Ben Yoskovitz on lean product development, using metrics to build successful products and companies

The O’Reilly Design Podcast: Build measure learn, the One Metric That Matters, and balancing hubris and humility.

By Mary Treseler
March 2, 2017
Lightbulb. Lightbulb. (source: Pixabay)

In this week’s Design Podcast, I sit down with Ben Yoskovitz, investor, entrepreneur, and former VP of product at VarageSale and at GoInstant. We talk about using metrics in product development and why anyone building anything new needs to have both hubris and intellectual honesty. Yoskovitz is co-author of Lean Analytics, and is teaching a two-day course on product strategy as part of the upcoming O’Reilly Design Conference.

Here are some highlights from our conversation:

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Lean Analytics and Lean Startup

I think many people will have had this experience where they have an idea, they think it’s a great idea. They go out and build something, and they invest heavily in that, from a people perspective, from an hours, from a dollars perspective. They launch it, and nobody cares, or not enough people care, let’s say. You realize, wait a second, I’ve made all these mistakes through that, going through this exercise, going through the motions of building something. Now what do I do?

Lean Startup is designed to solve for that, to get you to understand the risks in advance and ‘de-risk’ those things—applying some scientific methodology, or the scientific method, to building products. Lean Analytics is a way of measuring your progress through that process. You need the combination of a little bit of the theory and, well, how do I go about building things? How do I understand what a problem is or how to validate it? How do I do customer interviews? This sort of tactical stuff.

Then, Lean Analytics is really about: how do I measure my progress through this so that I know I’m doing it successfully? Not for the sake of just doing Lean Start Up, but so that I can ultimately build something that my users or customers want.

Build, measure, learn is at the core of Lean Start Up. When you see it, visually, it’s a little cycle. Build, measure, learn—it goes around and around. It’s an iterative cycle. We’ll say, in Lean Start Up parlance, that you’re trying iterate through build, measure, learn as quickly as you possibly can, as frequency as you can to get to the ultimate success.

We’re all liars

I’ll start with ‘we’re all liars.’ I say that almost every single time I present. Partly because it’s kind of funny, or I’d like to think it is. Partly because it’s true. Often, I’m speaking to entrepreneurs, where I think it’s particularly true. The reason is, because I think you actually, as an entrepreneur, have to be a bit of a liar.

There’s a number of reasons for that. One is, you’re creating something that doesn’t yet exist. You’re selling it, whether you’re actually selling it or not, but you have to convince others that your vision is real and important. That might be for recruiting people. It might be users. It might be customers.

In many ways, you’re saying, I believe this thing is true. I’m going to create something to solve this problem or realize this vision. You have to believe me. Let’s all agree, that we don’t really know if the vision is true. That’s where intellectual honesty comes in. Frankly, we say this a lot about the Lean Analytics book, which is, it’s not about exclusively using data. It’s not about being so wholly data driven that you ignore your gut or insights or anything else. There’s a little bit of lying there. Let’s call it a little bit of sizzle before the steak. There’s other ways of paraphrasing it.

That’s one reason. The other, I think, is that entrepreneurs need what I call a reality distortion field. We need to surround ourselves, and I put myself in this bucket as an entrepreneur, because being an entrepreneur is hard. We’ve all heard that before. It’s 100% true. Early-stage employees, I think, would be put into the same bucket, the first handful of employees. You get into an early-stage company and all the risk is there. You have to get up every morning and fight the good fight for what you believe to be true and for the vision that you’re working toward achieving. You have to surround yourself in this reality distortion field.

Now, having said that, I think where the risk comes is when that reality distortion field gets so strong to the point where you’re deluding yourself. That’s when, as an entrepreneur, you’re running a 100 miles an hour.

Another way of thinking about this is ego. Entrepreneurs need ego in order to survive. I believe that to be true. But you can have so much, when you’re ego is so big or so strong or so overpowering that you stop listening to other people. You stop recognizing when you’re making mistakes. Then, you’re going to fail. There’s a balance there between ‘we’re all liars,’ the reality distortion field, and intellectual honesty, which I believe is so important for entrepreneurs because it’s so easy to delude ourselves into believing things that are ultimately not true.

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