect product that actually tackles their top one, two and three problems and come back and pitch it to them and put a price in them off or along with it. And if they’re truly worth telling you the truth in the first set of interviews, why wouldn’t they want to buy this product? Because they’re delivering exactly what they wanted. And that’s what the solution interview does as we come back. And ideally, you want to have by that point, you have filtered out what the top problems are. You really want to have a demo to go along with it to say, no, I understood your problems. This is how I propose I’m going to solve it. And so you show them some kind of a demo. So it’s not the actual work product. It could be a screenshot, it could be a video, it could be a physical prototype. It said, I’m going to go solve it. The sound compelling. And if it’s if they were telling you the truth, them as or the problem they want to solve, if your demo is compelling, they’re going to get excited and say, yes, I want this. How much is it going to cost you? Tell them how much it costs and if everything kind of matches up, you’ve got a deal and you’ve got a customer and that’s really what the solution interview is all about.
Bronson: I love and you said it feels like you’re cheating at first. Sometimes you make entrepreneurship harder than it needs to be for whatever reason, especially when we ignore these lean principles. And so, you know, the step one, the part one is you find the problem solution fit. So you’ve got your lean canvas, you’ve interviewed your customers. You talked about the problem. You talked about a possible solution. If all things look good there, there’s no big red flags in your canvas where, oh, that piece of the business model is really broken. And now that I wrote it down, I see it. There’s no big problems with the interviews. The customers are giving you the right answers, showing that it’s a real problem and they are trying to solve it. But with broken, you know, solutions that don’t really work, those kind of things. So now we move into the product launch fit. Now if people don’t talk about product solution very much, they very rarely talk about product launch. I think this may be the least talked about of the three categories in the book. So what at a high level is the product launch fit?
Ash: Sure. So if I were to characterize the first phase, the problem solution fit is about answering the question do I have a problem solving? The second phase is is getting you ready to answer the question, have I built something that customers actually want now? So on the one hand, once you get pretty good at the interview process and unfortunately since in our building anything technical feasibility is not being tested. So you can go and promise anything. I mean, I can go into an interview and say, Would you like to go to Mars? Yes, pay me now and I’ll give you this rocket ship that goes to Mars. And I could probably collect money doing that because it has a star quality. So at some point it becomes a quality of how polished my pitch becomes. But the real rubber hits the road when you actually have a delivery solution where a customer derives value and then pays for that value. So you capture some of that value back, and that’s what that second phase prepares you for. So it’s all about taking the information that you got, which is customers are interested in this product, trying to distill it down into the smallest feature that you can build on, the smallest product that you can build on the later we call it the concept of the minimum viable product. So even though the customer may want all these bells and whistles that go along with your product in their full, in their fully realized vision, they may not need to start with all those things you can only address. Problem number one, I would like to use even the iPhone. One example is that iPhone one, when it came out, was only solving three main things and it finally put an iPod in trying to put a browser and a phone in one device and everything else was kind of left for future releases. So, you know, multitasking kind of space. They’ve got a lot of, you know, in some cases bad reviews because they didn’t have such basic features. But for them, that was not going to be the critical features that were needed in that first release. So what we’ve been part of Launchpad is figure out what are those, the minimum feature sets that we need, try to reduce scope as, as the, as small as possible because we want to speed up the learning. We don’t want to spend time building multitasking and cut and paste and all those kinds of things. We want to get to the core. So that’s what we do there. We also build the infrastructure for our measurement because of the product leaves. If you’re building software, I’m assuming a building software. But once your once your software is out there, it’s very hard to know what customer to do with it because you can’t interact with them face to face like you did in the in the earlier interview stage. And so you want to have some way of measuring their behavior or their activity with your product. And so it talks about how you are you set yourself up for those kinds of things.
Bronson: Yeah. And you kind of move them through those phases with what you call release and then you sell and then you measure. Those are kind of first three things with the with the product launch fit. Walk us through those three real quick. Some of you’ve already hit on you just hit on the measurement a little bit. But talk to us about the release and then the sale and then the measurement of it.
Ash: Sure. I would probably use stuff like build, measure, learn, which kind of probably aligns. Yeah.
Bronson: That’s kind of the more modern words we use and. Yeah.
Ash: Yeah. And so the whole idea of the build measured learn kind of loop is that we would build that minimum viable product and we would put it in the hands of customers. And so it needs to be something that they can kind of Crutchfield play and kind of derive value from.
Bronson: So are they paying customers at this point?
