No longer a practice confined to early stage startups, lean is infiltrating companies from large corporates to small one-person non-profits. If people are not practicing it, they almost certainly would have heard this:

“If you wait until you’re not embarrassed by your first product, then you’ve waited too long to release it.”


Here’s why the one thing you know about lean is probably wrong:

1. Eric Ries never said it.

The quote is most often attributed to Eric Ries, but actually it was LinkedIn Founder Reid Hoffman who said it. A common mistake Ries was eager to correct at the recent Lean Startup Conference.

2. The quote only applies to software, particularly internet software. It doesn’t apply to hardware.

Hoffman points out that he never meant the quote to apply to hardware (or slow cycle industries), which have a different set of criteria than internet software. That’s not to say it can’t be practiced when it comes to hardware. Jon McKay, co-founder of Technical Machine, has a great post on lean for hardware startups (he launched one himself, coming from a background of software). He says:

 “All the rules for lean startups still apply for hardware companies. Make the easiest, quickest prototype and get user feedback on it. Once you can prove you’re heading down the right path, iterate as quickly as you can.”

It’s worth noting McKay points out how Kickstarter is revolutionising lean for hardware startups.

3. The emphasis of the quote is speed, not the product itself.

Hoffman said the real issue for most entrepreneurs is knowing if you’re moving fast enough. It’s about finding the right “internal temperature” on how fast you should move. Speed is the key here, and that involves the ability to get customer feedback from day one (and hence the tie-in with lean). “We need to break away from from the tendency to believe that our product has to be great when it’s launched and that is what we’re judged on,” says Hoffman. “The normal instinct for entrepreneurs is that we are going to be judged by my product and that’s why we have an “unveiling”, a “tada” moment.” Slow cycle industries all reinforce this.

It can be a hard balancing act. With regard to lean and speed (and getting it right) some thoughts here from Derek Browning from LeanCor: “As of late, we have seen many companies espousing lean while falling apart, because they became “too lean” or “went over lean’s speed limit.” This was actually not because they were becoming too lean or implementing lean too fast, it was because they were ignoring basic lean principles. Basic lean principles such as elimination of muri (overburdened or unreasonableness), basic elements of stability, and quality at the source are ignored for the sake of increasing speed and getting short term results.”

4. Don’t optimise for success on the first day.


The real question is not what happens on the first day, the real question is what happens in the first week, the first month, the first six months etc. You need to optimise for success in the first year not the first day. “For anyone other than Steve Jobs, getting out fast and iterating is key,” says Hoffman.

5. No matter how long you wait to release your first version, you will be embarrassed by it.

This is Ries’ corollary theory to Hoffman’s (and can be correctly attributed to him). This picks up on that fact that no matter what product you launch, your internal idea of quality is probably not going to be right and you’ll be embarrassed anyway. So launch and get that embarrassment out of the way.

  • Desmond Sherlock

    I love it. Our website has been a bit of an embarrassment for nearly 2 years and we are only now revamping our site and optimising it, but our MVP (minimum viable product) has allowed us to glean so much data on what the customer wants that it has made the embarrassment all worth while. Thanks for the tip.

  • malynixon

    > No longer a practice confined to early stage startups, lean is infiltrating companies from large corporates to small one-person non-profits.

    Lean was in big companies decades before it reached startup world. Lean startup is based on Toyota lean manufacturing models. The only inovation is that these methods are now applied to startups.

    • Phil Morle

      Yes it is true that lean began in companies that at least became large. I’d say ‘lean’ is referring to the general principle or minimising waste and finding value quickly through iterative learning. ‘Lean manufacturing’ is heavily focused on the speed and quality of a production line. The innovations coming out of ‘lean startup’ are focused on customer development (

    • Desmond Sherlock

      Lean thinking, to me, is more about opinitive thinking and expression rather than factive thinking and expression, but I think I get your gist maly. So as a philosophy lean can be used in a simple conversation, and that is what is innovative about lean to me.

      • Desmond Sherlock

        I am just reading The Toyota Way to Lean Leadership and finally I have seen the light. “Lean” now I see is a way of thinking akin to a way of living. In two words I would say it is “reduce waste” and this is done by Kaizen (continual improvement) and Gemba (going to the place of work or coal face). I am not sure lean startups is the same lean from the originators Toyota. I guess there is a loss in translation.
        Anyway to book is a great read.

    • bronwen

      It’s true there is a full-circle on this, but the understanding of lean in its present day form is pretty much focussed on startups.

  • Loandesk ©

    Great article Bronwen and very very true :) It’s a constant battle of trying to make things perfect Vs just getting the project launched then working on it from there. Once you see some results the gratification will launch you into a new level of motivation.

  • Peter Hanami

    Good points in the article. Agree we shouldn’t get lost. Lean has really two meanings one in Japanese and one in English, both are very different. Lean in Japanese really focuses on no waste and constant improvement whereas in English we seem to focus more on just the cost cutting aspect? For Example: In Japan customer service is rarely cut but constantly improved eg, with new technology.

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