When to be Mean to Lean

In recent times, the Lean Startup as developed by Steve Blank and Eric Reis has become the most populars startup Methodology of our time. It consists of fleshing out your idea with a Business Model Canvas; getting to product-market fit via Customer Development and a minimum viable product (mvp); and releasing continuously improved software through the Agile Development Process.
One critic of Lean is Peter Thiel, one of the most successful entrepreneurs of our time, who in his book Zero to One says:
“The buzzwords of the moment call for building a ‘lean startup’ that can ‘adapt’ and ‘evolve’ to an ever-changing environment. Would-be entrepreneurs are told that nothing can be known in advance: we’re supposed to listen to what customers say they want, make nothing more than a ‘minimum viable product,’ and iterate our way to success. But leanness is a methodology, not a goal. Iteration without a bold plan won’t take you from zero to one.”

The Leaners circled the wagons, and defended lean against Thiel’s criticisms, saying that hypothesis testing is a foundation of the universally accepted scientific method, and failing fast via a MVP makes a ton of sense for cash strapped seed stage startups.

Teaching a recent class on Lean Startups to a group of high schoolers, brought us to the realization that most of our students would be entering more traditional businesses and most of the Lean Startup ideas would not apply. And perhaps understanding what tools work, and when, is the key to mediating the conflict between the Leaners and the Zero-to-Oners.

The Leaners are looking to build a successful often-flipped multi-million dollar company, and for that the Lean Startup provides a great set of tools. The Zero-to-Oners are looking to establish a monopoly and go where no man has gone before, and for that your unique vision is the singular driver. Not everybody can develop such a vision, so perhaps the Lean Startup is best for most of us. But for the few Thiels among us, you don’t get to the moon by starting with an MVP. You have to know when to be mean to lean.