Why the lean idea of ‘launch fast and iterate’ doesn’t work and what to use instead…
In honour of the ground breaking behavioural economics book, Thinking, Fast and Slow, I thought I’d leverage their key idea – Starting up, Fast and Slow.
However, instead of thinking, fast and slow; I’m Startup-ing, Fast and Slow. This idea captures my insights of the past couple of months and this is what I want to share with you here today.
But first off, some personal news.
I’m startup-ing again. That is, I am not just supporting / mentoring / provided strategic direction to other founders (although I still do this), but I am founding a new startup of my own. And yes, I love it!
For me, there always seemed a danger of becoming trapped in consultancy. Of losing relevancy and freshness. Or simply, that I might become bored.
And, I wanted to address this issue in the most direct manner of all. So, I’ve begun my own startup.
If you want to check it out – it’s here www.serriana.com.
In this post, I’ll firstly share, the big insight about how to replace the lean startup approach. Then I’ll list some of the weird startup feelings that I’ve experienced (and you will, no doubt, recognise many of them). Lastly, I’ll list the range of skills I’ve gained or refreshed over the past couple of months. It’s a surprisingly long list. And I’ll show how I move(d) slow and fast and the technique I use to empower me to do this.
Okay, it’s a lot to do, so grab a coffee, tea, water; let’s get started:
How it felt
Let me start by talking about how it feels to startup. Often, this is the part of starting up that we gloss over, but it’s the most important.
Yes, I have family support – but also, I am asked the real questions; such as; are you *sure* you want to do this? Aren’t you too old (!?!) to be lifting heavy boxes and getting up so early? Do we really need to do this for the money (actually, we don’t – but is money the whole motivator?).
These questions come out of love – but they do stop me in my tracks and make me question what I’m doing (yes, even now, after all these years and businesses!).
And yes, there are times when I’ve thought about giving up! The worst time was probably when I’d been rejected by Amazon for the second time and given about two weeks before I find out why!
But, fortunately, this is something that I am interested in – keen on – care about – and that means that I often say to myself – I don’t know how I’m going to do this, but I will find a way.
In the breakthrough canvas, we are asked why we are the right person do take on our new business idea. I share my answer here as I hope it will help you question your startup in the right way too:
My startup why
I live and work in Spain and speak Spanish (including business Spanish at a decent level). I understand ecommerce – I’ve built numerous businesses and websites selling via ecommerce or its earlier version – direct mail.
But above all, I love the local Spanish mountains and, for me, it is gut wrenching when I see forest fires and economic malaise devour those mountains and the villages that care for this environment. These green spaces are precious and if we don’t defend them and enable them economically, we will lose them forever.
Given who I am and what I know, I am in a unique position to help. So, I have to do this.
Startup, Fast and Slow
The big insight is that launching a startup needs us to both move fast (breaking stuff and fixing it etc…) and slow. Often, both at the same time!
As in Kahneman and Tversky’s book – Thinking, Fast and Slow – they set out the ‘cost’ of thinking slowly (or logically) and the benefit of thinking fast (intuitively). However, they also show the need to be able to not only do both, but also to be able to decide when to apply each type of thinking.
Here’s how moving fast and slow worked for me…
Wrote a proposal for repositioning Spanish olive oil for northern European markets. I didn’t even realise I was starting up at this stage…
July / Aug:
Slow, curious thinking, little tangible action: holiday, travelling, photographing olive oil bottles in Spain, France, Switzerland and the UK. Looking at different supermarket brands’ olive oil offering as well as the online offer. Oh, and running price checks. Getting agreement among my family that I will start this business. Defining my brand proposition and the goal: to build a European wide olive oil subscription business that is good for us (healthy) and good for our planet (carbon capture and saving the Spanish mountains).
Speeding up the thinking and delving deeper: researching the academic research on the carbon benefits of olive trees (other fruit or nut bearing trees) and therefore olive oil. Buying sample bottles. Buying sample olive oils. Buying sample boxes. Researching the complexities of goods export / import and looking at different European markets to choose a starting point.
Began building a business model (ie. asking the question: how the heck is this going to make any money?). Start speaking to my suppliers (olive oil mills, box and bottle manufactures, unit landlords, designers and printing services)
Faster creative thinking: putting everything together in a model and then breaking it down again and rebuilding until it ‘just feels right’: developing different olive oil pack combinations, looking at pricing. Adding and removing VAT according to different markets. Investigating customs duties and legal structures required for moving goods across Europe and deciding that with my existing UK limited company and my Spanish tax residence that the UK is an easier market to reach.
