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!

 

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.

What’s the best home office setup for a virtual office?

I’ve worked out of three home offices in the past ten years. I’ve been able to get a lot accomplished in these offices, including writing a graduate thesis, managing a virtual team, and starting my own publishing company. However, if Melanie Pinola’s The Successful Virtual Office In 30 Minutes had been available at the start, I would have been able to get a lot more done in terms of getting the best possible home office setup. This blog post will serve as a review of the book, albeit a biased one — while I really did get a lot of useful information from Melanie’s guide, I am the publisher of the In 30 Minutes series.

best home office setupMelanie is the author of a top-selling LinkedIn book and writes about home offices, telecommuters, and virtual work for Lifehacker. She’s also About.com’s mobile office expert. As a virtual worker for decades (she started working from a home office in the 1990s) she knows the virtual mindset and what’s required to have a successful virtual office. It’s not just a matter of wanting to work from home, or assuming a Wi-Fi connection and laptop is all that’s required. She methodically works through the different aspects of setting up and maintaining a high-performance virtual office, starting with legal and technical requirements and finishing with a list of Top Tech Tools for home offices. Specific topics include:

Finding the best place to work and creating an efficient home office or remote workspace (Chapter 1)

  • Recommendations for setting up the ideal virtual office, based on the latest research.
  • How to use alternative offices such as coffee shops and libraries to get more done.
  • Four elements of a productive home office.
  • Ergonomics (or how to stay healthy)
  • Must-have supplies for your home or mobile office.

Learning strategies to help you work more effectively on your own and as a virtual team member (Chapters 2 & 3)

  • How to ward off roommates, spouses, children, pets, phone calls, and other daily distractions.
  • Crucial time-management tips.
  • How to work well with other virtual team members.
  • Best practices for effective communication across a distributed team.
  • Dealing with resentful coworkers.
  • Coping with isolation.

Using technology to help you stay productive and connected (Chapter 4)

  • Useful apps for real-time collaboration.
  • Software that can make you work more efficiently.
  • How to secure your digital data.

Applying the tips for the best home office setup

Reading Melanie’s book, I immediately picked up some tips that I could apply right away to my home office setup. They included installing a door to keep out family distractions (especially in the evening, when I am most productive) and dusting off an old space heater to keep my home office warm in the winter months (much cheaper than cranking up the heat for the entire house). The recommended applications included a few that I want to explore further, including Slack. There was also an extensive list of tools and apps relating to coworking spaces, which is a popular mode of work these days (see my review of the Cambridge CIC).

This new book practically pays for itself, in terms of the increased productivity and better insights into virtual offices. Whether you are a freelancer, consultant, small business owner, or are interested in telecommuting, this is a wonderful and effective guide for getting the most out of your home office.

Startup publishing and managing early growth

At a certain point in the lives of most product-oriented ventures, founders confront a slew of growth-related issues. In this post, I am going to talk about growth in the context of startup publishing, and the challenges that my own publishing company i30 Media has faced over 18 months of growth.

Startup publishing example: In 30 Minutes guidesA bit of backstory: i30 Media publishes how-to guides under the In 30 Minutes® imprint, as well as several fiction titles. The most recent release is Windows 8 Basics In 30 Minutes. The venture started in mid–2012 as a Lean Media experiment with just a single title written by myself and distributed on Amazon’s KDP self-publishing platform. Since then I have incorporated the venture. I30 Media has released about ten In 30 Minutes guides in various ebook formats as well as in paperback, and distributes to every major ebook platform (Kindle, iBooks, Nook) as well as growing platforms (Google Play Books, Kobo).

In the first six months of the venture, I was occupied with figuring out the publishing landscape, expanding distribution channels, cranking out early releases on my own. While I was new to book publishing, I am not new to the media industry, and applied domain knowledge from magazine/news publishing, online media, and the mobile app space.

Startup publishing: scaling production

One of the first growth lessons was being forced to give up the “one-man band” idea. That guy attracting a small crowd on the local town common with a drum pedal strapped to his foot, a tuba around his waist, a harmonica in his mouth, a xylophone in one hand and maracas in the other is technically able to mimic a real band. But he will be limited in what he can do with his instruments (e.g., the xylophone sounds better using two hands than one) and quality ultimately suffers. Actually, let’s not beat around the bush — one-man bands sound terrible. Can you imagine listening to their stomping, honking tunes on the radio, or downloading the music to play at home? People enjoy one-man bands for the spectacle, not for the music.

I was a one-man band in the first month. I did everything, from writing to setting up the websites to designing the cover image. And I wasn’t doing it for the spectacle. I did it because it was cheap and I could do everything. But I could see there was a quality gap with the competing titles available on Amazon and elsewhere. The covers looked amateurish, and I was worried about the quality of the copy. I began to look for things to outsource, and one of the first was cover design. I contacted Steve Sauer, a graphic designer I used to work with, who was happy to take on the freelance work for his consulting firm Single Fin Design. His first cover, for Dropbox In 30 Minutes, was a big success. I decided to have him do new covers for other In 30 Minutes guides going forward, starting with the Google Drive and Google Docs guide and our Excel Basics book.

I also found people to handle other tasks, including copy editing and market research. But the big growth impediment was writing. It was quickly apparent to me that I could not grow In 30 Minutes guides into a successful brand unless I found other authors. While the guides don’t take long to write (I tell prospective authors that the first draft of a 10,000–15,000 word guide typically takes 5 or 6 weeks, writing on nights and weekends) there is so much other stuff to do when it comes to growing a business — marketing, expanding sales and distribution, accounting, dealing with production issues, etc. As i30 Media grew, I knew that I would have less time to spend on writing. The only way to keep growing and strengthen the brand was to find other authors to write new titles, including topic areas in which I had no expertise.

The impact of my recruitment efforts is apparent when looking at the In 30 Minutes catalogue. Of the first 5 titles, four were written by me, including the Dropbox book and the Google Docs for Dummies substitute. Of titles #6 through #10, only one was written by me.

Startup publishing: scaling sales

Besides production, the other side of growth relates to sales. As mentioned earlier, I follow Lean Media principles when it comes to marketing and sales. That entails lots of experimentation with everything from advertising to sales calls to potential enterprise customers. But it’s not just about identifying opportunities, and then measuring the impact of pilot experiments. In order to expand growth, it’s also necessary to identify which opportunities not to pursue.

One area which I have stayed away from so far is bookstore distribution, based on early discussions with (mostly disinterested) bookstore managers, an evaluation of visibility and competition within B&N and Staples, and the industry standard requirement that demands 55% discounts and the right to return or destroy unsold copies. I haven’t completely written off the opportunity (in fact, I have made many titles available through the back-end ordering systems that bookstores use) but I don’t want to spend loads of time fighting to get In 30 Minutes guides in a channel that may ultimately be unprofitable.

I have also avoided ebook platforms that have too much overhead, are weak on terms, or look like they could undermine or cannibalize other sales channels. I stayed far away from Sony’s ebook platform, owing to the way it basically demanded that independent publishers beg to join. I have also been a skeptic of Scribd’s ebook subscription service.

What does the future hold for i30 Media? Certainly, more guides and more sales. In addition to the Windows 8 user guide, I have a new title about jQuery plugins in the works as well as a non-technology title (still in stealth mode). I am also planning growth of the company itself. Already I have begun thinking about hiring my first employee. The numbers aren’t aligned yet, but we could see action on this front in 2015.

The Startup Roller Coaster

In 2010, I heard a talk by angel investor and entrepreneur Howard Anderson about the emotional roller coaster that comes comes with launching a new technology venture. He explained how the highs are so high, while the lows feel really low.

For those of us in the room who had never been in the position of launching a company, it didn’t sound surprising. Of course the pressure will be intense, and incredibly risky. But how extreme could the highs and lows be?

