Agile and the Lean Startup

This is part of my ongoing series devoted to understanding the connection between Disruption Theory, Lean Startup, Lean product development, and Agile software development.

The Lean Startup is most likely the best example of how to translate Lean into software development directly. This set of management tools uses nearly all the Lean tools identified in the famous texts of Lean, such as Toyota Way, Lean Thinking, and Toyota Production System. In fact there are so many similarities between the two people have accused the author of basically writing a book about Lean and not adding anything to the topic. I, personally, don’t agree with this as the portions about pivoting is definitely not part of the Lean framework and is novel capability he introduced.

Furthermore, he’s had to translate a great deal of the language from manufacturing or office settings into a development setting. While there are similarities there are differences between a piece of finished goods and a completed piece of code. This difference is that the code can be pushed to “production” servers and active for users, while the finished good has to be purchased by a customer, which still may take weeks to occur (if the production system is linked to purchase orders and directly to customers). To that end Reis pushed to make as many changes to production as quickly as possible – not without testing of course, but as soon as testing was completed the change went live. This is an extreme case of single piece flow. One change goes through testing and pushed live.

Pushing in the “Continuous Deployment” model of course causes a lot of issues if you don’t have robust testing. You need the testing to be fast but comprehensive. It’s impossible to do this from the beginning so over time the team has to develop more and more sophisticated tests based on how the team breaks the existing piece of software as they deploy changes. This is where Root Cause analysis plays a key role. Do a 5 Why’s analysis (ask why 5 times until you come to an underlying root cause) fix that problem so it never happens again. In the case where you cannot prevent the issue then you need to be automatically testing for the issue to fix it before you publish the change.

Agile has similar concepts in that they there are short cycles of development called “sprints” these sprints can last anywhere from a week to a month. At the end of each sprint the goal is to have a series of features that are deploy-able (including testing) that a customer would be willing to pay for. These pieces of work are broken down into something called a “minimum viable feature” which is smaller than a product but not so small that it wouldn’t completely work. For example, an MVF of WordPress would be the “publish button” initially it would need to convert all the text in the text editor and turn everything into a viewable website and create the URL associated with that article. Over time new features can be added like the auto-tweeting capability that exist now.

One common theme between both approaches is the concept of minimum viable product, which is a set of features that makes up the product. The difference between the two approaches in developing the MVP is that the Product owner does this in Agile, while the MVP is determined through a great deal of customer interaction in Lean Startup (Ideally the Product Owner is doing a similar activity for the customer but typically acts as a proxy).

There hasn’t been a lot of authors that have looked into combining these two approaches. There are a lot of similarities as they both emerged from the Lean philosophy, which means they should be fairly easy to combine into a larger framework. The only book I’m aware of that has even attempted to tackle this is the “Lean Mindset” by Tom and Mary Poppendieck. Even in this book though, they have decided to go with a 4 step approach that has more phases than what the Lean Startup recommends. They propose the stage gate to help determine minimum levels of details. I believe that this is because of the typical levels of bureaucracies in organizations, where a Project Management Organization will require adhering to some sort of phased gate approach. The Lean Startup uses Pivots as a way to manage projects that are failing, but not with the same level of rigor or structure as the approach the Poppendiek’s recommend. Instead, the Lean Startup approach recommends setting goals and targets for metrics (non-vanity like number of views) determining when to pivot. The timeline has to be long enough to get a clear view of what your customers actually want.

Is Uber really worth $40 Billion? What is value?

Today it was discovered that Uber raised about $1.2 Billion in its latest round of VC funding. This puts Uber at the stratospheric valuation of $40 billion. This valuation makes Uber worth more than companies like Haliburton, CBS, Yum! Brand (Pepsi, Pizza Hut, Taco Bell, KFC), Northrup Grumman Corp, Kraft Foods, and basically 72% of the Fortune 500, according to this Fortune article, that means there are only 140 companies in the world valued more than Uber. On the other hand, its revenue is only $400 million which is one fifth the revenue of the smallest company on the Fortune 500.

Clearly this means that investors expect a massive IPO and that the company will continue to double revenue every 6 months. This is one of the major reasons for this round of funding as well – Uber needs to be able to expand in Asia and this money will allow them to do so. They’ll have to hire staff, fight law suits, bribe people, and who knows what else. It begs the question, are we going to see Uber Rickshaws?

With this astronomical valuation of the company, it makes you ask what is value, who is receiving this value, and how long can this valuation truly be valid? There are only two stakeholders that are truly receiving $40 billion in value, that’s the startup founders and the early investors. With the bad press that┬áthe company has been receiving, it’s clear that it’s not Uber’s customers, whom expect privacy and discretion on the part of Uber, whenever they are not receiving it. Ok, maybe that’s not completely fair, as a large number of people use Uber today, it’s clearly filling a void that aging regulations wasn’t really filling. However, it’s clear that this benefit is coming at great cost to the “employees” of Uber where aribitrary rate cuts in some areas prevents it from being possible to make a true living wage. Furthermore, this valuation will only last as long as Uber is able to continually grow, as soon as the company fails to show that they are continuing to grow, their stock prices (as they will be public by then) will eventually fall back to much more realistic prices. This is similar to what initially happened with Facebook and more recently with prices falling for Twitter. The major difference being that Uber has a much clearer revenue model than either of those companies that does not rely on ads, simply drivers and riders. Furthermore, we only know what the revenue for Uber is, we do not know what the profit margins on that revenue are, clearly they are looking good, because for a given city the overhead for Uber can’t be more than half a million dollars, which means they are likely doing rather well.

Compare this to companies that actually make things that drive the economy through providing many jobs, like Kraft, it makes you wonder where these valuations come from and what it is that investors truly see in companies like Uber. To me, it’s an interesting company that has an aggressive approach to business, but that isn’t worth that kind of money. Maybe I’ll see things differently if it comes to Portland.

Venture Capitalists goals to exit will drive winner-take-all growth

While watching a friend stream on twitch today, his radio station played a commercial from Audible an Amazon company. Which made me think about how Audible was a really up and coming company that a lot of people were interested in. Companies like Audible are funded by Venture Capitalists to help them in a few ways – pay for more developers, pay for access to content, hire marketing folks, or any other litany of things that a business needs. They come in at a stage when a company has little to no revenue.

These VC’s then put pressure on the companies to become profitable through new businesses, increasing the number of number of subscribers, or even changing markets or product types (pivots in their language). This is for a pretty simple reason, they make money in a boom or bust manner. If they fund 64 companies having at least one of them profitable means it needs to raise a massive amount of money to break even or to make all of those investments profitable for the company.

This means that whenever a company like Amazon approaches the leadership board of a company like Audible, the board will likely push for a higher price, but will likely be willing to sell. This is because Amazon, Google, Apple, and other companies similar in size, breadth, and depth in the market, offer absurdly deep pockets. For example, Facebook bought Oculus Rift, a company that’s only had a few prototypes released for $2 Billion. This is a huge amount of money which likely made the VC’s extremely happy.

Because of these market conditions we’ll likely continue to see a winner take all approach to markets that these players are in. Since most of these companies are competing in the exact same space, a company like Audible, that could offer a distinct advantage in the market place would be extremely valuable. It would actually have significantly higher value than if there weren’t 4 giant companies competing in the same space.

It’s likely we’ll see this continue to expand as Sony tries to figure out how to move into these spaces more adeptly, as well as Microsoft resurgence in consumer markets. Fully expect more and more of this to happen and greater and greater valuations for these companies in the coming months and years.