One of the first things I do when thinking about new projects, or even existing business models, is mapping it out on the lean startup canvas. I am a big sucker for the lean canvas, it captures more on one page than most business plans in over thirty pages. That said, I am getting increasingly frustrated with it. The Lean Canvas, as an evolution of the Business Model Canvas, clearly comes from a business perspective and a certain profit-driven mindset. But, when you talk about tech startups, community-driven, or inherently open and social ventures, the Lean Canvas doesn’t only fall short in describing it, it is outright harmful. Similar to the saying "bad information is worse than no information at all", the Lean Canvas could give you false confidence by putting you and your idea into a certain structure. Yet this structure is not necessarily suitable for your endeavour and could actually drive you off your path.
Just try to fit something like OpenTechSchool, Hackership, Discourse or – for the sake of argument – Mozilla into it. All of them have a higher purpose than profit creation. I’d go so far as to argue that most developers started their venture for a higher purpose – like fixing a specific problem they encounter a lot, or see other people suffer from. If money were the main objective, many wouldn’t have started at all, as their rather liberal employment is surely a better source of income. Not to mention the many projects that are embarked on solely out of passion in spare time. So, sure, you can fill in the whole Canvas for Mozilla but it won’t capture what Mozilla is about. In fact, it actually leads to confusion by making you think about Mozilla’s customers (what now?) and the channels to reach those customers (does this New Yorker Ad fall into that category?).
Another example? The lean canvas also makes you define your project’s “unfair advantage”. Back to Mozilla: it doesn’t want to have an unfair advantage. Of course, you could argue that through their brilliant developers they are technically in a position that is hard to match, giving them an unfair advantage. Yet, they attract these great developers while paying below-market salaries. If it were about money, you could easily match up to this. The thing is, that it isn’t. Mozilla isn’t about money. Mozilla is about openness, about progress and fixing problems. That’s why so many techies – including me – struggle with the Lean Canvas, it misses the point. We don’t care about making money – that’s just a side-effect and something that allows us to keep paying rent. We take the step because we want to make a difference, want our work to benefit others who have a similar itch and make a tiny, purposeful dent in the universe. So unless your concept development tool lets you express that, it will lead you off path. Like the Lean Canvas does for most tech ventures.
Update, July 28th 2014: Thinking about it further I find a lot more problems in using the Lean Startup Canvas for tech ventures, leading me to conclude that it is just the wrong tool for the job.
Thanks to Jim Carroll for taking this picture of a derailed Google Bike and publishing it under CC-BY 2.0 on flickr.