Resources: Steve Blank Playlist

If you’re not familiar with Steve Blank, start here:

The Principles of Lean

“No business plan survives first contact with customers.”

On Acting on Customer Discovery

If you’re going to go out and discover whether customers like your idea or not, this is not an outsourceable problem. The founders need to do this. Particularly, the people capable of changing strategy need to be the ones hearing good news and bad. … Getting feedback from customers is the most valuable thing you will do as entrepreneurs. It is not outsourceable.

Customer Development

The thing is to think as much in terms of developing customers as developing products. Once you’ve got the basic idea, watch all of this (long) video:

Bonus Material

Steve Blank: definition of a startup

I’m horrified to discover that I haven’t posted anything much focusing on Steve Blank’s work on Startups, customer discovery and iteration.

His definition of a startup is a great place to start:

A startup is a temporary organization formed to search for a repeatable and scalable business model.

Steve Blank – The Startup Owners Manual

And here’s a little more:

Entrepreneurs who have run a startup know that startups are not small versions of big companies. Rather they are different in every possible way – from goals, to measurements, from employees to culture. Very few skills, process, people or strategies that work in a startup are successful in a large established company and vice versa because a startup is a different organizational entity than a large established company.

Therefore, it follows that:
a)  Startups need different management principles, people and strategies than large established companies
b)  Any advice that’s targeted to large established companies is irrelevant, distracting and potentially damaging in growing and managing a startup

Steve Blank – A Startup is Not a Smaller Version of a Large Company

This is a really useful insight: modelling early-stage organisations on large and successful organisations has its uses – Jim Collins suggests that big companies start thinking and acting like big companies before they become big – but we need to appreciate that they’re fundamentally different organisations.

An early stage organisation is all about the search, asking questions like:

  • How do we make the change we seek?
  • How do we make our ideas work in the real world?
  • How do we serve more people and have more of an impact?
  • Where will the money come from?

Finding answers to these questions is dependent on taking risks, trying things out and making mistakes – and is fundamentally messy. It’s supposed to feel chaotic.

Steve Blank argues that a mature business – is primarily focused on exploiting a proven business model. That is, they’ve found something that works, that people want, and that pays for itself, and the challenge is to get it into the hands of as many people as possible and fight off competition. I think mature non-profits are (or should be) a bit different (we should always be looking for new and better ideas, new people to serve in new ways) – but it’s a helpful perspective. Established organisations ask questions like:

  • How can we continue to grow and to serve more people with our product?
  • How can we get more efficient at what we do?
  • How can we secure our position?
  • What will we be doing in five years’ time, and how should we budget for it?

There’s stability, predictability, a degree of safety… and (Clayton Christensen would argue), almost inevitable decline. It seems to be the case that when you’re starting out, you wish you could become a ‘proper’ organisation, and once you’ve become established, you’re desperate for the excitement and dynamism of the start.

Don’t it always seem to go, that you don’t know what youve got til its gone?

Joni Mitchell

Resources about setting prices

A high enough price

If you want to help a lot of people, you’ll need to do your job well and for a long time – something that won’t be possible if you don’t have any money.

Charging a reasonable price is a key part of this – but how do you know what’s reasonable? Here a some resources I’ve found helpful for thinking about prices:

Resources on setting prices

By Seth Godin: Here (read this one first), here, and here. Also, Episodes 1, 2 and 9 of Startup School (audio) – or see the page 29 of the transcript here… actually, open the transcript and search ‘price’ and go from there. Lastly, the Money Flows episode of Akimbo.

Profit First by Mike Michalowicz is good on this too (and not as grasping as it sounds) – here it is on the Read to Lead podcast.

It’s worth checking out resources for Freelancers too – even if you’re working on pricing in an organisation.

I highly recommend the thinking explored by Robert McGuire in ep.154 of Ed Gandia’s High Income Business Writing: What’s the Bare MINIMUM you Should be Charging Clients?

Also, try Book Yourself Solid on Read to Lead

This is recommended by Sharky: Price Communicates your Value on The Art of Value



A balancing act for leaders (1)

Some types of work that leaders do:

Foundational and Directional Work

This is the vision and values stuff – identifying needs, thinking through the “why” of the project, articulating its importance and sharing the vision and values with those both inside and outside the organisation. This is the work that keeps you and your team and partners focused and on the right track. It’s also often generative work, in the sense that it generates possibilities for your organisation and others, and also generates work for your team. (This can be good or bad depending on the work and the team’s capacity, but long term you can’t live without it.)

