Lean Startup: Using the Validation Board

The Lean Startup Validation Board is a one-page tool created by Lean Startup Machine. It's a terrific way to test early stage ideas. All too often we as engineers have an idea and then immediately jump into building. In the past, I've spent months (in one case years) of my time and/or money building something that wasn't viable. Three different times. And I'm not alone. The video on the right shares Trevor's similar experience - and a better way.

Important Note: you don't have to be planning a startup to use this methodology or to think in terms of customers. We use this heavily in our strategy team at my company as we vet new ideas.

So instead of spending many months building something that may or may not be valuable, let's use the Validation Board to test an idea.

At a local Lean Startup Meetup, several people pitched ideas, groups naturally coalesced, and the Validation Board was applied. I shared an idea for an app to offer targeted, fast responses for new technology managers. What follows is a high-level summary following the first several steps.

Lean Startup Machine Validation Board

Customer Hypothesis

This is really about creating a profile of your target customer. For the hypothesis, a customer is someone who gives you something. This could be their time, information, money, or anything else of value. Some ideas have two customers - often in service-based companies. This app would just focus on one: First-time Technology Managers. I chose technology managers because I know a lot about the problem domain. And first-time managers because they are most likely to want assistance as opposed to CIO, Directors, etc. Importantly, this could change dramatically as more is learned.

Example

Going through this board with a small group at a local Lean Startup Meetup helped generate the following:

  • Technical experts now in management (Team Leads, Supervisors, Managers).
  • This is their first management position
  • Likely less than one year in new role
  • Have previously been successful in prior roles; likely to continue to be successful

Problem Hypothesis

This is your theory about a problem that your customer (previously identified) has that you can solve. 

Example

The initial Problem Hypothesis is that first-time technology managers want a convenient way to discretely get advice related to technology management throughout the day as concerns arise.

Again, having gone through this with a small group we generated these attributes of the problem hypothesis: 

  • All managers have daily concerns that they'd like advice on including : Attitude, Behavior, Competence, Delegation, Planning, Workload, Time Management
  • Now managing people that are more technical, have different technology skills
  • New to dealing with peers and new politics (not necessarily the bad kind)
  • New to budget management

Assumptions

These are assumptions about the customer and problem hypothesis that require testing. 

Example

Again, having gone through this with a small group we generated these assumptions: 

  • New manager can't get good, continuous help internally today
  • New manager knows that they need help
  • New manager is willing to be helped
  • If new manager gets help, they are willing to apply what they learn
  • New manager is willing to pay with their time and energy closing gaps
  • New tech managers have many overlapping problems to all managers, but also some unique problems (like managing technical staff)
  • That a setting like this site can deliver something of value in smaller levels of engagement
  • New managers need timeline assistance - as close to the issue/need as possible

Solution Hypothesis

Since this was the first time through the board. There was no solution hypothesis developed.

Riskiest Assumption

Of the assumptions generated, one is the riskiest and if it fails your test, then the whole idea needs to be revisited - the pivot. 

Example

Out of the list above, the idea that new managers believe they need help and advice is the riskiest. That an app-based engagement model can deliver something of value is the second riskiest.

Method (Validation Approach)

These are the activities you'll pursue to test the riskiest assumption of your hypothesis in the fastest way possible. It's time to get creative. It was revelational for me while watching Trevor's video and he shared that he used Craigslist to get fast feedback in a day. In the past I've always been stuck at the part of talking to real people. So it was awesome for me to see fast, creative ways to get in front of potential customers.

Example

Here are some of the ideas we had (geared around identifying and learning from new technology managers):

  • Invite small group of managers to quick round-robin meeting with free advice through Meetup group.
  • Free consulting to new managers in Craigslist posting
  • Minnebar presentation - end is call to action for volunteers to share their experiences
  • Using LinkedIn, identify local new technology managers by title (supervisor, manager, etc.) and position tenure (< one year), then email them small questionnaire with request to follow-up via phone.

Minimum Success Criterion

This is the smallest or least response that validates your idea. In other words, if at least "N" persons won't say "yes" to whatever you're asking. Then you have to decide if you didn't find the right customers - and then you need to change your Customer Hypothesis - or if you haven't identified an important (as in it matches your time/effort/money criteria) enough problem to solve.

Example

In this case, the selected minimum success was that one first-time managers agreed they needed ongoing advice delivered in frequent, smaller levels of engagement - regardless of how that was delivered (no solution yet).

Get Out of the Building

Now the hard part. Selecting a Method and then putting it into action. I've selected the LinkedIn approach, a friendly request via email to meet via phone to explore a few targeted questions, and a response rate expectation of ~5%. 

Stay tuned for the results.


Share your experience: Have you tried using Lean Startup for an idea you have (doesn't have to be a startup). What was your experience - did it work? Please share in the discussion forum below.