Lean Startup Canvas: the wrong tool.

I already rantedwrote about the Lean Startup Canvas last week. After giving it some more thought, I now realize that the problems with the canvas extend beyond its focus on profit as the main purpose for any venture. In fact, I argue that the canvas fails to capture the nature of many tech-driven ventures and the motivation of their founders. Let me explain:

Product vs. Market

There has been plenty of talk about the market-over-product approach of the Lean Canvas. Should you find a market first, or focus on the product you want to build? As it turns out, many successful tech companies started by focussing on a specific problem to solve and left the question of finding the right market for later – Twitter, Google and Facebook are just the most famous among them. Yet, the primary focus of the Lean Startup Canvas is on the market first approach.

Even though I’ve been in favour of taking potential markets into account from early on, the reality is that there is little point in doing that when you just started coding: This is an experimental stage, there is nothing to see, test or prove for weeks or months after you started your project.

If there is one thing to learn from the principles of agile development, it is that your product changes a lot during a software development process cycle. Consequently, the end-result often barely resembles the original conception. For our case, this means that the likelihood of the end technology still being a great fit for the market you decided on at the beginning is rather small. Even worse, overly focussing on a market creates a harmful narrowing of your focus: Deciding on how and to whom to sell a technology that hasn’t even been developed yet, leads to focussing on building something sellable rather than exploring the actual impact your technology could have.

Another great example of why the market-first approach will often be the wrong one are the numerous tech ventures where the customer isn’t even the primary user (just think about Twitter, Google or Facebook again). By narrowing your focus to build something you can sell, you can easily forget to make it attractive to the people actually using it – which aren’t your customers per se. This doesn’t only apply to ad-driven social networks, it is equally true for building a platform for fund-raising or petitions: if you don’t have active users, why would any “customer” ever want to run a campaign on your platform? On top, by narrowing your focus only on the sellable aspects, you easily overlook great opportunities for making an impact just because you can’t immediately monetize them.

Ergo, instead of thinking of the “market” when building a tech venture, you should think about those who’ll ultimately benefit from the technology first, and make sure you tailor a product to them. Once there is a committed user base, it is much easier to think about how to make it run sustainable.

Building

Considering that more than just a few tech ventures start as passion projects, the time people spend on them without any financial gain whatsoever is immense. Estimating the right amount before is already hard but if you did it half-way correct, you’d conclude that the venture is simply too expensive. In fact, for many tech ventures it is true that if you included the time spend by the founding developers in the Lean Startup Canvas, break even is barely possible. Or at best, the break even point is so far ahead that the project should never have been started in the first place.

But, if the founder isn’t doing it for profits, that hardly matters. Building the initial version is fun and rewarding by itself and developers are paid enough that they can do that on the side. So the common strategies to deal with this problem in the Lean Startup Canvas is either to only create and look at it once an initial version has been build already or leaving out the work of the founding developers all together. Though the initial build is a vital part of a tech venture cycle, you have to hide it to make the Lean Startup Canvas work. Awkward.

The step to sustainability

The biggest problem for most tech founders is moving their project from an initial experiment into a sustainable project. Truth is, the long term viability of your project depends on you finding users with a vested interest. These users will only come once they know about your product. Yet, taking the step from initial idea to a sustainable product requires marketing and sales – skills techies aren’t very fond of, nor good at. And, finding/hiring someone to do this often feels like a waste of time to them. To techies these costs are perceived to be be much higher than building an initial product. As a result, most developer driven ventures avoid this step for as long as they can. Running an the “build just this other feature before we can launch” approach, until progress slows and the project ultimately gets abandoned¹.

Coders need to accept that getting people to use their product is part of making the impact and failing at it is no different than failing at building the technology in the first place. Pretending time for marketing hasn’t come yet increases the likelihood of the tech venture failing, by a lot.

How does all this relate to the Lean Startup Canvas? Well, the canvas assumes a balanced back-and-forth of – hopefully growing – costs and revenue throughout the venture. The life cycles of most tech ventures isn’t like that. Given that marketing efforts are often more costly to techies, they will (justifiably) leave this until after a workable prototype has been build. Therefore, we need a canvas that understands and incorporates this fundamental break between the two stages of the development process – and acknowledges how difficult the transition can be for the founders. It should support you in finding out when the time has come to go out and talk to the benefactors and through that encourage you to do so. Lean Startup Canvas misses this vital opportunity.

We need something else

The premise is simply different for tech ventures. A canvas for tech creationists needs to take into account that marketing might not be the natural thing to people. That costs in time and money are inherently different and that profit simply isn’t a primary motivation. Finally it needs to understand the fundamental difference between building the first version versus running an on-going projects. A good tech creation canvas has to assists developers in thinking about their benefactors and user base early, without narrowing the focus of the technology to what can be sold only.

If done early on, this in turn would help you realise when is the right moment to take the step of publishing and promoting. By having that stated in black and white, I believe this can reduce the fear and motivate techies to go out and do the – to them – hard part of selling it, such that the technology can realise its potential impact. The Lean Canvas is not able to deliver on any of these accounts. We need something else².


A great thanks to Justin Baeder for trying to hammer the nail, take a picture of it and publishing it under CC-BY 2.0.

¹ been there, done that.

² working on it.