Lean Startup vs. Lean Media

Yesterday, I participated in a live video discussion about my Lean Media book. One of the topics that came up was the relationship of the Lean Media framework to Lean Startup, a business and product framework first articulated by Eric Ries nearly ten years ago. He ended up releasing a book titled Lean Startup, and the concepts outlined in it are now widely followed by tech startups and business units at larger companies. (Eric expands on how some of these innovative concepts can be applied to larger ventures and multinational corporations in his new book The Startup Way).

I’ve acknowledged Lean Media’s connections with Lean Startup since I first proposed the Lean Media framework right here on this blog five years ago, but it’s worth exploring in greater detail how they differ. To some, the two iterative product development frameworks may seem similar, but there are some profound differences, too.

The following chart lays it all out:

Lean Startup vs. Lean Media chartIn the first row, Lean Startup addresses products with defined characteristics – a light bulb or SaaS application. In certain cases there may be design elements, such as a smartphone case or pair of shoes, but at the end of the day such products also serve practical purposes, such as protecting your phone or your feet. They therefore have practical value and can be assigned a price. They can also be designed and produced in a methodical fashion, building out components and features to reach the desired specification. Lean Startup’s build-measure-learn cycle brings in customer feedback to improve development of products with defined characteristics.

Media products, on the other hand, are designed to entertain and inform. In certain cases they may have knowledge value (e.g., a subscription to the Financial Times informs business people about issues that impact their careers) but in most cases they bring no tangible value. Media is all about intangibles — the hard-to-articulate qualities of work that elicit feelings and emotions in the people who experience them. Despite media’s lack of practical value, audiences are willing to spend one of their most valuable resources — time — to consume them. They may also spend a great deal of money on media experiences.

MVP vs. Media Prototype

The MVP (minimum viable product) is perhaps the most famous element of Lean Startup. The concept has also been debated, as I discussed on this blog in 2013 (see MDP: Minimum Delightful Product) and I have heard elsewhere. Ideally, it’s a functional product that can be shown to early adopters in order to test hypotheses and get feedback, but some founders expand the definition to include incomplete models or design prototypes, and often end up showing them to people who are not early adopters, such as journalists or prospective investors. MVPs are by definition not finished products, but early customers (or observers, investors, etc.) may have a hard time seeing past the flaws.

Lean Media does not use the term MVP. We already have lots of terms for early versions of a work — draft, rough cut, demo version, etc. — but in the book I group them all under the term prototype for all media formats. While early prototypes may be simple or incomplete, I instruct creators to be sure to remove from the media prototypes what I call scaffolding before showing them to test audiences. Scaffolding could include editors’ marks, time codes, and annotations that will distract from the work.

In the third row, Lean Startup relies on empirical data and validated learning to test hypotheses. An MVP might provoke some discussions with early adopters, but in the build-measure-learn cycle you need to be measuring what you are doing so you can make an informed, data-driven decision. For instance, will customers prefer a recessed headlight in the new car, or something that’s more flush with the front of the vehicle? Have your design team whip up some graphic renderings in their CAD programs, and then show them to prospective customers and measure which one gets more votes. It’s the classic A/B test.

For media, quantitative data can deliver insights as test audiences experience a prototype, but qualitative data explains why people feel the way they do about a media work being developed. Sometimes the quantitative indicators (20 “thumbs down” vs 10 “thumbs up” after reviewing a draft manuscript of a novel) may be invalidated by the qualitative feedback (75% of thumbs down concerned minor issues relating to chapter titles and the index, as opposed to fundamental issues with the story itself).

Regardless of the type of feedback, it’s intended to inform creators about the work, rather than dictating how they must proceed. This is a big difference with Lean Startup, which practically requires founders to follow where the empirical data takes them, even if it’s far outside their original hypotheses about what customers want.

Finally, Lean Startup is not just a framework for product development, it’s a framework for startup business development. For instance, in Lean Startup, Ries describes innovation accounting as a way for the company to reach its business goals. Lean Media has no such intentions — the framework is purely about product. While a media work that resounds with audiences can be the basis for a successful media venture, I do not explicitly address how to make a media business profitable. That may very well be the focus of my next media book (working title: Niche Media). Stay tuned!


Do music playlists hold the same emotional and temporal connections as songs and albums?

A friend of mine asked an interesting series of questions on Facebook about music, noting that certain albums had the ability to bring people back to a certain time and place. I think this is common experience that traverses cultures and age groups — e.g., the first time you heard Miles Davis or the Beatles’ Sgt. Peppers album. He then asked, what about playlists, such as those that might be found on Spotify or Apple Music or some other service?

