In March 2011, a good friend of mine, Lane Halley, pointed me to the Lean Startup Machine website and suggested that we apply for their upcoming startup bootcamp in New York. We both submitted applications and were soon happy to learn of our acceptance into the program.
During the initial team-building component on Friday night, Lane quickly joined up with a great group working on the problems of how businesses can obtain the domain name they want. After the original idea I’d pitched wasn’t selected, I punted and joined up with a group working on an education idea. The concept had been pitched by Alex Weinberg, who was then working as a high school teacher with the Teach for America program.
None of our Lean Startup Machine team members had met previously, but it turned out to be an ideal and well-balanced combination of talents. SnappSchool, as we came to call ourselves, consisted of myself and Alex; two coders – Bryan Helmkamp (Efficiency 2.0) and Adam Schuck (Julpan); as well as two UX designers – Jim England (Keepstream) and Conner Boyd (Fueled). The group clicked quickly, and we got right down to the customer development work.
"In my years working as a product manager at decidedly un-‘lean’ companies, I’ve watched otherwise intelligent adults waste years of their lives chasing ideas and products that the market had clearly rejected."
A project that envisioned teachers as customers had one great advantage: all of us already had some teachers in our rolodex. We quickly got on the phone and were soon able to have great, enlightening conversations with 15 real, working teachers (our potential customers). It was in these conversations we discovered the harsh reality that teachers simply wouldn’t pay for our product. It was not an option for us to recast our concept as a non-profit, so we needed to ‘pivot’ our customer segment in order to maintain the original, overriding vision.
In my years working as a product manager at decidedly un-‘lean’ companies, I’ve watched otherwise intelligent adults waste years of their lives chasing ideas and products that the market had clearly rejected. No matter how great your idea, if the market you’re selling to doesn’t think it’s worth paying for, you need to make some serious changes. So when SnappSchool quickly absorbed the insights these teachers (our market) had given to us, we went ahead and pivoted. I finally understood the real power of ‘Lean’. Watching people talk, reading their blogs, and thinking deep thoughts had been no substitute for the learning that was happening right in front of me at Lean Startup Machine. In that one moment, it all clicked; this was the way I wanted to work going forward.
By continuing the customer development process, our team eventually discovered that we’d been targeting the wrong decision makers. Our real market was principals and school districts. An all-night coding session produced a very authentic-looking ‘Mechanical Turk’. We continued customer development Sunday morning and were able to get a 40% response rate: enough to convince the judges to declare us the winners of #LsmNYC.
Four months later, Alex Weinberg and I are still working together using lean startup methodologies. We’ve been able to make SnappSchool our full-time focus, thanks to the killer start we got at Lean Startup Machine. We’ve struggled to reconcile SnappSchool with other commitments, and the fact that neither of us are coders. However, we’re working the way we want to work – we document our assumptions, we poke them to find the weak points, and then we get out of the building and learn from the market!
For me, the weekend spent at Lean Startup Machine was just the beginning of a whole new way of working, and I can’t thank them enough for it!
About the Author: John Halloran is a Co-founder of SnappSchool; a powerful communication tool for improving parents’ engagement with their children’s education. A parent with two children in NYC public schools, John spent over 10 years working in Wall Street Technology, including upstart brokerage Liquidnet. You might find him at #LsmNYC this upcoming weekend (7/26-7/28) getting feedback on SnappSchool’s latest MVP: GroupKast.
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