Ash: Yeah. So that is so that’s somewhat dependent on your business model and also kind of on your ability and kind of the pain points you’re addressing. So, you know, in more surprised that I build, I try to push for as close to payment as possible. I would like to get some kind of advance pay. So many times customers, you know, they’re wary that the spark may not work. Early adopters have no problem prepaying. Others may not. So it’s like a mileage may vary. There are some ways for doing a risk reversal, so one of them is still taking advance pay to get early access to this product. But if they don’t derive value, say, within 30 days or 90 days, you would gladly return their money back. Because at the end of the day, if you don’t deliver value, it’s you could just get to go home. So there are ways you can do a risk reversal. So for me, I always push people to say, try to get as far down the funnel as possible, ideally get to revenue because that’s often a you know, there’s a big there’s a very big difference between giving something away for free and charging even a penny gap, charging even for your product. So for me, I always say that’s the ultimate, that’s the first it’s not the ultimate validation, but it’s the first validation as do customers actually pay for your product?
Bronson: Yeah. So you build it, you’re measuring it, you’re learning from the data, what’s going on. And then you have something you call the MVP interview. So we know the MVP is a minimum viable product that you talked about, that one kind of main feature set that matters. Not every possible feature bloat that we could throw into it, but what is the MVP interview?
Ash: Right. So I’m a big fan of speeding up learning. And so I just mentioned, you know, how to set the infrastructure for collecting data. But sometimes when you’re dealing with small sample sizes, when you only have ten or 20 customers, which is what you typically have and you get out of problem solution, trying to collect data may not give you the most statistically significant insights and you kind of.
Bronson: Sample data, right?
Ash: Right, right. And so for that reason, you still have to do these face to face or at least try and do as many face to face or over Skype type of conversations as possible, even email kind of works. But that continuous feedback loop of customers is very important. So I have this notion of the MVP interview, which is part usability test and it’s part kind of concierge service. So it’s almost like saying since you are an early adopter of mind, I think you kind of have early access and you’re very valuable to me. You know, I would like to give you in some ways special treatment. This is how you would select it, a customer and you would say, you know, we would we would help you more. We kind of help you get set up. But what you’re really doing is you’re giving them your product, which probably is going to have a lot of defects and bugs in the beginning because no product that everybody needs a majority time to get to a point where it’s usable the way it kind of explains itself. So what you’re really doing is for into a usability test where I say, you know, brands and thanks for being my customer, you know, here’s the product, but I want to walk you through it and I want to kind of support you. So why don’t you set up a meeting where we can do this together? And so I have you walk through the product, but I’m really watching how you are interacting with it. And when you get stuck, I’m going to jump in and help you, which is what you really want because you don’t want to be frustrated with the product. But what I’m doing is I’m making I’m taking, I’m making mental notes. On what were all the problems that you ran into so I can go and fix those for the next customer.
Bronson: Yeah. And again, this AIDS growth so much just to bring it back to to our, you know, kind of viewership because when you fix these problems with 100 people in your user base, when you actually do acquire real customers, when you bring in, you know, hundreds and thousands more, the the funnel isn’t broken, the user experience isn’t broken, the product isn’t broken. So you can actually capture the value of those customers. But you have to do this early on. This is the foundation for growth even though it’s not exciting, it’s it’s exciting to get read about in TechCrunch. Doing an MVP interview is not exciting because you’ve got 20 customers that are talking to one of them who’s frustrated. But this is the foundation, so I can’t just reaffirm that enough. Now, after they have the product launch fit, you move into part three, which is the product market fit. Now tell us what is the market fit and then how do we measure that? Because it seems hard to measure sometimes.
Ash: Sure. So product market fit is a term that was popularized by Marc Andreessen, the founder of Netscape. And in one of his blog post, they kind of describe what it felt. So we kind of know emotionally what that should feel like. It’s when your product is just flying out the door and customers, you know, there’s more demand and you can produce things fast enough. You’re kind of getting overwhelmed just with customer demand. So, you know, good problems to have. That’s where we all would like to be one day. So tornado of the product cycle. And so he had to get kind of put this out there because he had been experiencing that with Netscape. And he said this is what it feels like and this is what product market fit is. Unfortunately, we didn’t have a very good way to measure what that is. So there’s the kind of corollary of that is that if you have to ask if you have product market fit, you probably don’t because you know, you would know when it happens. But that’s not very helpful either. But there on the on the other side, there are some very good indicators we have now. And that’s where the whole realm of innovation, accounting, again, comes in is we can use metrics and math. Emphatically. Create models where we can measure things like engagement. We can measure things like referral. If you are building a viral product and see if you are actually making progress, if you’re actually hitting the right triggers to where you are approaching product market fit, and if the trend continues to actually make that make that jump into that realm, and that’s really kind of the whole body of work that lean helps you do is it really helps you incrementally measure from when you first launch the product and almost look for deltas versus absolutes. I don’t care if I have ten customers today. Yes, I want to get to 100,000. But week over week, am I making improvement or am I spinning my wheels? That’s really that’s the basic question you want to ask. Yeah. And we have these these metrics of these accounting measurement techniques where we can do those kinds of things. And that’s really how you measure the way the product market fit.