Began investigating different fulfilment options – either outsource fulfilment but sell and support with customer service ourselves or use a fully outsourced service like Fulfilled by Amazon. Rejected multiple products to solely focus on olive oil and rejected three product packs. (I found that rejecting ‘good ideas’ and leaving only the ‘best’ idea moved me forward faster). Arrived at the key strapline – Serriana – it’s good.
Decision time! This is where all the previous research and (slow) thinking was deployed – but at pace! Now, I’m working 7 days a week and many hours – it is both physically and mentally exhausting. But exciting at the same time! In this period, I’ve committed real sums of money; bought stock, rented a unit, bought the brand domain, bought the boxes, built the ‘experience’, bought the packing materials and iterated on how to box and pack and build the experience messages.
In parallel, November saw the initial setup of the website and the establishment of the Fulfilled by Amazon account, the process of exporting and importing, the use of international freight and customs brokers and dealing with probably about 10 rejections that I’ve managed to overturn.
So, where is the fast and slow in all this?
Well, clearly, theoretical research is the slow stuff and buying, packing, sending and selling is the real time deadline driven fast stuff. However, there are two insights here:
- I could not have moved so quickly in November if I hadn’t done the preparation work in June to October.
- After September, I could not have moved faster if I had avoiding real contact and real investment from October onwards but principally in November.
- After this initial launch, there will be more moving slowly as well as more moving fast!
Essentially, moving fast does not happen without firstly moving slowly. If you do the early slow moving well, then you will move more smoothly, less chaotically and with greater purpose when you hit the ‘go’ button.
And, if you want to move forward even faster, it probably starts by allowing slow movement first.
Or, to put is another way, to avoid utter chaos and collapse when you do decide to move fast, you need to build on some sound knowledge and understanding.
For instance, crucial for me was a clear brand and brand messaging idea –
The Taste of Pure Spanish Mountain
It’s good – for you, good for the planet
The brand values, played with during June, July, August and September and formalised in October were critical in the decisions we made.
For instance, our goal was to deliver our products with no plastic and as little packaging and waste as possible. This meant we spent extra money on recycled paper and cardboard. We didn’t skimp, just because this was a test. We stuck with our brand values, even when it cost us money.
All our paper and card was recycled bar the central packing paper and the white paper / white envelopes which came from sustainable resources. Where we received product in boxes, we reused that card in forming additional packing materials. We used ink stamps instead of stickers etc to improve future recycling.
Moving from lean to fast and slow
The early ‘lean’ startup idea was to launch early and iterate fast.
For me, with a physical product that costs money to store and that slowly expires over a 12-month period, this is / was unwise. However, it still would have been unwise even if I were running a SaaS business.
Instead, I iterated my product on paper and then with key suppliers and a very small handful of alpha customers / supporters – until I had something, not perfect, but sufficiently interesting.
My next step was to attempt to mock up that product by buying a few samples and then photographing it and writing my first draft of selling copy. Were my alpha customers tempted?
The third step was to make it real – that is, buy a sufficient quantity of product and packing to justify the fixed costs of international transportation and customs and the process of setting up and selling.
Instead, then, of release early and iterate. We need a different approach. The approach I took was ‘move, fast and slow’.
I hope you can see that approach in this piece?
I hope too that you can apply this to your startup / venture as well?
Write everything down
Lastly, when I say I do research, I mean do tangible research. That is, keep an online journal. For me, this is a google doc. I write / screenshot everything that I find interesting, relevant or challenging. Sometimes I add things I don’t understand but know I need to come back to – later on.
My document for Serriana is now 108 pages long – so it’s about the length of a short book!
I do strongly recommend this approach – and the founders that I mentor know that we have often done this together.
Why is this mini-book useful? Because it gives you confidence. For instance, I am able to refer back to the research that backs up my key marketing claim that a litre of olive oil captures (yes, captures) 10kg of carbon!
It also enabled me to easily check the correct zero-vat rate for olive oil when I was given wrong information by a customs agent.
For all these reasons, an online journal – which you update and refer to all the time is essential if you are going to bring your research to bare when you hit the ‘go for it button’.
As always, I finish my posts with a coaching question. So, the question here must be this: