Stay Lean: Your Startup Toolkit



When I was asked to teach a Cambridge Startup Masterclass the first obstacle was to choose a topic. In the end I opted to talk about the Lean Startup and the tools that would help a Startup stay lean.

That’s the first challenge: What is a Lean Startup? During the class I’ll summarise the work done so far (mostly by Eric Ries in his book “The Lean Startup”).

Everyone tends to think of “Lean” in this context as being short on money and having to make do on free or cheap tools. That can well be true, but it’s really more about cutting out the waste of time and/or money. Even if you have just closed a funding round, calling in the SAP or Oracle consultants to implement a million-dollar system is usually just about as dumb as lining the staff car park with new, expensive sports cars.

It’s certainly true these days that excellent software tools are available for little or nothing. People have grown to hate “company systems” and are unimpressed when it takes only seconds to upload and tag personal photos yet days to find a company document.

But, even if you had the money to spare, there’s no assurance most software tools will move your company forward, let alone accelerate growth. Many of them seem to be carriages that have lost their wheels – usually around the time the designers were acquired by the BigCo now selling it.

When you offer to talk about tools, there’s a huge risk it will turn into a “My Favourite Bookmarks” session. I may be thrilled with some tool I use, but I can’t expect you to feel equally excited until I show that it meets a need. If that need was to find new songs that are just like the songs that you already like then maybe that part is easy. But we’re talking obtuse Startups: a word that has Alice in Wonderland abilities to mean just what you choose it to mean - neither more nor less.

So I can’t (and won’t) just sit there opening boxes containing one glittery tool after another.

The other way to segment it might be to try sorting the tools by job title – you know, CEO tools, Tools for Finance, Tools for Legal, etc. Two problems with that: job titles are not well-defined either, and anyway a Startup will probably not be able to fill all these roles.

So I want to sweep away the job titles and find the tasks underneath. There are things a Startup needs, and you set tasks to do / get / achieve them; and it helps big-time if the people doing the task are good at it. Well-executed tasks need great skills or abilities.

My best shot at this is there are 6 core Abilities. I label them as:

  • Forming
  • Transforming
  • Projecting
  • Persuading
  • Collecting
  • Protecting

There are 6 ability types, but it doesn’t at all follow that the ideal Startup is 6 persons. Knowing what you should be doing is the first step towards covering for what you are missing.

It turns out that the Lean Startup model offers a framework to manage these 6 abilities, and helps you understand which ability is optimal at different stages of the product cycle.

The mantra of the Lean Startup is to keep the product cycles short and focussed. Each cycle is like a quest to discover something new, or earn some new level. The abilities of your team shape the success of the quest. Your best plans will be challenged by unforeseen circumstances. It all soon threatens to become a bit “World of Warcraft: The Startup”, with Quests, Guilds and Mages over-running the place.

Luckily we can stick to reality by talking about the best tools to strengthen each of the abilities when used in the Lean Startup model. So when you are forming new ideas, what are the best tools to capture the thought flow? When you want to test something you have built (transformed) what are the best tools to do user testing? As you persuade a customer to sign-up, what are the best tools to help you keep track of the relationship? And so on.

Anyway, that’s the small quest I have set for myself next week in a session entitled “Stay Lean: Your Startup Toolkit”. It's one of the Cambridge Startup Masterclass talks that take place at ideaSpace, and this time it’s my turn. My aim is that each person there will discover at least one tool that’s new to them and that they’ll use regularly from the next day onwards.


Tags: On Startups, business management tools

Paul Walsh

Written by Paul Walsh

Paul Walsh was one of the founders of Cognidox. After a period as an academic working in user experience (UX) research, Paul started a 25-year career in software development. He's worked for multinational telecom companies (Nortel), two $1B Cambridge companies (Ionica, Virata), and co-founded a couple of startup companies. His experience includes network management software, embedded software on silicon, enterprise software, and cloud computing.