Bronson: Define Delta for me. What is that.
Ash: Show? So it’s again, it’s it’s changes from one week to the max. So typically when we look at metrics, we like to measure things on an aggregate basis. So my monthly conversion rate is 5%. Well, that’s really interesting saying what was it last month? That’s what I really want to know if it was 5% as well, what, about three months ago? 5%? Well, don’t look like you’re making any progress. You might be adding a whole bunch of features and you might be improving Google’s marketing things, but you’re really kind of flatlined. And unfortunately, I call it the Groundhog Day effect, as if you really kind of even look at daily visitors to your site like clockwork. They tend to behave very similarly, you know, taking seasonal adjustments aside and kind of their week side. You know, one week on a monday is going to be very similar to another week on a monday for any kind of a product. And that’s just the Groundhog Day effect where your product just begins to flatline, all things being equal. So that’s on the one hand, while that’s very depressing, it’s also very motivating because now you can try all kinds of experiments. You can get very aggressive and try new techniques. And if you see a spike in your numbers, it’s you can correlate that back to something you did and then figure out how you can do more of those kinds of things and not do all needless busywork.
Bronson: So yeah, it’s almost good that it’s Groundhog Day all over again because then when you do something that matters, you can notice it as a real change in the analytics, because if it was all over the place, it would be really hard to find the correlation of causality of your individual actions. So it’s actually a good thing. Now you tell people to Don’t be a feature pusher. I’ve done this the wrong way before. I’ve taken this advice and I regret it. What do you mean when you tell people not to be a feature pusher?
Ash: Yeah. So when it comes to the product, after we so we take all this great care to build this MVP AI and hopefully it came across as being some people in your audience might be saying, what, you want me to go and talk to customers before I build stuff that’s just too much work. It’s faster just to build that. I was ready. Odds of building something are very low, so all of that stuff I described really helps you build the right product. Even that MVP interview, the usability test, it uncovers so many problems just at the beginning. And so I was going to mention this early on is that usability test experts say you don’t even have to talk to the hundreds of people that you’re kind of mentioned. Is that within, you know, 3 to 5 people, you uncover 80% of usability problems. So the learning comes very, very rapidly. But so all of that stuff is is is really very important and in kind of setting that right that right foundation.
Bronson: No, that’s great. And so when it comes to features, you know, how do we know when to add a feature? Because it’s necessary and when that we’re being a feature pusher? I mean, it’s like Apple. You know, you mentioned the copy and paste. It seems like that’s been a feature they pushed. Right. And yet they didn’t like. How do we know that line is because it’s so hard as an entrepreneur to kind of get outside your own body and see things, you know, objectively.
Ash: Right? So and lean there’s this term of customer pull. So ideally you want to see some customer demand for a feature just by jumping into the Apple example, you know, those features where kind of feature parity types of were in that category where everyone knows that eventually you need to have them, but if they had them, nobody would buy the iPhone because it had cut and paste. They would buy. They would buy because it had a browser, a phone and a music player. The iPod all in one. Yeah. That’s how they were kind of distinguishing. Is that so your features have to be they have to be different. They have to be things that customers really want and if it gets in the way. So obviously at some point people were like, well, now I’m iPhone three and I don’t have cut and paste. Now I’m getting really upset. And so at that point I have to add it, but they don’t have to add it day one. So yeah, that’s part of but even going to your point is that many times as entrepreneurs and this was a point I was making early on, is that we take such great care and build that minimum feature. But once it’s out there, unfortunately for most of us, we don’t get this hockey stick curve. It’s going to be a flat line first before it takes it to take off. So even the MVP is guaranteed to succeed out the gate by mistake. We make is we just start saying, oh, it’s because we we have a minimal product. It’s because we didn’t have enough features. So as entrepreneurs, we just start blowing that thing back up and that. It’s not the right answer either. What you want to do is repeat that process again, which is realize that the features you build. Okay, maybe they’re not perfect. Maybe they’re not complete. Chances are that more good efforts should be made to improving your existing features, because that’s the ones that customers said they want. And maybe that is not working well enough. And 20% of your effort should go in investing in new feature development. So still having that dialog with customers to say, you know, you’re using this product, but is there anything that’s lacking? And if there is, you know, have a conversation with them and use that to prioritize what you push next. But more from a customer pull perspective versus you saying, I’m just going to like now blast this thing out to them and and and shove it down their throat.
Bronson: Yeah. And what is the feature backlog? How does that play into this whole thing?
