How to do Lean when your customer is your business

This past week I had the opportunity to work with Rovio’s team, teaching them about Lean Startup. While getting the hang of Build, Measure, Learn, my team was saying that Lean Startup couldn’t apply to them because they are making entertainment products, not solving a customer problem. I’ve heard that argument before not only from entertainment companies, but also internal teams trying to solve problems for the business. Yes, these teams are not usually solving the dire needs of their users. The user is either delighted by their experience (entertainment) or tolerant of your business optimization (increasing revenue).

When I was starting out with Lean at OpenSky, I ran into this problem. As a Product Manager, I would get handed themes or features about what we should build next from upper management. The goal was always to increase revenue. I was struggling with how to apply this exact model to solve our business problems. My “customer” (OpenSky) and my “end user” (actual users) were not the same people. How do you apply lean to get people to invite their friends? How do you figure out an end user problem to “we need customers to buy more things”? Those are purely business problems. No customer is banging down the “door” of a clothing shop saying pllllease take more of my paycheck.

BUT you can still use lean in these cases. This is how.

Do Build, Measure, Learn in reverse.


Instead of focusing first on what your customer problem is (and here you will get stuck for reasons I said above) start with this question: What do we want to learn?

Ask your team and managers what do we want to learn about our users in the context of this business problem. For example, when a manager tells you they want users to visit your site more frequently, you turn that into: “Why are my users not coming back to my site more than twice a month?”

Now you can call your customers who are not returning and ask them why. Are they having specific problems with the site? Learn what they come to the site for, why they come when they do, and what prompts them to revisit sites in general. Sometimes this act alone will help you discover a big problem for the customer. Maybe the user wanted to come back to the site but always forgot during their busy schedule. You can start with your build measure learn loop right there.

Most of the time, you are going to struggle to find that “dire” problem the customer has that solves your business need. From this question, I’d expect to hear “I forget, but it’s not such a big deal for me. I like shopping when I remember to.” So after researching, you build an experiment around the how. “What can I do to get users to come back to my site more than twice a month?”

Figure out how you would measure that lesson. In this example, we would want to track how many times per month users visit the site through our vetted channels.

Take what you learned about users and create a hypothesis and a test about what they will do and enjoy. “My customers come to our site when we send emails. My users are always trying to keep in touch with their friends. I think if we send them an email once a week with activity their friends had on the site, they will come back.”

Set your minimum success criteria to gauge your progress. We’ll send this email to 100 users for one month. If we get 60/100 people to click through and visit once a week, this will be a success. Then run and pivot as you would with any Lean concept.

Doing Lean inside an existing business is actually EASIER than at a startup. You already have customers to tap into for running your experiments. There are actual users to call for research when they do not respond to your initial tests. This makes doing Lean a million times easier, and should not be put to waste! Lean is not just for startups.

Try this and let me know how it goes.