Extremely extreme, as it turns out.

I worked in large organizations for more than a decade. A bad day at an established company might entail sharp-elbowed office politics, hurt feelings, and worry about career advancement or a raise. Worst cases involved the loss of a job. But in most situations at a large company, problems will eventually be worked out. Everyone knows the organization will endure.

Startup Roller CoasterNot so at a startup. Before you’re funded or generate revenue, the venture is fragile. Things move fast, there is too much to do, and the sense of responsibility is huge. Even minor problems feel big, and failure of the business can take many forms.

Conversely, the accomplishments feel huge. Hard work, a new product out the door, positive feedback from customers (or, in the case of my company, readers), and lucky breaks can really boost your spirits. When a bunch of things are working well at the same time, the feeling is spectacular.

Then the crash: reality checks, unforeseen problems, pushback, lack of alignment, and the flat-out “no” when you were hoping for a “yes.” These and other issues can really throw a wrench in the works.

There are ways out of the funk, though. Keep on executing. Work through or around the problems. Reach out to your partners or customers or mentors or anyone who might be able to help with a new approach or pivot. The wins begin to trickle back, and the cycle starts again.

A few years ago, I met an experienced startup founder at the Cambridge Innovation Center. She was very familiar with the entrepreneurial roller coaster, and offered some advice on how to handle it.

Highs and lows on the startup roller coaster

“For the highs and lows, be careful of what you do on those days,” she said. For instance, on a good day when you get a big win like recruiting a customer, call your investors and tell them about it.

She also alluded to things founders should not do on the bad days. She didn’t have enough time to explain what they were (it was at the end of a late-night meeting) but one of them I have been able to deduce from multiple sources (including Y Combinator founder Paul Graham), as well as Howard Anderson’s reminder at the end of his talk: “It’s always darkest before the dawn,” he said.

In other words, keep pressing ahead, even when the world seems to be working against you. And don’t give up.

The above image is a creative commons licensed image from Tanki on Flickr.

CIC Cambridge: A review of the local startup hive that most locals have never heard of

The Cambridge Innovation Center is a startup office space located at One Broadway, just around the corner from the Kendall Square T station and across the street from MIT Sloan. Few people in Cambridge and Boston have ever heard of CIC Cambridge, but it plays a very important role in the local startup ecosystem, as I will discuss in this post.

I spent a fair amount of time in the CIC from 2011 to 2012, and still go back on a regular basis to meet people or take part in seminars that help me run my business. I am not an insider or expert on the CIC, but as a participant in the local startup scene, I have written a CIC Cambridge review which others may find useful.

Famous CIC Cambridge alumni include Carbonite and Hubspot. But most of the hundreds of CIC startups are still in the relatively early stages of their existence. Almost all have some sort of technology focus or angle, although there are many companies that provide services (such as law firms) as well as investors with offices in the building.

CIC Cambridge review - the C3 area
CIC Cambridge

Some startups are no more than a cubby and red belongings bag in the Cambridge Co-working Center (C3), the CIC’s low-cost co-working space. In 2011, C3 cost $250/month, which included random desk space, wifi, access to conference rooms and printers, free coffee and snacks, etc. I’ve heard it’s gone up. Regardless, this is an attractive option for companies with little funding or revenue. It’s not uncommon to see practically every seat in the C3 areas occupied on a typical afternoon, and the work continues there well into the morning hours.

Established companies with funding, customers and revenue have their own offices in the building. Some are quite small. I’ve been in a CIC office that is no more than a tiny, 30-foot-square room with a desk and some shelves. Others have larger spaces with lobbies and their own conference rooms.

There is a fair amount of churn at CIC Cambridge. Walking around the lower floors, it seems that there’s always someone moving in or out. That’s to be expected. Startups are inherently risky, and many of the C3 companies may not make it past the idea or early prototype stage. For those that do, they will eventually outgrow C3. Upgrading to a larger CIC office is an option, but if they grow big enough they will eventually have to find larger (or cheaper) office space elsewhere.

