I cornered Eric Ries after Startup Lessons Learned Conference yesterday. Many things he said in the course of the day resonated with me, but only one was never elaborated upon and I felt driven to ask a follow-up question.

Eric said that this was a “minimally viable conference.” They set a date and the topic, found a venue and let people start signing up before they knew exactly what it was going to be. This is exactly like what we did with the SF Ruby Outreach Workshops for Women. I know, that’s an entirely different topic, but the technique was the same. We came up with what would minimally work (we each would teach a maximum of 20 students in a couple of corporate conference rooms), then we posted the event, and received a huge outpouring of both demand from students and support from volunteers and it became much more than we had envisioned. Pretty cool, huh?

Eric has been much more successful in getting press attention than we have. So, I asked him about his techniques. Basically, he said that he just talked to everyone he could about it. He developed a core group of bloggers who were interested. In retrospect, perhaps it was a dumb question: the primary tactic he chose to create change was communication, our tactic is the more direct one of simply teaching the skills to people who are interested. Eric had to work much harder to communicate his message and stimulate interest and has a less well-defined curriculum.

Then Eric asked me a good question. You are being successful. You are having the impact you sought. Why do you care to get press? I suppose if I had a better answer to this, I would have been more driven to get the word out to a wider audience. I always argue that my strength is not PR or marketing; however, I didn’t start this year with many skills in large event planning, and I didn’t let that get in my way.

In trying to answer his question, I cited a recent NYT article: “Out of the Loop in Silicon Valley” which is a great article that highlights many successful women. The journalist, Claire Cain Miller, does a good job of presenting why anyone should care about this problem and illustrating a bit of why things are, but it comes off as rather bleak. I fear women (and girls) will read it and think: I don’t want to go there.

I think an alternate loop is forming in Silicon Valley. Our Ruby Workshops are not an isolated phenomenon. New organizations and events are springing up, like Women 2.0, DevChix, Girls in Tech, Girl Geek Dinners, and She’s Geeky to augment the work of long establish groups like the Anita Borg Institutute, SWE, WITI and others. Technical women and women founders are out there and with the predominantly male networks hard to tap, women are creating their own.  At the same time, there are women and men with experience and connections who are working to acknowledge and reach out, as individuals. There are organizations, such as Springboard, Astia, and Golden Seeds or newer incubators like Springworks, which help women obtain angel and VC funding [*].

Note: at the conference on Friday, there were only three women on stage, all on panels.  Eric admitted that he had a tough time because he had to rely on his personal network in this first conference, but he did pull in additional women as mentors and hopes to have more women speakers next year.  I wasn’t planning to mention it, but I appreciated that he brought this up, non-defensively in our conversation.

Yes, there are fewer women starting innovative, high-growth companies and fewer women in tech, but there are more than we read about, more than we notice.  Change is tough.  It happens one person, one event, one moment at a time, but it is happening.

If you are a journalist or are a blogger, and want to have a conversation, let me know: sarah _at_ ultrasaurus (dot) com.  There are a lot of great stories that I think more people would like to hear.

Kent Beck had a great anecdote in his Startup Lessons Learned talk yesterday which proved to be an apt metaphor for the role of a startup company. Kent keeps goats where he lives in Oregon and he talked about how he would go out to his backyard and approach one of the goats. He would scratch it behind its ear and it would happily munch grass, then he would scratch its neck and along its back, and then he would get to a particular spot on the rump of the goat and the goat would suddenly respond in ecstasy.

When you start a company, you have an idea, but you haven’t found exactly who needs it or exactly how they want it delivered. You are scratching the goat. It is your job to find the itchy spot.

You keep doing stuff, no response..Keep doing stuff, no response..then the eighth idea you try, it has a big effect. There is some little activity which has an out-sized effect in a particular location.

How do you know what people need? How do you find the itchy spot?

You need to be focused on answering questions. Engineers have an almost irresistible urge to build stuff to answer questions, but that isn’t very efficient. Sometimes you can answer your question without building any real software at all. He talked about wondering if people would buy at the next level of the game. “I put an empty button in my app just to see if anyone would click it. When they did, THEN I built what goes behind it… I love not having customers. If I don’t implement the payment gateway, there is no issue”

“I’m no longer focused on how I can do the best software development, but instead: how can I get the most value? Sometimes it will look like mock-ups, not software. Sometimes it will look like hackery. It feels good to do good engineering, but that is not good startup engineering. The key thing is figuring out when to switch from hackery to scalability.”

Change how you keep score over time as your business changes.

Like most engineers, Kent revealed that he has tendency to keep building after he has learned. We need to identify the question that we are trying to answer with a particular piece of software development. And then, remember to ask the question again.

Q: how do you balance long term and short term goals? How do you manage technical debt?
A: The Principle of Pull and Flow
Pull: I’m going to refactor my code when I understand the benefits of restructing
Flow: How can I divide that big restructure into small pieces that deliver value?
The challenge is to learn to enjoy the hack.

Ask your engineers: “How quickly can we answer this question?” not “How quickly can we build this feature?”

He told a story about an engineer nicknamed “Mr. Flat File,” who would always ask whether something could be implemented as a simple file. No engineer likes that as a technical solution, but it does force people to identify the benefits of the particular storage mechanism and data structure that they are recommending. Flat files don’t optimize engineer satisfaction but they do increase flow.

Kent honestly declared “I want to do good engineering,” where good is defined as self-serving.

For more on Kent’s talk, read beyond agile development.
Good perspective from Steve Freeman: Not a Charter for Hackers

Steve Blank is probably most well known for this picture about embracing change:
Customer Development

Observations about Silicon Valley:

  • $500K is the new $5M
  • Seed Funds are providing entrepreneurial education
  • Customer Development / Lean Startup adoption:  We are all collectively getting smarter at a scary rate.

99.7% of all companies are <500 employees and employ half of the people in the country. In contrast, a scalable startup is designed to grow big and it typically needs risk capital.  (Note: venture capital was originally called “adventure capital.”)

Your job as an entrepreneur is to search for a scalable and repeatable business model.  Then build a business around it.  Founders depart before the company grows to a large business:

  1. Search
  2. Build
  3. Grow

No business plan survives contact with customers.

Startups search and pivot.  Small and large companies execute.

Startups should focus on:

  • metrics, not accounting.
  • customer validation, not sales.
  • customer development, not product management.
  • agile development, not engineering.

Lean startups use agile and customer development to find profits.  (A high percentage of company founders come from dysfunctional families, but that’s another topic.)

Why Accountants Don't Run Startups

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