Karan Gill and John Nicholson are alumni of the October 2011 Lean Startup Machine held at GeekEasy in Washington DC. Together they manage Marketade, a startup Internet marketing and web design business.
My partner John Nicholson and I recently attended a Lean Startup Machine weekend bootcamp in DC. This was an opportunity to learn and apply Lean Startup principles to a real-world startup idea in a highly focused setting. There were about 60 attendees and over 15 mentors and speakers – including the founder of the lean startup movement, Eric Ries – so we received constant coaching and inspiration throughout the weekend.
Idea #1: Online Resume Builder
We came in to the weekend excited about developing our idea for a web app that would help IT recruiters improve the quality of their candidates’ resumes in order to make them more attractive to employers. By applying Lean Startup principles, we learned to first identify and validate the assumptions in our plan before building anything. Along with newfound teammates Mark and Ryan, we planned to spend Saturday morning contacting recruiters to see if poorly written resumes were indeed a problem.
Being a developer, I just wanted to sit down and start building the tool. It seemed almost silly to spend so much time talking to recruiters to validate an assumption that felt like it was obviously true. This is why it was so shocking when almost none of the recruiters we interviewed seemed to agree that they had the problem we assumed they had. We repeatedly heard them say that through establishing strong relationships with employers and job seekers, they are able to effectively place job candidates regardless of the quality of their resumes.
The problem assumption that our idea was based upon, it turned out, was false. We knew that this failure was a key part of the Lean Startup process because it would lead us to ask more questions to arrive at a more viable solution. That didn’t make it much easier to stomach. Dejected though we were, we realized that without this process, we would have invested months of effort into building a tool to solve a problem that our target customer segment didn’t even have. By invalidating our core assumption, we could then move on to apply another aspect of lean thinking – qualitative observations – to pivot our strategy towards a better problem/solution.
Idea #2: eHarmony for the Job Market
Through our discussions with recruiters and hiring managers, we noticed a theme that employers care as much about a candidate’s personality and how well they might fit into the company culture as their hard skills. We also heard them say that it is difficult to quickly identify candidates that would be a good fit based on a resume alone. Phone interviews with job candidates are the typical technique to solving this problem but they are lengthy and inefficient. We now had a validated problem: employers do not have a quick way to tell which candidates will be a good fit for a job in terms of their personality.
We now found ourselves in a slightly different situation. We had come into the weekend with a well thought out solution to a problem that didn’t exist. Now we had identified a real problem that we could solve, but without a clear solution. We spent Saturday night brainstorming and came up with an exciting potential solution: a site that acted like an eHarmony for the job market, sorting candidates not only by their hard skills but also by their personality match with employers.
The more we thought about it, the more brilliant it seemed. Dating sites were already successful in solving a similar problem in a different context, all we had to do was apply it to our problem space and success would be assured. The words “eHarmony for the job market” had barely left our lips when another weekend participant came by to offer us some unsolicited advice. In his own words, he told us that one of his companies had tried to create an “eHarmony for the job market.” My heart immediately sank because I knew there were only two possibilities. Either his company had been successful and our idea was too late, or they had failed and their failure would invalidate our solution.
The latter turned out to be true. Despite having plenty of resources behind it, his company’s attempt had failed – largely because job seekers weren’t willing to spend time filling out personality profiles the way date seekers are. That job seekers would be willing to do this, we realized later, was a key assumption we’d taken for granted. And it was wrong. This quick invalidation of our solution was another disappointment, but we went to sleep Saturday night knowing that (for a second time now) we’d avoided investing in an unviable idea.
Idea #3: 5-Minute Interview
We returned on Sunday feeling a bit worse for wear but determined to identify and validate a solution before the end of the weekend. We went back to what we learned through our interviews the day before, and picked up on two more useful themes, or problems. Hiring managers had told us that 1) they are overwhelmed by resumes and desperate for ways to “cut through the noise,” and 2) they could often tell within 5 minutes of a phone interview if the candidate was a promising match.
This led us to our next solution: a web app where job applicants submit 5-minute audio or video responses to open-ended questions posed by employers. Employers can then share, review, and rate those responses to quickly vet candidates – prior to spending time scheduling and conducting phone interviews.
In discussions with the mentors, we identified what we thought was a good market for this product: tech startups that recently received funding. With only a couple hours left to start validating this solution, we did two things:
1. We created a minimum viable product or MVP: a simple landing page (see below) that described the product and included a 1-minute demo video, along with a “request private invite” form. We then searched Crunchbase to identify potential customers and searched Twitter to find founders of those companies likely to be online on Sunday. Our plan was reach out to these founders on Twitter and drive them to our landing page. But as we were running short on time, we made a new discovery...
2. We found a well-credentialed startup that had built something very close to our idea – and attracted buzz in Silicon Valley – but then had suddenly stopped to pursue something else. With the clock winding down and only an hour to go until our final presentation, we tracked down one of the co-founders and asked why they abandoned the video interview product.
Their target market, he told us, was the same one we’d identified: tech startups. But they struggled to gain adoption in this market because, given the low supply and high demand for programmers, tech startups’ pain point isn’t too many resumes from job-seekers; it’s too few.
We were able to leverage months of this startup’s marketing efforts to quickly invalidate another assumption. But we also learned something equally critical: their product had gained strong initial traction among a set of companies they weren’t targeting: those hiring lots of customer service reps and sales reps. This just wasn’t a market they wanted to pursue.
As the buzzer sounded Sunday afternoon – with our heads spinning – we’d arrived at a validated problem and initial validation of a solution. Unlike at most startup bootcamps, we’d spent almost no time over the weekend on design, code, or technology. Instead we’d learned a process much more critical for new business ideas.
Applying Lean Startup at Marketade
Not only has Lean Startup changed our approach to our own product ideas, it has changed how we work with our clients. Rather than jumping straight into designing and coding a web site or app, we’re helping clients first identify and validate their assumptions – quickly and cheaply – and then change course or scrap the idea when necessary.
As Warren Buffet says, “if something’s not worth doing at all, it’s not worth doing well.”
About the Authors:
Karan joined GEICO's web development team in 2005. Over the next 4 years, he led efforts to redesign GEICO.com and launch the GEICO Careers website. He also led the development of a content management system that cut content publication time in half.
Prior to GEICO, Karan worked at Penn State University's School of Information Sciences and Technology (IST) where he developed innovative touch screen kiosks and worked on cutting-edge eLearning initiatives. He graduated with a bachelor's degree in Information Sciences and Technology from Penn State University.
Karan spends his spare time competing in cycling races, working on cars, and hiking with his dog Bella. He is based in York, PA.
John Nicholson is a managing partner at Marketade, where he helps clients with online marketing and the user experience (UX). He has 15 years of marketing experience, specializing in the Internet space since 2000. He is an expert on remote usability testing, A/B testing and conversion optimization, SEO and SEM, web analytics, and writing for the web.
In 2003, John joined GEICO as its first web marketer and launched core programs such as search and affiliate marketing and web analytics. Over the next 4 years, he helped build a team of marketers and analysts that grew online sales by 50% each year.
Prior to GEICO, John spent 3 years at Brainbench -- an IT certification company -- and 4 years at the Mercatus Center, an economic think tank. His side projects have included launching a social network for customer reviews and an online resume service. He graduated with a bachelor's degree in political science from Brown University.
When he’s not working, John loves exercising -- especially surfing, soccer, tennis, and yoga. He lives in Washington DC’s Logan Circle neighborhood.