Strategic and Managerial work

This is getting into your organisation’s mission – making strategic decisions (or working with others to make decisions) to do with the “what” of how the vision will be achieved, with finding people who can do the technical work (including managing others) and with managing them as they do it.
Management work is also generative in the sense that it turns vision into specific work and jobs to be done (i.e. it generates work), and because good management generates capacity for the organisation. It does this because people are more productive when they are clear about the work that they need to do and supported to do it, and also because good management allows more effective and integrated specialisation, either by type of task or by project.

Executive tactical and technical work

Unless your organisation is big are big or you have a large personal staff, it’s probable that you also have a technical contribution to make: as a consultant helping your team to set up systems, or as a specialist doing a specific part of the team’s work on the ground. This might be outward focused (delivering training and working on products or selling them) or inward focused (things like recruiting, completing accounts and managing inventory in support of your outward goals). This work is executive in the sense of getting things done and shutting down possibilities. Tactical tasks can be ticked off as “done”. It’s generative to the extent that the quality of the work enables more and better work by colleagues or creates a reputation that attracts new partners to the organisation.

Project phase, organisation size and specialisation

A friend shared this great analogy* for how teams work at different project phases.

Early phase: Golfing Buddies (2-3 players)

In the early phase of a project you and a partner or two (if you have any!) do all the work. You do a lot of your work together with quite a lot of crossover, share tools, might carry each other’s golf bags. There’s camaraderie, little need for planning or job descriptions, and most things you face can be worked out informally as you go. You need to do the work of compensating for your weaknesses yourself.

Intermediate (small) phase: Basketball team (5+ players)

There are more players and each has a position and you start to benefit from specialisation but you interact a lot and in many ways are still basically interchangeable. Plans and strategy matter, but tactics are king. You’re fast and responsive.

Intermediate (large) phase: Rugby team** (15+ players)

The team is getting bigger. Everyone still plays together but there is definite specialisation and team members stop being able to cover each other’s positions. Communication and chains of command become increasingly important and plans become harder to change. Danger of silos and factions.

Mature (large) phase: American Football Team (40+ players***)

There is very deep specialisation and there are clear teams-within-the-team – whole sets of players can play in the same game but never play together. Planned plays and frequent stops for communication are the norm. Management and support structure becomes increasingly important – and expensive. Danger of suffocating bureaucracy.

*Results from Google (like this post on LeadStrategic) suggests that this analogy comes from Larry Osborne‘s Sticky Teams – Osborne also has ‘Track Star’ as a category for solo performers.

**My addition.

***I’ve been a bit fast and loose with the numbers on teams: basketball and rugby teams will have substitutes that take the number of players higher, and American football teams only field 11 players at a time, but have separate offensive, defensive and special teams that all play during different phases of the game.

Seth Godin: freelancing and the hard work of being an entrepreneur

Freelancers get paid when they work. Using our own fingers, our own skills, we do the work. So when I’m making a podcast, it’s me. When I’m writing, it’s me. When I’m giving a speech, it’s me. We get paid when we work and that’s the only time we get paid.

Entrepreneurs, on the other hand, build something bigger than themselves, they build assets. If you’re an entrepreneur and you’re busy hiring the most easily available, best qualified and cheapest person to do every job… it means you’re hiring yourself. And if you’re hiring yourself to do all the jobs, there’s one job you’re not doing, and that’s the job of the CEO. Of the person who figures out how to build something bigger than yourself.

So the hard work of being an entrepreneur is hiring someone to do every single job that can be done by someone who’s not you. It’s a totally different way of being in the world.


Seth Godin – Akimbo: Math Class is Hard

See also: The Akimbo Workshops: Freelancer or Entrepreneur?
The Freelancer’s Workshop
The Bootstrapper’s Workshop

Toolkit (v0.1)

My last post got me thinking again about the toolkit for making change and building a good future. What follows started out as the tail of that post but grew too long, so I’ve cut it off and put it here as a springboard to bounce off (or a wave to ride) later.

So here are some tools…

There are a set of practices and principles – many of them falling under the umbrella of normal ‘management’ – that are well-established and effective for running organisations. You will need to tailor them to your context, but understanding and applying them will make an enormous difference to your ability to build and run a sustainable and effective organisation. Drucker and Tom Peters are great places to start for foundational principles. Books like Financial Intelligence and 4DX are great for specifics.

There’s an overlapping set from the world of small business, startups and bootstrapping that will help you build the thing from nothing in the first place, and make it sustainable. The E-myth (which I’ve just discovered is available for a great price on amazon) is great for establishing operations (and overlaps with the previous category), as is Steve Blank‘s Startup Owners Manual (amazon) in combination with Alex Osterwalder‘s Business Model Generation (amazon). I’ll make a post of videos and audio by these people and put a link to it here.

