Hello World!

by Tom Eisenmann

This blog will collect posts by Harvard Business School MBA students in my new elective course, "Launching Technology Ventures." Through case studies, LTV explores product development, marketing and business development challenges that confront entrepreneurs as they launch info tech ventures. The course examines lean startup principles and the conditions under which they work best. For more background on LTV, see this four-part post describing the course's structure, syllabus, project, and reading list.

Here's a list of questions I posed to my student motivated by our first five class sessions. I invite readers to submit more questions and to comment on questions in this list. I've asked my students to submit their first round of posts to me by February 11; I'll publish to this blog shortly thereafter.

By the way, my students are writing these posts instead of a final exam. Do you wish you were back in school? ;)

  1. When does it make sense to launch early with a buggy product, and when is it important to perfect the product?
  2. Along these lines, Eric Ries observed that “buggy products can be okay even for mission critical applications. It’s how you recover from a quality problem that really makes a difference. With an exceptionally strong recovery, a quality problem can do more good than harm to your reputation.” Do you agree?
  3. Is the “product-market fit” concept useful for entrepreneurs and managers? How can you know in the moment (rather than in retrospect) that you’ve achieved PMF?
  4. Is the “minimum viable product” concept useful for entrepreneurs? Do you buy Eric Ries’s definition: the set of features/marketing initiatives at any point in time that delivers the most validated learning with the least wasted effort?
  5. Two case protagonists (e.g., Dropbox, Cake) pointed out the challenge of doing business development deals with big corporations. Can we generalize about when this challenge is greatest? Do lean startups face special difficulties on this front?
  6. We’ve seen a lot of companies struggle to achieve viral growth. What’s going on? Does LTV have a skewed sample, or is it hard to harness viral growth?
  7. Some of our case companies pursued big event launches (e.g., Dropbox = TechCrunch50; Cake = TechCrunch40; Aardvark = SXSW); others (IMVU, Triangulate) did not. Can we generalize about when it makes sense to seek high-profile PR?
  8. A couple of companies —Dropbox and Aardvark— that otherwise pride themselves on user-centric design were adamant about not offering the features most frequently requested by their users. What’s going on here? When should vision override user feedback in a lean startup?
  9. Max Ventilla of Aardvark says an entrepreneur’s goal should not be to build the best possible product within budget, but rather to get better at learning. Do you find this argument persuasive?
  10. Eric Ries told us that the chasm is a startup’s shield, rather than its enemy, because it allows a startup to risk alienating early adopters without suffering reputational consequences. Do you find this argument persuasive?
  11. Many entrepreneurs, like Steve Jobs, create a “reality distortion field” that allows them to sell their vision to potential employees, investors and partners. Is an RDF compatible with the lean startup?
  12. Along the same lines, when asked about balancing vision and analytics, Eric Ries argued that “vision is something that journalists like to write about once a startup succeeds.” He added, “Zuckerberg is a visionary, right? So why, in the wake of a firestorm of criticism, did he kill Beacon but let News Feed live? Both were visionary features, but he had analytics that showed that News Feed had traction.” Evaluate this argument.
  13. Is it possible to iterate TOO fast, i.e., to suffer the startup equivalent of attention-deficit disorder?
  14. A lean startup precept is “don’t scale until you have validated your business model.” Note that Google, YouTube, Facebook, Twitter, foursquare, Quora, etc have not really followed this principle: these platform-based business all harnessed strong network effects before they had a clear plan for monetization. Does the precept make sense? Recall Eric Ries’s point that “Facebook’s business model was aggregating attention, and they proved decisively they could do that, so they validated their model.”
  15. We’ve seen several startups use “smoke tests” (e.g., Dropbox, Triangulate, Aardvark, IMVU). What have you learned about their reliability?
  16. Sunil Nagaraj observed that “It takes a lot of energy to get employees, investors and partners to pivot with you.” Do you agree? What are the implications for lean startups?
  17. What have you learned about designing products for early adopters vs. mainstream customers?
  18. We’ve seen a lot of mechanisms for getting customer feedback, e.g., focus groups, one-on-one interviews, usability tests, surveys, website feedback forms, website blogs, smoke tests, etc. What have you learned about when different mechanisms are most reliable?
  19. We’ve seen some products that require radical behavioral change by consumers (e.g., Aardvark, Cake, IMVU); others have leveraged more familiar product formats (e.g., Dropbox, Triangulate). Can we generalize about whether lean startup management practices are better suited to one type of product than the other?
  20. Drew Houston of Dropbox described some of the challenges a startup confronts in selling an enterprise software product, e.g., slow decision cycles due to multiple decision makers; a Catch-22 of requiring a track record to get IT department certification to requiring certification to amass a track record. What do these challenges imply for the ability to apply lean startup principles when selling to enterprise customers?
  21. We’ve seen a couple of companies struggle with whether to embrace “sleazy” marketing tactics to drive early growth. When is this okay for a lean startup?
  22. As you reflect on lean startup management practices, how well would they apply to new business development in big corporations?
  23. As an entrepreneur following the lean startup philosophy, how do you know when to stop pivoting and pull the plug on your venture? Is this decision easier or harder in a lean startup?