I started making playlists on iTunes in late 2004, so I could have music to listen to on my iPod as I walked to the bus stop to go to Harvard, where I worked. Looking through the songs definitely brings back memories of that winter walk, especially on cold winter mornings when the temperature was below 20 degrees and the wind was whipping up the street into my face. Later on I set up playlists to keep me going late into the night as I worked on my graduate thesis for the Harvard Extension School.

The mixtapes I made or were given to me from about the early 80s to the mid 1990s also take me back to specific times and places, including other countries where I lived. The ones shared with me also remind me of people who gave them, and where they were in their lives.

I remember one called “Sherman’s Heroes.” A guy named Neil Sherman who I met in a hostel in Taipei gave it to me in early 1993. It consisted of American and British bands that would now be called Shoegaze, such as Love Battery and Ride. Listening to those songs now takes me back to the hot, humid summer, when I was just getting established in Taiwan.

Around the same time, another friend sent me a tape of rap and another one of rock which also takes me back, and reminds me of him.

But maybe all of these examples are special because I or a friend curated the playlists, and knew my tastes and therefore had a better chance of making that emotional connection.

I haven’t had much of an experience with curated playlists. The ones on Amazon Music are generally quite poor — one that springs to mine is the “Classical Guitar Chillout” which contains a small assortment of songs and performances by the greats of the genre (Segovia, Diaz, etc.) but whose marketing copy was clearly made by someone who knows next to nothing of classical guitar (see screenshot, below). The Apple Playlists are really interesting, but because I never got a subscription I have to manually recreate them on Amazon which is a pain (readers, please let me know if there is a way to easily do this by using the comment form below!)

Amazon playlist emotional connections

Whatever happened to the Lean Media framework?

(Updated) I received a message from a European media executive about my Lean Media framework proposal from a few years back. Here’s what I wrote at the time:

A few years ago, before the mobile startup, I heard Eric Ries give his Lean Startup stump speech at MIT. It immediately clicked with me. His focus was software development, but I realized that the things he was saying about product development, feedback cycles, and speed applied not only to software, but to media content as well. I had seen it with my own eyes. Print content, websites, video, music and other products/projects that were developed with these qualities in mind had many positive qualities. They were cheaper to produce, they made it to market more quickly, user feedback loops started sooner, and if they were new brands, they got a huge head start. They were also more fun to work on.

Conversely, products that took the big media approach — bloated teams, top-down directives, planned by committee, limited feedback cycles, etc. — encountered problems. They required huge staff and budget commitments, took years to complete, and seemed to have a higher rate of failure.

Almost immediately I realized there were some issues I had to think through (see Lean Media: The Importance Of Intangibles And Brands and The Lean Media mindset: Can it work for large companies?) even while I found more examples of lean media such as Led Zeppelin (who started lean) and The Deftones (who returned to lean).

Earlier this year, I started writing a book about lean media, but quickly realized that the idea still needed to be refined. This is what I told the European executive:

Thanks for reaching out. I started to write a book about lean media but stopped because A) I have too many other things going on with my business and B) it was hard to think through some aspects of the framework.

For instance: talent/creative can make such a huge difference in the success of a lean media project but “dream teams” with lots of resources can fail. “Creative” is also hard to measure, which in turn makes it hard to translate into actionable advice

Another intangible aspect: “Brand.” It is so easy to create in the lean media world but how it fits in with existing brands (if it is part of a corporate effort) gets very tricky.

There is also the issue of scaling a lean media project into a true business, if that is the goal. Perhaps it is beyond the scope of lean media, though, because more resources and coordination is required.

As you can see I still have some thinking to do about this. Ideally, at the end of the day I want to have a simple framework that managers/companies/entrepreneurs in all kinds of media industries can apply. But I am not sure if such simplicity is possible.

What I probably should do is talk with more people in the trenches. I know there is something here, but expressing it cleanly will talk more contemplation … and perhaps collaboration.

November 2015 Update: I am expanding Lean Media into a book. Read sample chapters here, or sign up for the lean media newsletter.

Harvard headlines: Clickbait and the Extension School

Last week there was a flurry of Harvard headlines, after a male student attacked a senior citizen at Logan airport. I won’t get into the details of the story itself, but wanted to talk about the sensationalist coverage and the collateral damage to the Harvard Extension School.