Events at CIC Cambridge

CIC events are worth mentioning. Venture Cafe is well-known in the local entrepreneurial community. It’s held on the 4th-floor of the CIC on a regular basis (usually on a Thursday afternoon). It’s a great place to network as well as access expertise and investors.

Besides the Venture Cafe, there are many other events held in the CIC for founders and people interested in starting their own companies. I’ve derived a ton of value from the free seminars organized by McCarter & English, a law firm that serves the startup and investment communities and has an office in the CIC. The speakers are all pros. I’ve attended talks on seed-stage funding, accounting for startups, and a great session on startup marketing featuring Bobbie Carlton, the founder of Mass Innovation Nights.

While the CIC is just part of the startup ecosystem in Cambridge, it’s an important part. We’ve found it to be an excellent place to start entrepreneurial efforts and make connections that will help sustain new enterprises. The CIC blog gives a feel for the character of the organization, activities, and some of the startups and founders that are based there. You can find out more about the CIC at its website and learn more about the history of the CIC on Xconomy.

MDP: Minimum Delightful Product

Minimum Viable Product, or “MVP”, is a startup buzzword that is actually a powerful concept for product development. It basically means creating a product that has just enough functionality for early customers to use, and helps guide future development. It greatly shortens feedback loops and can help companies avoid investing huge amounts of resources designing more complex products or features that customers don’t want. Building an MVP is a central part of the “lean startup” approach espoused by Eric Ries and others, and is used by startups and even larger companies to build Web, mobile, PC, and enterprise software. This post is about a variation known as MDP, or Minimum Delightful Product.

I first heard about this interesting twist on MVP from startup veteran and marketing guru Adam Berrey. In a 2011 email about a consumer app my company was developing, I mentioned MVP. He noted the importance of design and user experience (UX):

“For consumer apps, I like to think about ‘minimally delightful product (MDP)’ instead of MVP. The reason for this is that in the consumer world ‘viable’ isn’t really compelling. It’s like someone in the ICU. They are alive, but not really fun to hang out with. Create a product with just enough features (lean) and the right UX to be delightful, and you’ll capture the passion of consumer users.”

Taking a prototype from MVP to MDP

Adam’s idea resonated with me — imagine taking the UX to the next level in an MDP. It might take extra time, but there would be a payoff in terms of better adoption rates for the new product, which translates to more plentiful and more accurate feedback and usage data. MDP lets people get past potential qualms about simple UX or amateur design elements, and spend more time on the products features. These experiences can help founders identify what needs to be improved or jettisoned for the next version.

MDP can also result in better word-of-mouth loops, both online and off. I once heard Mint founder Aaron Patzer talk about the launch of the personal finance tracking website, and how paying attention early on to UX and design elements like fonts, the number of screens and even the name of the service led to viral growth as users told their friends about the service. Marc Hedlund, the CEO of Mint competitor Wesabe, acknowledged that this factor contributed to Mint’s success … and Wesabe’s eventual demise:

“Mint focused on making the user do almost no work at all, by automatically editing and categorizing their data, reducing the number of fields in their signup form, and giving them immediate gratification as soon as they possibly could; we completely sucked at all of that. … It was far easier to have a good experience on Mint, and that good experience came far more quickly.”

Naturally, getting to “delightful” may be a challenge. Design and UX choices can be complicated. They can also be very subjective — what appeals to one group of users may not work with others.

MDP examples: Bikes to books

MDP Minimum Delightful Product example for a mobile app
MDP example

For my old company, we employed MDP in early versions of our product, which was a classified app. People loved it. It looked better in the app store, which resulted in more downloads. The app also had engagement rates that were well above the norm — something like 20% of users were still using the app a month or two after downloading it, and average session times were several minutes long.
<!–
Dropbox Guide
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I also used the MDP concept for my second startup, In 30 Minutes guides. While I employed an “MVP” to test the idea (a Dropbox book in ebook and paperback formats) I quickly swapped out my amateur cover for a professionally designed cover, which resulted in more sales and a brand identity that I am still using today.

