I have a love affair with the Lean Canvas

- September 17, 2014 4 MIN READ

My life as a startup mentor has three constants: midnight anxiety, coffee and lean canvases. I deal with the first two with a combination of meditation and hard liquor, depending on how much time I have on my hands. Lean canvases, on the other hand, have become both a necessary evil and my favourite thing in the world. If you’re doing it right, running a lean canvas session is equal parts endless joy and cautious panic.

My love affair with the Lean Canvas started 5 years ago when my then-boss Phil Morle, co-founder of Pollenizer, handed me a copy of “Running Lean” by Ash Maurya and said these magic words: “I have a project for you I think you might enjoy.” Over time I would learn that every time Phil said that to me it meant “I’m about to hand you more than you can chew, but I’m confident you’ll figure out how to chew it.” The assignment was to understand the pieces of the Lean Canvas and come up with a functional, scalable template for the team- by the next morning. So I headed home with a copy of the book under my arm and a sense of dread in my heart. I didn’t sleep that night.

That was the start of many sleepless nights during my tenure at Pollenizer, where the Lean Canvas became our bread and butter. The beauty of the lean canvas is that it can be used in a hundred ways: it’s the Swiss Army knife of startup tool. You can run discovery workshops off it, you can identify new revenue streams in an existing business model, break down individual experiments, you can use it to isolate an MVP…. If you’re really smart about it, you can even use it to run performance reviews with your staff.

A lean canvas is a beautiful tool.

The danger with a lean canvas is that it was become fashionable. The “Lean Startup” has done for lean canvases what hipsters have done for skinny jeans. Everybody wants one but not everyone knows how to use it properly.

As a startup mentor I can tell you that having an effective lean canvas process is key to pushing your business through the growth stages, from discovery to validation to efficiency to scale. What you need to remember is that lean canvases are only as good as the people participating in the session. I have facilitated dozens and dozens of lean canvas sessions over the last 4 years and they all have something in common: most founders don’t know where to start.

Here are the 5 things you should keep in mind when tackling your first lean canvas:

Don’t DIY

A few months ago, a founder approached me wanting advice on a dual-marketplace startup. I advised him to run a simple 2-hour lean canvas session to understand the market-product fit and hopefully identify a workable MVP. I sent him a quote for the session and waited. The answer, as I had expected, came back “I read ‘Running Lean”, I can do the lean canvas myself.” So he went off and had a crack at it.

Two months later, I got a panicked call from that team. The lean canvas had gotten so overblown and unfocused that nothing had been built. The founder had gotten the developer to fill out the lean canvas using a YouTube tutorial as guidance. The tool was so crowded and muddled that it took two of us two whole days to unravel the mess.

This happens 2 out of 3 times. Founders assume that the combination of having read the theory around the lean canvas and their previous business experience is enough to run a lean canvas. Why would they pay an external person to do it for them when they can do it themselves? That’s what hacking is all about right?  It’s not as simple as that. There is a reason you shouldn’t download a recipe and try to make your own wedding cake. In theory, you could do it, but it’s going to result in a time consuming mess and irrecoverable sunk costs. If you have ever seen a “Pinterest Fail” piece on Buzzfeed, you know what I’m talking about.

If you are about to tackle your first lean canvas, I beg you to go get help. It doesn’t have to be me, it doesn’t have to be an incubator or a high-priced consultant. Just get someone who has at least gone through a couple of iterations of the process before.

Know the difference between a User and a Client/Customer

This one is super simple: your client is the one who pays you. A user is, for all effects and purposes, the product you are selling to your client. The easiest example of this is Facebook: you and I are the users, the companies running the ads are the client – Facebook uses their platform to sells us to the companies. Scary but true!

It’s not a business plan, it’s a testing lab

Some founders, especially those with experience in the corporate world, tend to think of a lean canvas as an “innovative way” to present your business plan, making more about the formatting than the content. So they just pop the portions of their long-winded, 40-page business plan into the corresponding slot on the canvas. This results in a gargantuan, muddled and static canvas that is virtually useless.

A better way to approach this is to think about each slot in the canvas a possible experiment you could run. Once you begin experimenting, you will see how each slot influences the others. The minute you start noticing patterns, you’re in business!

Don’t let technology lead the way

Don’t get me wrong, definitely be realistic in what you can deliver. Just don’t be limited by what you can technically build. Technology is a tool, not a solution. Be as creative with your lean canvas as you can possibly afford to be.

Don’t ever, ever, ever build a product

Don’t build anything before you have a lean canvas and/or have started experimenting. That’s the kiss of death. Whenever a founder spends more than 5 minutes telling me about this amazing platform he has already built (or worse, has commissioned to an external web development company) I think back to those old-timey war movies where the soldiers sit around in their foxhole telling each other what they plan to do when they “finally get home.” You know that the one who has the longest story is the next one to get shot in the head.

Bonus: Share it! 

Make sure that everyone on your team has access to the latest iteration of your lean canvas. Everyone should know what the business is up to and what experiments you are running.

The secret of running a successful lean canvas session is in knowing that this is an iterative process, not a result-driven exercise. The canvas is meant to change, grow, evolve as your business does. It doesn’t have to be perfect, you just need to get started. In another Phil Morle-ism that I now repeat to myself every day: “Done is better than perfect.” So Godspeed and happy canvassing!