Originally published: May 10. 2015
Removed by medium for “wrongthink”.
“Lean Startup” has been trendy in Silicon Valley for several years now.
I’ve been a fan.
I’ve also been a fan of fellow libertarian and contrarian thinker Peter Thiel.
So when I first read Peter’s “Zero to One” where Peter dissed “Lean Startup”, I initially felt quite conflicted and it took me a while to figure out which side I was on.
In retrospect I am grateful for the contrarian thinking which challenged the prevailing trend — and my own thinking — because it not only helped me to build a more correct mental model of the situation but I feel that it also will help others who are perhaps heading down the wrong path.
Recently, however, Peter’s ideas have come under attack by the defenders of Lean Startup.
Because of these attacks, I feel it would be appropriate to offer a different contrarian perspective:
My initial simplistic thinking was:
The ideas of Peter Thiel have led him to become a very successful multi billionaire entrepreneur and investor who is having a real impact on the world.
The ideas of Lean startup gurus like Eric Ries, Steve Blank, Ash Maurya, etc. have not led them to achieve a similar level of success.
And, as far as I know, no one has yet succeeded in using lean startup to build a massively successful multi billion dollar company.
Therefore, the evidence would suggest that Peter is more correct.
But that judgement didn’t feel entirely right to me because I could still see that the lean startup methodology does genuinely help to achieve the mission of eliminating the tremendous amount of waste of resources that occurs when we build things that nobody wants.
After struggling with these conflicting beliefs for a while, I eventually achieved resolution when I realized that the 2 camps are speaking to 2 completely different audiences and each message is indeed appropriate for its intended audience. I call these audiences (1) the “contribution driven” and (2) the “significance driven”. Peter is speaking to the former and the Lean Startup movement is speaking to the later.
Here’s what I mean …
As a successful investor, Peter is addressing people who actually have a shot at building something huge. He knows intuitively that all of the massively successful businesses have been built by “contribution driven” people.
One thing that say Steve Jobs, Larry Page, Elon Musk, etc have in common is that they all have attained a level of consciousness where they have the empathic ability to connect with other people and feel the genuine unmet needs of real people in the world. Such entrepreneurs know with absolute certainty that the company who succeeds in meeting these needs will be rewarded. They can feel it in their bones — as Steve Jobs used to say — because they are empathically aware and they can feel the pain and frustration of those people on a continuous basis. They are resolved to build products to meet these needs and will not quit until they succeed. No amount of naysaying from the peanut gallery will dissuade them because they can feel in their bones that they are right. Their unshakeable confidence is rooted in their empathy.
Such contribution driven entrepreneurs are primarily driven by a desire to contribute to the happiness of others and not by a desire for personal gain. Any personal gain they receive is viewed merely as a metric to measure their success at contributing. All the most successful entrepreneurs whom we admire are contribution driven. None of them are driven by a desire for personal gain.
As an investor who is interested in moon shot companies that can change the world Peter will intuitively focus on only those who are contribution driven. There are many such people in the world, but many of them may lack the self confidence to relentlessly pursue their chosen mission.
Peter sees lean startup through that lens. He sees it as an expression of a lack of self confidence amongst contribution-oriented people who want to do good. And he wants those people to summon the courage and self confidence to pursue their dream with tenacity.
He’s right. Some of the people practicing lean startup are doing so because they lack self confidence. For these people, lean startup is the wrong tool and the world will be a much better place if many of them take Peter’s advice to heart.
The Lean Startup gurus, on the other hand, are addressing a completely different group of people who have completely different motivations. Notice the Eric Ries and Steve Blank have been spending time teaching their methods as intrapreneurship methods to (1) bureaucratized companies who are or fear being disrupted and (2) the even more bureaucratized government agencies respectively. This is a clue as to where the real value of the Lean Startup lies.
We all know intuitively that these institutions are not overflowing with contribution driven people who want to take moon shots that radically change the world. Can you imagine the average DMV worker passionately leading a charge to build a human colony on Mars?
Rather, the people who are drawn to such organizations tend to be “security seeking” and “significance driven”. They are primarily driven by a desire to stay safe and to maintain and perhaps elevate their current position in their social hierarchy. For these people contributing value to others is a means to an end rather than the end itself. The end for them is more safety, more money, more power, more status.
And therein lies the root of the problem.
Lean startup correctly identifies the disease:
Extraordinary waste of resources building products that no one wants to use.
And it proposes an effective treatment:
Building a minimum viable product and testing the hypothesis to see if people actually want to use it before more resources are invested.
However, it doesn’t address the root cause of the disease itself.
The reason that nobody wants to buy your product is not because you didn’t test an MVP early on. The reason nobody wants to buy your product is because you were never genuinely driven by an overwhelming desire to bring more happiness to the lives of other people to begin with.
You built a solution in search of a problem.
And you did so because you never really cared that deeply about the problems that other people were struggling with.
Your motivations were more self serving.
If you were genuinely driven by a desire to meet the real needs of real people, you wouldn’t even have considered building that product.
True or not?
Lean Startup is best used as a teaching tool for those who need a little help in learning how to use their mirror neurons to feel the real needs of the real people they are seeking to serve.
It can help to reduce waste.
It can help to slow the rate of decline of organizations that are being disrupted.
But more importantly, it can help to guide people to make the skillful shift from a “significance driven” to a “contribution driven” perspective.
And the more people who make that transition, the better our world will be for us all.
For all these reasons, Lean Startup should be viewed as a skillful tool when used by the appropriate people in the appropriate circumstances.
However, we should also recognize that the Larry Page’s and Elon Musk’s of the world have very little to fear about losing market share to Lean Startup practitioners.