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Eric Ries: The Wrong Thing to Focus on as a Founder

Eric Ries spoke with Inc. about startup management at the Lean Startup Conference going on in San Francisco this week.

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Eric Ries is best known for pioneering the Lean Startup movement, a methodology designed to eliminate waste during a company's development. Since his book "The Lean Startup" was published in 2011, Ries has hosted an event based on the same theme. This week's Lean Startup Conference in San Francisco had about 1,500 attendees. In between sessions, I caught up with Ries and asked him about his work leading up to the conference and also about an ongoing problem he's been working on. 

At a talk yesterday, one speaker discussed the "wrong things" to worry about as a founder. What was one "wrong thing" that you were worried about as a young founder? 

Oh man. Here’s what I thought was going to happen. I thought that when you launch a product, on the first day -- literally that first day -- some enterprising investigative reporter would try it, it wouldn’t work, and you’d get a horrible front-page headline "You’re an Idiot Cause Your Product Doesn’t Work."

And so my cofounders and I spent ludicrous amounts of time debating, arguing what features are in or out, what is the right standard of quality. Is this good enough or does it need more polish? Everything was all about have we done enough, enough, enough? The underlying assumption to everything we did is if we take longer, the product will be better. And there’s not a lot of evidence for that thesis. 

Another big topic here is how to be more extroverted. How can the more reserved founders here stand out in the crowd?

I’m actually very introverted. This is very unnatural for me. The day of a conference like this, I’m wrecked and exhausted by the end. It’s very draining. And a lot of founders are that way actually. You have to be able to master pitching and selling your startup to be a founder of any quality.  

Look at the successful founders. It’s not like [Mark Zuckerberg] was a masterful public speaker when he started. It’s not about extroversion and salesmanship. It’s really about learning how to communicate your vision clearly. 

And if you can do that then you can find people that that will resonate with and that will make the sale. Eventually as you get more successful you can both hire people who are much more outgoing than you are to do the functions of your job that require that outgoingness. All of that stuff is important, but I think clarity of communication is the first step. 

What's the future of startup management? 

I think when we look back on this time decades from now, we will realize that everything we know about how to manage startup is the tiniest tip of the iceberg for a lot of stuff to come. One example: what are the specific metrics that startups should report progress to their stakeholders in? To VCs, to corporate CFOs, or to your spouse if you’re a garage entrepreneur?

People use vanity metrics, and the traction numbers and the big hockey sticks. People report progress that way, and they think that’s fine. But you yourself as the entrepreneur set up the goal posts using vanity metrics, and so when you then go back and say oh I’ve learned a new accounting system, it sounds like you’re making an excuse. 

For example, you’re used to being judged by pageviews, and your pageviews are killing it. You have some time go by and you have no pageviews, but you’re like, "But we have such good engagement!" No editor in the world is going to fall for it. 

You have to have established the criteria ahead of time. I’ve seen this in media, in health care, you name it. I’ve seen this problem play out. You have to set up the new goal posts from the beginning, be consistent in their use, and you have to be able to explain why they’re the right goal posts. 

IMAGE: joi/Flickr
Last updated: Dec 10, 2013

LAURA MONTINI is a reporter at Inc. She previously covered health care technology for Health 2.0 News and has served as an associate editor at The Health Care Blog. She lives in San Francisco.
@lmmontini




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