First Lean Startup Lunch

Today I attended the first Lean Startup Lunch in Silicon Valley, an event that is slated to happen every two weeks and is part of the SF Lean Startup Meetup. It’s arranged by, and you can sign up for the next one here.

Today’s lunch gathered a great group of cofounders and technologists who had not met before but quickly jumped into discussing each others challenges. It always amazes me how a random group of people with startup experience can get together and quickly go deep on real problems. One underlying reason was nearly everyone present was not only familiar with the Lean Startup methodology and Customer Development, but perhaps more importantly, had tried it and came to the table with a shared mindset and language.

The conversation quickly focused on one of the trickiest aspects of the Lean method – how to know when you should pivot versus persevere, which is discussed well in Eric Reis’s upcoming book, The Lean Startup. While I really like how Eric frames the problem and offers one of the best examples of how to solve it (Dave Binetti’s awesome story of Votizen), there is no substitute for working through the problem in your specific situation with fresh thinking from smart, experienced practitioners. That’s what we did today, in between bites of delicious braised tofu and jasmine tea from Cafe Yulong.

Most everybody at the lunch came in with real in-the-trench problems, and walked out with new things to try. One lively discussion was around the specifics of how to talk to prospective target customers during the Customer Development phase.  A point that had a lot of pickup was to discern between what a customer (a hypothetical future customer) can reliably tell you, versus what they cannot reliably tell you.

It came down to this – customers can tell you a lot you a lot about their problems, especially if they are important monetizable problems. But they can’t reliably describe or predict the solution they would really use,  or what they would pay for it, without actually seeing it or playing with it. In fact, (and I should have said this at the lunch) it actually is a waste of time to ask someone in an interview if they would use a service that would do XYZ. They have no idea if they would really really use it until they actually see more of what you’re thinking. (But I am also not saying you need to build the real product to get reliable feedback……there  are definitely cheap quick ways to get reliable feedback on a product before building it, which is part of the idea behind MVP’s. One great thing to ask the target customer is if they are interested enough in the problem to provide feedback on a proposed solution when you have it ready.)

In other words, entrepreneurs first need to go deep on the problem they are targeting by spending time with the real people who feel it most acutely. It is then the entrepreneur’s job to come up with the solution – not the customer’s job.

But here is the good news – that clever, non-obvious breakthrough solution, the one that sells and in hindsight looks deceptively simple, actually becomes more and more apparent as one gets deeper into the problem. Because the entrepreneur who is willing to do the two-tank scuba dive on the problem gets a different view that no one else has – one that looks across multiple customers and can see the problem from different viewpoints. It’s as if these multiple viewpoints taken together shine enough light to finally make an obscure solution visible.

Startups are a lot of work, but it’s moments like that that make it all worth it. Hopefully the people attending the Lean Startup Lunch today got one step closer to their breakthrough.


  1. Mark,
    Thanks for mention and the insightful discussion. One quick note is that our beta is currently closed. If a reader wants to get involved with Rich’s Lean Startup lunch club, please use this link: .

  2. I would gently disagree: in my experience, early adopters (what Steve Blank calls earlyvangelists) can reliably predict their usage and will help you shape the product as you are building it. There are just very few of them. Most prospects are pragmatic (early majority), mainstream (late majority), or conservative/laggards. I borrow from Geoffrey Moore’s “Crossing the Chasm for the terminology, see for a good review

  3. John Lohavichan says:

    Great recap. I’m looking forward to the lunches when they make it out to Boston.
    Best, John

  4. Thank you so much for your great summary – looking to start up a similar meetup in dallas. I agree with your assessment, I also feel it should be made clear that you are not advocating any sort of “build it and they will come” strategy. If you have the time, money and talent to make it happen, thats great, but your odds of winning without customer development are as good as winning the lottery 🙂

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