There are resources for thinking about marketing in the deep sense – making something that people want or need and sharing it with them in such a way that they see its value and talk about it to others – is another overlapping area. I’d start with Seth Godin – probably This is Marketing (amazon) or Purple Cow (amazon) – and throw in Bernadette Jiwa’s The Fortune Cookie Principle (amazon) as another good starting point.

And there’s a whole load of writing about personal growth and effectiveness that really helps you to get these things done…

And about writing and presenting and using information (particularly the web) well…

And about thinking about culture, economics, networks and the future

And I’ve clearly gone down a rabbit hole, so I’ll stop here.

Peter Drucker on management as a discipline

If you can’t replicate something because you don’t understand it, then it really hasn’t been invented; it’s only been done.

When I published The Practice of Management fifty years ago [in 1954], that book made it possible for people to learn how to manage, something that up until then only a few geniuses seemed to be able to do, and nobody could replicate it.

When I came into management, a lot of it had come out of the field of engineering. And a lot had come out of accounting. And some of it came out of psychology. And some more came out of labour relations. Each of those fields was considered separate, and each of them, by itself, was ineffectual.

You can’t do carpentry, you know, if you have only a saw, or only a hammer, or if you have never heard of a pair of pliers. It’s when you put all of those tools into one kit that you invent. That’s what I did in large part inThe Practice of Management – I made a discipline of it.

Peter Drucker – from Frontiers of Management in The Daily Drucker

Understand the tools (make them if you have to). Build a tool kit. Make it reproducible.

I have mixed feelings about this quote from Drucker. On the one hand, bringing together a set of reliable tools for making effective non-profits or social enterprises is exactly what I’m trying to do with DriverlessCroc. On the other, a lot of the things that make these organisations effective in their contexts are very hard to reproduce – often apparently serendipitous combinations of people and resources in the right times and places, with combinations of vision, skills and technology that aren’t reproducible because they haven’t happened before – and might not again.

The point, I think, is to learn which tools are out there and how to use them so that you can be more effective at the creative, unreproducible work that only you can do in your context. Use the tools to make a new tool for change: your organisation.

I’ve posted a few thoughts about what some of these are here – more to come soon.

As powerful as a smile

Real marketing is built into what you do and why you do it. It’s part of your story, something that you do organically when your business is aligned with your mission and values. Kept promises, free returns, obsession with the details, returned emails, clean tables, and attentive staff – all of this is your real marketing.

Real marketing creates a deeper impact, leaves a lasting impression, and is as powerful as a smile.

Bernadette Jiwa – The Fortune Cookie Principle

Why do people come to you for the thing you provide?
What do they get? Why do they want it? How does it make them feel?
What makes them come back?
Do they tell other people about you? What do they say?

What do your actions / words and tone of voice / website / way you dress / your office / commitment to doing things well say about who you are and what you’re doing? Do they say the same thing?
For a non-profit organisation, do you smile at your donors and your clients in the same way? (you should)
Are you an example of these things for your team? How do you articulate them to the team, to new members, to partners?

Scrapbook: Niall Ferguson on culture, text-for-profit, libraries, search and literacy

Niall Ferguson was speaking at the Long Now Foundation, responding to a question from Stewart Brand about how ads and the profit-motive influenced the nature of search and the internet echo-chamber.

Google and Facebook in particular are platforms driven by user-engagement and time-on-platform (the source of their ad revenue) and as a result tend to give us more of what we like or agree with already, filtering out sources that might challenge our views. 

If you look back on the way the printing press developed, there was a for profit wing that ultimately did finance itself by selling ads, and it evolved into newspapers and magazines.

But that was only a fraction of all the printed content that was out there. Most printed content was accessible free through things called libraries, and libraries were non profit.

Public libraries gradually began to spread in the protestant realms because remember, Protestantism insisted on literacy. A country like mine, Scotland, went from very low literacy to very high literacy because of the reformation. Schools had libraries. Books were regarded as a public good. And this meant that most printed content was not provided by profit making institutions. It was essentially free, and crucially, catalogued in increasingly effective and – I’ll call them objective – ways.

Anybody who’s spent time in one of the great libraries of the world, say the Cambridge University Library, knows that the books are sorted in such a way that you find the book that you’re after, and next to it are books on similar topics. This is an incredibly valuable thing if you’re doing serious research. 

Google is not like that. You may think that Google is like that, but you’re wrong, because that is not how search works…

Niall Ferguson – The Long Now Foundation – Networks and Power