When the story first hit the Internet, it was all about the Harvard connection:
Harvard headlines extension school
Many of the initial headlines, including those from Boston .com, the Huffington Post, and other national and international outlets, omitted the fact that the student, Cameron Shenk, was an Extension School student. In the absence of such context or knowledge of the Extension School, many people skimming the news would assume it was a Harvard College student, even though Mr. Shenk and his lawyer did nothing to insinuate otherwise. It’s a common assumption, as I’ve cited repeatedly on this blog (see my earlier article about Harvard Extension School resume guidelines).

Predictably, when the Internet commenters and follow-on coverage appeared, the angle turned from tragic crime to criticism of the Extension School and its students. Boston .com’s Eric Levenson claims that Extension School students “just need an interest to learn and some money to spend,” neglecting to mention the wide gap between casual class takers and degree candidates who have to prove they can do coursework at a high level before being admitted.

As I said in the comments section of the Boston .com article, there are a couple of issues at play when it comes to mainstream media stories about the Extension School:

  1. Clickbait headline writers who want to play up any story involving weird/unstable/criminal behavior and “Harvard”
  2. A continuing education division that is not well understood (for example, there are casual class takers as well as degree candidates) and often gets defined by strange headlines or fakers.
  3. A student and alumni population which includes a fair number of people who are apt to play down their Extension School affiliation or deliberately mislead others into thinking they attended Harvard College or one of the highly competitive professional programs, such as the Business School.

I think journalists such as Eric Levenson deserve much of the blame Unfortunately, previous stories about Extension/College imposters, combined with a large number of alumni who claim “Harvard” while hiding “Extension” are adding another negative context to this story.

It’s unfortunate, because the Extension School has some great classes and degree programs, and have helped hundreds of thousands of people further their educational goals. Most of them are good people and are honest about the Extension School affiliation, yet the fakers and bizarre headlines are increasingly defining what it means to be an Extension School student.

I welcome your comments below.

Innovation Hub complaint: Innovation is more than an academic pursuit

In early January, I wrote the following email to WGBH, a well-known public broadcaster here in the Boston area. The station produces some excellent programming, but I have been mildly disappointed in a new program, Innovation Hub, that is close to my heart. Here’s the text of the email:

I would like to make a comment about the radio program Innovation Hub.

I had high expectations for this program when it launched, as there is so much innovation taking place in WGBH’s neighborhood, from the labs at local universities to the small and medium-sized startup companies concentrated in the region. There are also many established organizations trying innovative approaches to their products, services, and ways of doing business. In other words, there is no dearth of guests who can come in to talk about what they are working on or where new opportunities lie, in fields that include biotechnology, manufacturing, media, banking, architecture, and even farming and food preparation. Of course, Skype and other connection tools make it possible for innovators all over the world to take part in the program.

However, when I turn on Innovation Hub every Saturday morning, I’m invariably treated to very long interviews with academics or pundits. Today, for instance, I heard the dean of a school of public health talking about research into innovation, and a doctor and a researcher talking about a minor finding in obesity and mortality data.

This is not an unusual slate of guests or discussion areas. Often I hear authors and researchers talk about innovation in terms of studies or classic examples (e.g., what Google or Facebook is doing), while at other times they discuss some surprising finding in their research that goes against prevailing attitudes or experience.

While interesting, I feel that these discussions are 20,000 feet above the trenches where actual innovation is taking place, and the interviews are so long that there are too few opportunities for the program to talk with people who are actually carrying out innovative projects, product development, or new ways of doing “x”.

There is so much innovation taking place these days in New England and around the world. I hope the program can consider devoting more time to actual innovation and the people who make it happen.

One thing I would like to note: My Innovation Hub complaint was not intended as a passive pitch for my own business. I was motivated to write it by a desire to hear from people in the trenches of innovation. There are so many interesting things taking place right in WGBH’s backyard, and it seems like it would be so easy to get a slew of interesting people from all kinds of backgrounds to talk about the work that they are doing.




A proposal for a Lean Media Framework: Input and iteration required

(Updated) I’m a media guy. I’ve been involved as a producer and manager in various sectors of the media industry my entire adult life, including the music industry, broadcasting (radio and TV), newspapers, magazines, and, starting in the 1990s, online media. I’ve experienced the shift from analog to digital, and the many struggles that have resulted from this sea change.

More recently, I’ve become a startup guy. I co-founded a mobile software startup that released a classifieds app. I’m currently trying to bootstrap an e-publishing venture around In 30 Minutes® guides, and have released more than a half-dozen titles on Amazon, iTunes, Kobo, and other ebook distribution platforms. These guides are aimed at mainstream audiences who need help getting up to speed with mildly complex subjects, ranging from health to technology. The guides include ebooks/books as well as online components — including the guide which people mistakenly compare with Google Docs for Dummies and posts such as What Is Dropbox? to get an idea of the products and information being offered.

