Most of us think of entrepreneurship as the antithesis of traditional management, especially when it comes to the stars of the digital economy, like, say, Eric Ries. But Ries, who is known for extolling the virtues of rapid-fire innovation—he coined the term minimum viable product to describe his methodology for getting new products (sometimes barely functioning prototypes) into the hands of customers as early as possible—views things in a different light. Entrepreneurship is not an opposing force to “serious” management, he says, but its own distinct, and complementary, variety of it.
Ries can be as passionate about spreadsheets and accounting as he is about fast prototyping. He is as apt to advise listeners to “slow down and learn” as he is to urge them to “get out and build.” In his 2011 book, The Lean Startup: How Today’s Entrepreneurs Use Continuous Innovation to Create Radically Successful Businesses (Crown Business), he urges leaders to look past the standard view of launching new ventures (and perhaps business at large) as a tug of war between creative risk takers and pragmatic controllers. “What we really need,” he says, “is a new general theory of management.” Not exactly the words of an entrepreneurialism absolutist.
In the first video interview of this five-part series, Eric Ries, author of The Lean Startup, tells Paul Michelman, executive editor at strategy+business, that entrepreneurs exist everywhere—and discusses what that means for innovation at big companies.
Ries, who is entering his third year as entrepreneur-in-residence at Harvard Business School (where his ideas have been developed into required-course materials in the MBA curriculum), has among the most diverse portfolios in Silicon Valley.
He was involved in his first startup as a college undergraduate and his second, There Inc., at the age of 24 in 2001. Although There failed, three years later he cofounded another startup, IMVU, a social entertainment arena where people communicate and play games, represented by 3D graphic avatars. The company released its first product just six months after its founding; nearly a decade later, it is still going strong. Today, Ries is a venture capitalist, a blogger, a darling of the SXSW festival, a book author, and a regular advisor to other entrepreneurs. He has inspired a group of followers so passionate that they form clubs to talk about his ideas. Ries hosts an annual Lean Startup conference, and counts among his clients General Electric, Intuit, and, of course, a slew of ventures you’ve not (yet) heard of.
Along the path of his entrepreneurial adventures, Ries began to notice some “truths” about what worked in launching new businesses, what didn’t, and why. He cataloged and chronicled those observations in what became a must-read blog called Startup Lessons Learned. His thoughts began to gain greater traction, first within Silicon Valley and then beyond it. His book cemented his reputation as one of the most important and influential young management thinkers. In a wide-ranging interview at Ries’s home in the Ashbury Heights section of San Francisco, Ries presented a view of startup effectiveness—whether achieved by an individual or by a company—grounded in mastery of what he calls “the boring stuff: how to measure progress, how to set up milestones, how to prioritize work” (see “The Five Principles of the Lean Startup”). Known by some for his aphorism “You don’t have to work in a garage to be in a startup,” Ries also makes the case that no matter the size of your organization, you need to embrace some of the spirit of the garage if you are going to survive in an unpredictable, innovation-driven economy.