startup logoThis week I had the opportunity to participate in an innovation event by my company called simply “StartUp” in which the we were able to really put into practice the principles of the Lean StartUp.

The roughly 150 participants were asked to come up with new products or even businesses and prepare a 1-minute pitch; no slides, no gimmicks, just talk. After 1 minute, the buzzer went off and we were cut off – no extensions. We had to cover problem/customer need, provide a sample scenario, how we’d solve it, and end with a catchy product/business name. I was one of the roughly 45 people who pitched their ideas and let me tell you – this was tough!

Then all the pitches were represented on post-its on the wall and each audience member got 3 sticky notes to vote. Then the top 22 pitches were selected and the audience members self-organized into teams of 3-7 people.

The next step was conducting empathy interviews with consumers / customers which included walking up to strangers and trying to engage them in a conversation about our idea. The objective was to learn as much as possible and validate target audience, what are the real problems people have, do we really understand the needs, etc. This was a humbling experience for many. While all were bright individuals with lots of subject matter and industry experience, in more than (I’m guessing) 40% of the cases, the initial understanding of the problem/need were anywhere from slightly off to way wrong – a humbling experience! Then we could either pivot and adjust our understanding of the problem space and our solution – or give up.

Then came experiments with prototypes, be it on paper or online.

We also had to articulate and flesh out the business case, e.g. size of the market, revenue models, cost, competitive landscape etc. to prove that our solution translated into a viable business.

In the end we had to make a final, 3-minute pitch to judges (plus 2-3 minutes of Q&A) who then evaluated our product or business ideas and finally selected the top concept. The winning team will be able to work on fully fleshing out their idea for the next 90 days with the end goal of seeking actual seed funding. Exciting stuff!

Here are some of the key learnings from this process:

  • More often than not, we don’t know what people really want and would use. This includes seasoned product managers.
  • You can’t just work from a desk/office and figure this stuff out. You have to talk to people in the real world. Then focus on listening.
  • It’s good to fail fast and pivot. The first idea will rarely be “the one”. Only validated, viable ideas create real business value. (See my other post on Business Agility.)
  • Small, cross-functional teams work. People with different backgrounds and skills form teams capable of incredible things and are more than the sum of the parts.
  • Short presentations are very hard. Focus on the essence and don’t overload on details. Make your key points and connect to the audience both through key facts and at an emotional level.
  • Despite the focus on the essence of things, tons of legwork is needed to get there. Saying less is harder than more.
  • Finding a viable, sustainable business idea is not trivial.

The Lean StartUp approach works! This event gave us the opportunity to act and feel like entrepreneurs – outside of the comfort zone of our regular jobs, without job titles, processes, and support from the outside world or the rest of our organizations. Equipped with just our ideas and laptops, we worked long hours to create something new from scratch in just 54 hours while competing with dozens of other ideas and teams.

This had been a very valuable experience. If you ever have the chance to do something similar – try it!