The Lean StartupA few years ago, before the mobile startup, I heard Eric Ries give his Lean Startup stump speech at MIT. It immediately clicked with me. His focus was software development, but I realized that the things he was saying about product development, feedback cycles, and speed applied not only to software, but to media content as well. I had seen it with my own eyes. Print content, websites, video, music and other products/projects that were developed with these qualities in mind had many positive qualities. They were cheaper to produce, they made it to market more quickly, user feedback loops started sooner, and if they were new brands, they got a huge head start. They were also more fun to work on.

Conversely, products that took the big media approach — bloated teams, top-down directives, planned by committee, limited feedback cycles, etc. — encountered problems. They required huge staff and budget commitments, took years to complete, and seemed to have a higher rate of failure.

But I also realized that there were some problems with applying the Lean Startup framework to media content.

First, out of all of the “Lean” media products that I had been a part of or had seen close-up, very few could be considered successes. My blog about the Harvard Extension School is one (more than a half-million page views, thousands of dollars in revenue) and an online community for Computerworld (probably 10 million visits before it was retired) is another. But other products floundered or failed out of the gate, and even after iteration, they failed.

Second, it wasn’t hard to find examples of fat big media products that were hits. Turn on the TV, and you can see examples on every channel. A reality TV talent show that takes millions to produce, is planned for at least a year, and follows a format of a three-judge panel with at least one British judge, has a very high chance of success. In the music world, there have been many albums that have taken years to produce and have broken every Lean rule in the book, yet have sold millions of copies. To illustrate, Def Leppard started writing the songs for Hysteria in 1984, yet the album wasn’t released until 1987. The songs on Hysteria didn’t take long to write. But finessing them, producing them, marketing them, and launching them took years. This is the exact opposite of Ries’ Minimum Viable Product (MVP) concept, or even the variation known as Minimum Delightful Product.

Third, it was hard to isolate certain factors that are commonly found in media products but are seldom seen in the software world. “Brand” and “star power” can be hugely important in new product launches for media, but in the software world (aside from Apple) it’s more about the product and what it can do. For media products, another difference relates to creative processes and team dynamics, and the feedback cycles that exist within teams (think of the Beatles in the studio, the New York Times editorial processes, or the Saturday Night Live script readings). There is also the huge disruption that is taking place around business models, which clouds everything around media.

Lean Media: From Theory To Practice

When I launched a mobile software startup, I finally had a chance to put Lean methodologies to work with my co-founder. We made mistakes, especially at the beginning, but eventually released a product that proved to be very popular with consumers, and had high engagement and retention rates. I felt that when we followed the Lean philosophy, it worked very well for product development.

When I started my second venture this summer, the ebook experiment, I pledged to myself that I would attempt to actively follow the Lean philosophy. Get products out to the marketplace as soon as possible. Measure. Iterate. Improve. Some of these processes were already ingrained, owing to my earlier experiences with rapid product development in the online media and music industries, as well as the mobile software startup, and my grad school experience, which emphasized iterative product development. But I was more methodical with measuring and incorporating feedback. I also paid a lot of attention to revenue, something that I had not been focused on with any previous venture or media experiment.

As the ebook venture progresses, my mind has been circling back to the inconsistencies I observed earlier. Yes, Lean methodologies do work for media content. They can lead to better products, and better sales. However, the Lean approach does not take into account important factors — such as brand and creative processes — that can determine the success or failure of media ventures.

The Opportunity For Lean Media

Therefore, I believe there is an opportunity to build a new Lean framework that is specific to media ventures — a Lean “mod” for media, if you will. The goal of building a Lean Media Framework is to help startups and established companies build innovative products, platforms, and business models that have a higher chance of success and can contribute to new models of creation, distribution, and consumption.

In the old media world, an idea like this would have been developed by a single writer or a small team of collaborators. An essay would appear in a communications journal or The New Yorker. If it got traction, the author(s) would get a book deal.

In the spirit of Lean development and distributed knowledge, I am starting with a simple blog post (which took two hours to write) and throwing these concepts out to my favorite forums for discussion and iteration. Share your thoughts below, tweet to @ilamont, write a blog post, or do whatever you think is appropriate to carry the discussion forward and iterate until we have something that we can share with a wider audience.

November 2015 Update: I am expanding Lean Media into a book. Read sample chapters here, or sign up for the lean media newsletter.

Update: More thoughts and discussion here: