LSM learnings - Ben O'Hear mentoring

Last weekend was Lean Startup Machine Munich 2015, an amazing weekend-long workshop where attendees learn to build stuff people want. If you’ve never attended Lean Startup Machine, then this post will be quite heavy on jargon and low on context. Apologies in advance for that (and hope to see you at the next edition).

After our first gig mentoring at Lean Startup Machine, I figured we would cruise through this event. However this time we were given a particular role: Event-wide UX mentors and therefore de facto “landing page people” (though mercifully we spent most of our time on “normal” mentoring, which is a lot more fun).

The irony is that our main advice on the landing page front was a) don’t build one and b) if you do build one, don’t spend time designing it. Here is why: 

Why landing pages should be used cautiously

#1  Landing pages play a very specific role at Lean Startup Machine

Lean Startup Machine is primarily a customer development workshop. Through direct interaction with the target audience, problems and solutions are validated and insights are gathered to refine or even completely replace them.

The landing page is the icing on the cake for teams that have been successful in finding and selling a solution manually. By going online, they can reach a much larger audience and multiply their traction in a very short amount of time.

LSM landing page results

#2  They are the weakest form of validation

Landing pages offer two forms of “currency”:

  • Collected email addresses (which express interest but not a commitment to buying)
  • “Order now $xxx” buttons. Since it would cause all sorts of issues to collect actual cash, clicks on those buttons are counted as if money had changed hands.

The problem with counting clicks at the face value of the button, is that there is no real evidence that the users would actually go through with the transaction if it was complete.

So while it is certainly very useful validation, saying “we made $3000” just because some people clicked a button strikes me as unrealistic.

#3  Driving traffic is the hardest part

… and it is getting harder. Increasingly groups are closed, require approval that might not arrive on time, ban recently created accounts and many other defenses that prevent posting a link to a landing page.

There are still ways around this, especially if the participants are willing to use their actual social media accounts. But it is common for landing pages to end Lean Startup Machine with only a handful of visits

#4  You can’t talk to a landing page

You will know if you are successful, but get no real feedback if you fail.

#5  It is a high risk of being a time sink

One of the reasons we love paper prototyping at revelate is because it is fast and not affected by the complexity of digital production.

Tools like Unbounce can heavily streamline the process, but as soon as a team starts customizing the layout it is all too easy for them to spend a lot of time fighting with the tool and tweaking design minutiae.

LSM Landing page and results

So should teams never use landing pages?

Whoah, I didn’t quite say that.

For teams that really have all their ducks in a row and have great offline validation, throwing up a landing page is like turning on the money printing machine. You can get huge amounts of validation with very little effort.

And for teams it is often the missing link to fully experience the process: That all this offline validation really does translate into success online. 

How to successfully use landing pages at LSM

#1  Launch a first simple version

Simple doesn’t mean shit, by the way. It just means that you pick an appropriate template, swap the text and images, and launch. Though even shit can often work, if the offer is attractive enough.

A lot of teams really struggled with that concept. They had all sorts of reasons for their landing page to be tailored, complex and perfect. Which is cool, and even on occasions the right thing to do.

But it is rare, and therefore so much smarter to chuck up a simple page. You should attempt to do this in 30 mins, which means that realistically it will take an hour. Still good enough.

#2  Iterate based on real world performance

Your simple landing page will deliver one of the following outcomes:

  • Success
  • Failure through lack of traffic, so the design makes no difference
  • Failure through insufficient design, just like you thought. And if that happens ...

… you create a new experiment with the aim of improving the conversion. By doing it in two steps (one simple, one complex) you will get better learning and an extra experiment on your Javelin board. A lot of the work writing content and sourcing images for the first version will be recyclable, so there is very little waste in taking that approach.

#3  If you have built a cool demo for your pitch MVP, use that

Several teams shot a demo video or faked their product in photoshop in order to sell it on the streets. That is a great addition to the landing page and doesn't take any extra effort.

#4  Spending hours on a pretty landing page that fails might help you win the prize

The winning team of this year spent about half a day on their landing page, had 7 visits and zero conversions. But it looked good, presented the product very well and impressed the jury. Alone it is not enough, but it can help.

LSM - landing pages

Lessons learned for us

Mentoring at LSM is always a great experience, in particular because of what we learn from own failures.

#1  The landing page talk should have the right amount of detail

I was in charge of giving the landing page talk this year. The tricky bit is that if you give people too little detail they will not be able to attack the task effectively. But too much can lead to several teams forgetting the important bits (like “a landing page shouldn’t be the first thing you do”).

Having said that, the teams that DID pay attention were able to tackle this task successfully. Next time I think I’ll distribute a cheat sheet, so people have something to refer to.

#2  Encourage the right amount of rule breaking

Taking risks is a key part of entrepreneurship, and no one loses points at LSM for breaking the rules or ignoring advice … provided they get results.

The bigger problem is when teams ignore sound advice and fail in a very predictable way. Typically this was a problem with teams that had a solution they would just not let go of.

#3  Sometimes you have to be hard on teams

I believe our main role as mentors is to help teams with the tools and keep them moving so they find their own way.

But sometimes you do need to dig into the details and kick their butt in the right direction. On two occasions I regretted not doing that.

#4  Be strict about the Javelin board

It can feel very beaurocratic to demand that the experiments all be clearly documented and stuck on the Javelin board.

But it is important, both so that we mentors are able to understand what is going on without having to interrupt the team and then guide them effectively. But also for the team themselves to visualize their progress and be sure of a common understanding.

#5  Pivoting is still hard

Knowing the different ways teams can approach a pivot following a failed first experiment doesn’t make it any easier. The problem is that the data is rarely so clear cut and it is a muddle of fuzzy audiences and problem insights. 

Our congratulations to ALL teams

Lean Startup Machine is a really hard event. It's fast, intense, a roller coaster of emotions and completely takes you out of your comfort zone. Even the teams that struggled have acheived and learned huge amounts, pushing hard all the way to pitch time.

LSM Teams

And a BIG thanks to the organization team

Big thanks to Ralf, Thomas (str84wd) and Nils (Valtech) for making this such a great event. Not all Lean Startup Machine workshops are created equal, and I believe that the Munich edition is one of the truest to the original spirit. That is really down to the quality and dedication of these guys.

LSM organizers


Read next:

Erfahrungsbericht von Der Kontext zur Lean Startup Machine Munich 2015

16 insights from mentoring at Lean Startup Machine Munich (2013)