Ash: Sure. That’s just a way of triaging feature. So in inadvertently, when you put the product out there, you are going to get all kinds of feedback. Customers are going to try to be helpful. You know, some of them will give you feature ideas. You yourself are going to have improvements that you want to make in your product and that a feature backlog is just a place to collect it. And what we have found is that that that stuff just keeps growing and growing and growing to where now, as a team with a small team, we don’t even necessarily keep an official feature backlog. I mean, this is something that I even first read in 37 Signal’s book Getting Real, right? I just kind of throw away all the feature ideas because if a feature is a creature request is important, it will surface multiple times and you have a feature and you’re like, Okay, that’s interesting. Good to know, but I’m not gonna do anything about it. The 10th time you hear it, maybe you should pay attention to it. So that’s kind of another way of doing that, that feature triage the book. I also talk about this notion of key metrics. So if you’re launching your product and you’re worried about virality, when nobody yet as we get to that point because there they have activation issues like in their account successfully trying a feature for that form of waste. No one’s ever going to get there. So again, there are ways to prioritize features that way based on where the where the bucket is speaking the most. Yeah.
Bronson: Now, one of the last sections of your book you talk about experimenting with pivots and pivots might be one of the most controversial parts of the Lean Startup movement, because people on the outside looking in, they consider it giving up sometimes or not pushing through the hub or, you know, whatever the phrase may be. Tell us, what do you think about pivots kind of in general, and how should we experiment with pivots and when do we know to push through and when do we know to pivot? What’s your thoughts on kind of whole thing?
Ash: Sure. So that’s become a that’s definitely a hard question. I’ll do my best to answer it. I will say that I also see the reverse happening, which is people actually using pivots kind of as an excuse to actually change direction, because now that they’ve got permission to pivot from the Lean startup, they actually probably say, Well, I tried something that didn’t work, and so I’m going to go pivot to something else as a justification of they’re still on the right track. They’re still trying, they’re still being lean. So I kind of see both sides of it and both are hard. Like being able to make a decision to pivot is hard, but also jumping into it prematurely. It sounds easy, but it’s the wrong thing to do. And maybe, you know, it’s kind of explain why we have to pivot. All kind of should talk about the hockey stick curve again. Look at any successful company. They usually have a flat part of the hockey stick curve and it’s not because they weren’t trying hard or they were too dumb in the beginning. It’s just that before you can build something that works, you have to go through a lot of crap that doesn’t work. And that’s just the nature of of entrepreneurship. It’s just the nature of startups. So you have to try a lot of things and many things will fail in the beginning. And then you eventually kind of find these breakthrough insights that start to make the rocket ship the rocket ship take off. And each of those course corrections is what we would call a pivot. Now, a characteristic of a pivot is that it needs to be grounded in learning. If you run an experiment and it fails, if you randomly just go and say, Well, this failed, I’m going to try something different. That’s not a pivot that this guy see. What’s the strategy? Just throwing a random stop and maybe get lucky, maybe something will work. But that’s not the way we should be approaching pivots. So usually when experiments fail, I like to use a Buckminster Fuller quote. It was a kind of a well known renowned scientist, and what he said is that there is no such thing as a failed experiment. We just have unexpected outcomes. So if you run an experiment and you don’t get the outcome that you expect, don’t treat it as a failure. Instead, try to dig deeper. And rather than running away from that failure, try to figure out what might have been the root causes for those failures. Maybe it’s that you are targeting the wrong customers. Maybe it’s that you have the product trying to do some price testing, maybe. And so you come up with these different hypotheses. And so rather than running away from failure, you start to make these little course corrections, which would be kind of little pivots that we’re making. And one of those might be able to unveil a big insight in how they make your product take off.
Bronson: Yeah, that’s great. Well, as this has been an incredible interview, I have one last question for you to end on here. I’d like to ask my guest at the very end, what’s the best advice that you. For any startup that’s trying to grow, it’s a high level, broad question. Take it anywhere you want.
Ash: Sure. I mean, for me, obviously, coming from a lean background, I’m a big fan of rapid experimentation. So I would just say, even if you’re you’re trying to grow, you kind of have to have the basics in place, which is you have to have a very good system. It’s like tuning an engine of, you know, what we call the engine of growth. So you have to have a pretty clear system and being able to benchmark that system. So having these baseline metrics in place. And it’s a whole body of work right there, which we didn’t get into. So using core versus aggregate metrics are very important because if you aggregate metrics, sometimes you get misleading information on what is really working and what’s not. So very important to be able to correctly baseline rate, standard measure of progress for your or your particular product and then be able to run experiments. And so you’re running experiments experiment. Many of your audience, I know, I’m sure are aware of speed testing and AB testing, but you’re doing those kinds of experiments and getting a little bit crazy there because you can really draw cause and effect and be like, that’s ultimately the way you you kind of iterate your way towards towards growth.
Bronson: Yeah, that’s great. Ash, again, thank you so much for coming on the program and sharing so much your knowledge with us.
Ash: Well, thanks for.