Update: Adam Berrey, the marketing expert who coined the phrase “Minimum Delightful Product”, has since written his own blog post elaborating on the MDP concept.

Repurposing ebook content on blogs

One underutilized tactic for marketing how-to guides involves repurposing ebook content on blogs. This is not the same as giving away free chapters, which is common in the fiction world, or republishing excerpts of biographies, which sometimes appear in magazines or the Wall Street Journal. While both of those approaches are valuable marketing tools, they are mainly intended to introduce the title or author to a wider audience. By contrast, the main purpose of repurposing ebook content on blogs is to help people solve specific problems — which may help them see value in the rest of the how-to guide.

Let me give you an example. My second In 30 Minutes title about Google Drive is about 15,000 words long. It’s aimed at beginners just getting started with Google’s free online office suite. It contains everything from basic setup to sections on using Google Docs, Google Sheets, Google Slides, storage, collaboration, and other functions and features within the suite.

I realized that some of the ebook subsections could stand on their own as blog posts. For instance, “What Is Google Drive” became its own page on the official product website. It’s a common question among new users searching the Web for information, and may lead to some of them considering the ebook or paperback versions of the guide. Similarly, I took a few other 200-400 word bits (example: “How to revert to an old version of a Google Drive file”) and used them for a book promotion taking place on ITworld.com.

Why repurposing ebook content online is a good marketing tactic

This type of ebook content repurposed as blogs posts should not be viewed as “giving away the farm”. It’s only a small percentage of the total ebook content. Further, as I noted earlier, it can help new users solve a problem while seeing value in buying the rest of the ebook.

Example of repurposing ebook content: What is Google Drive?

(This tactic, incidentally, aligns well with the online content marketing advice given by author Derek Slater in his recent In 30 Minutes guide).

Blogger default templates: Which one is the best?

Last week, I published my latest book, a a Google Blogger for Dummies alternative. I wanted to show small business owners how to cheaply and quickly build an informational website for their businesses using Google’s Blogger service. In the course of researching the book, I did a lot of experimentation with Blogger’s default templates. Which ones are the best?

Awesome, Inc. Template: This is one of the template types that I used to build a sample website in the book. It has a bold look in terms of the colors, fonts, and box styles used. Here’s what the sample website looks like, using the basic gray Awesome, Inc. template, as well as an orange Awesome, Inc. template:

Blogger Default Template Awesome Inc.Blogger Template Awesome Inc Orange

Simple Template: Blogger has a range of styles based on the “Simple” template. The colors and shapes are generally muted, but there are a few distinct types as well. Here are the Simple white and orange templates:

Blogger Template Simple White

Watermark Template: Finally, there are some playful templates that might fit certain types of businesses or business blogs. Here’s the “Candy Stripe” version of the Watermark template:

Blogger Watermark tempalte

What about the other Blogger default templates? Picture Window, Travel, and Dynamic Views are more oriented toward photographs. This is not a good fit more most small businesses, except for those which have lots of photographs to show. In addition, the Dynamic Views template is based on heavy use of javascript, which causes problems for some users.

Lastly, the Ethereal template is too gentle for most small businesses. I believe that most businesses need to make a strong impression, and Ethereal is just too emo.

What’s inside the book

My book explains how to choose different templates and customize them for static websites (that is, an informational website that seldom changes) or a small business blog. For people who are just starting a business, or don’t want to spend the time or money on an expensive website, this book will teach you what you need to know to get a small business website with its own .com domain for just $10 per year. You can see what’s inside the book here.

Of course, businesses with sophisticated design needs should go for a more advanced template. It’s possible to download custom templates for Blogger (I will write a post about this someday) but many businesses opt for WordPress. That’s fine, but note that WordPress comes with a much steeper learning curve, as well as additional financial and time management costs. I’ll be sticking with Blogger …

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: