What’s in a Startup Methodology?

Back when I did the transition from studying software engineering to entrepreneurship, one question kept coming to me - while methodologies are inevitable for successfully building software products, why isn’t there an integrated methodology for launching and taking that product to market?

Take for an example the Perpetual Beta and Spotify, a successful online peer-to-peer music streaming service. Spotify did not only use beta versions to test engineering requirements with early users – using beta-invites enabled Spotify to create demand for their service at the same time.

Software developers have been embracing agile practices such as Continuous Deployment for years, but merely from a technical viewpoint. I believe that the Perpetual Beta represents a new line of ambidextrous practices that not only enables a startup to plan, test and build – but also serve, distribute and market their product at a lower cost.

Astonishingly, methodologies that help entrepreneurs facilitate software product development alongside commercialization are still scarce. At the one hand there exist a variety of methodologies to manage risk in agile software product development, including Scrum, Extreme Programming and Adaptive Software Development.

However, none or few of these methods, to my best knowledge, encapsulate risk in commercialization. To simplify, think of it as Scrum + marketing (Scrumm). At the other hand traditional management practices have been argued not to fit the extreme uncertainty in startups, and often comes too short in terms of aligning with disruption driven by Internet technologies.

At the time I was also more than inspired by Crossing the Chasm that addresses the specifics of marketing disruptive high-tech products. But I still find the Pre-chasm phase left unintended. In my last post I wrote about diagramming the product-market fit, which I here have aligned with the Technology Adoption Life Cycle.

Pre-Chasm Startup Methodology

In many ways I think that new-product introduction is about ramping the Pre-chasm, where building and taking new products to market are not two separate activities.

Obviously a startup needs ambidextrous qualities. Working engineering and marketing in parallel will enable a startup to discover the holy grail of product-market fit – a key tenet with Customer Development and Lean Startup thinking. Together with elaboration on 37signals' Getting Real and Rework, I look forward to seeing what this emerging school of startup methodologies brings.

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Diagramming Product-Market Fit at Lean Startup

Continual iteration is a fundamental principle in agile thinking as well as in startup methodologies such as Customer Development and Lean Startup. Basically, its premise is that a startup will mitigate risk and uncertainty by shortening product and customer learning loops, and adjust its product-market fit accordingly.

A startup achieves product-market fit when it masters the balance of building a solution, or product that acts on a customer’s problem, or vice versa. Both product development and customer development each has its own iterative loop structure. I believe that the two should be reciprocally acting and proceed in parallel towards the goal of product-market fit and that this makes a multiple-loop system. This invokes an ambidextrous challenge to early-stage ventures.

Building on my former post on Disciplined Creativity with Mihály Csíkszentmihályi’s Flow diagram, I would add to the Lean Startup model.

The diagram above shows product-market flow as a result of efforts in parallel iteration between agile product development (at the y-axis) and customer development (at the x-axis). In order to achieve a product-market flow state, that is product-market fit, a balance must be struck between customer development and product development. If a startup is drifting too far along one of the axis without iterating, flow cannot occur.

I believe that iteration beyond the product-market flow zone could be considered pivoting - that is when you change a fundamental part of your business model in regards to products and customers. To successfully iterate between product and customers and achieve product-market fit, you would develop a minimum viable product offering that enables you to learn about your customers needs and wants.

At startup you must pay close attention not only to the iterative tasks within customer development and agile product development separately, but also to the feedback loops in between the two. However, time is limited, and you should be aware of trade-offs in achieving flow in a Lean Startup. This is where continual iteration and validated learning allows for greater risk reduction under extreme uncertainty.

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