An Introduction to Running Lean – Using the Scientific Method to Build A Better Business

I am a scientist by training. In college I spent my time in the psychology lab teaching rats to press levers and studying how humans learning new skills.  I never expected that I’d come to apply those same scientific principles to my own business development.

Me and my team at a recent Start-Up Weekend. (Photo: David)

My team at a recent Start-Up Weekend. (Photo: David)

Freelancing Failures

In my first year of freelancing I tried to appeal to everybody. I was a personal trainer, project manager, facilitator and efficiency expert. As a result of this broad-spectrum approach, I didn’t make significant differences for my clients and struggled to get by financially.

Flash forward four years: I’m just back from a two-week trip to Argentina during which I gave 40+ lessons to children with special needs, consulted with families, taught a seminar, and managed to reserve two day just for my practice of Argentine tango. I earned enough in this two weeks to pay for the trip and a month’s worth of expenses, and will spend the rest of the month dividing my time between practicing my Spanish, training in gymnastics, and applying Lean Start-Up methodologies to families affected by autism around the world.

Discovering What Works

Had I been told my own story four years ago I would have shaken my head in disbelief. I did not, and still don’t, view myself as a sophisticated business person. I am curious, passionate and methodical.

It turns out that this combination is enough. As with running rats through experiments in college, the methodology for building a successful business is simple.

For Example: Toyota

My family drives Toyotas. I grew up hearing about Toyota’s “Just In Time” system. By systematically examining the places of greatest inconsistency, Toyota dramatically reduced waste. By studying how American grocery stores restock purchased items only after purchase, Toyota replaced excess storage with systems for manufacturing just what was needed. They tested extensively to determine where fail-points where in their new production lines and planned accordingly. In short, by thinking systematically and testing everything Toyota dramatically outperformed their competition.

Ask a Question and Form a Hypothesis.

  • How can I create a thriving, international practice and help families beyond the San Francisco Bay Area?
  • Where would I like to travel for work?
  • Who do I know in South America?

The next step was to contact people I knew.

  • Did that work?
  • If it didn’t, how come not?
  • If it did – and this is the harder part – how can it be done better?

The Lean Start-Up

The Lean Start-Up movement was founded by Steve Blank and now perpetuates much of Silicon Valley. It is hip for small companies to “run Lean”, conduct A/B tests, to launch with just a minimal viable product (MVP), etc. It is not that these tactics are wrong, but I do think they miss the heart of what Steve Blank, Eric Reis and others evangelize. The heart lies in the science of the process.

Scientific Method

The scientific process is very simple:

  • Form a hypothesis.
  • Attempt to disprove that hypothesis though experimentation.

There’s more to be said, certainly. But if all you do in starting a new business is to form a hypothesis, essentially just ask a question, and then attempt to prove yourself wrong, you are off to a great start.

Scientific Attitude

The scientific attitude is best categorized as one of eager, nonjudgmental exploration and the scientific process is best understood through running simple experiments.

In third grade I had a teacher who is passionate about science. We played with rats, my dad and I built a maze for the rats and I won the local science fair. Even that early I began to appreciate the value of testing and of curiosity. While testing is all the rage in Silicon Valley, I have found true curiosity lacking in much of modern business.

When I watch my nine month old nephew look at the world around him there is no skepticism, no doubt. In business I have found an emphasis on cynicism and inauthenticity that goes against the fundamental principles of the scientific process.  Embrace curiosity and childlike innocence! Or, at the very least, be skeptical but not cynical.

Lean Start-Up Tools

There are many manuals and tools on how to run a Lean Start-Up. A few that I think are worth reading:

Four Steps to Epiphany by Steven Blank.

The Lean Start-Up by Eric Ries

Growth Hacker Marketing – Ryan Holiday is a traditional marketer who articulates the mindset necessary to apply these tools more clearly than I have read anywhere else.

Lean Start-Up Canvas – This is a free tool that walks entrepreneurs through how to test the basic assumptions of their business before building their product. This is like a 1-page business plan.