From black ops to lean startups, it seems there has never been a dull period in Steve Blank’s career — except, perhaps, the one semester Blank spent at the University of Michigan before dropping out and enlisting in the U.S. Air Force, where he did a stint repairing avionics in Thailand during the Vietnam War.
Blank landed in Silicon Valley in 1978, where he did classified intelligence work for ESL, a government contractor in national reconnaissance. He quickly internalized the entrepreneurial ethic of the valley. By the time he retired two decades later, he had been involved with eight startups, including software company E.piphany, which he cofounded in his living room.
Like an increasing number of baby boomers, Blank didn’t actually retire. He invested in and advised new startups. He wrote a book about building early-stage companies, The Four Steps to the Epiphany: Successful Strategies for Products That Win (K&S Ranch Press, 2003), which is now in its fifth edition. It details Blank’s “customer development process,” a parallel process to product development aimed at ensuring that startups discover viable markets, locate their first customers, validate their product assumptions in their targeted markets, and adapt their products when necessary. And he began teaching classes in entrepreneurship at the University of California at Berkeley and Stanford University.
These strings all came together when Blank invested in a company cofounded by Eric Ries, who read his book and took his class. Ries incorporated and popularized Blank’s thinking as a cornerstone in the lean startup movement. Blank, to his own surprise, became something of a guru. He wrote a second book, with Bob Dorf, The Startup Owner’s Manual: The Step-by-Step Guide for Building a Great Company (K&S Ranch Press, 2012), and a third, a collection of his articles titled Holding a Cat by the Tail: Lessons from an Entrepreneurial Life (K&S Ranch Press, 2014).
“It takes a genius to make a complicated thing something that someone else can explain.”
Blank also designed the National Science Foundation Innovation Corps, which has become a standard for science commercialization in the U.S. And his Hacking for Defense class at Stanford applies the principles of lean startups to national security issues for the U.S. defense and intelligence community.
I asked Blank about the books that have influenced him and the books, aside from his, that best explain the lean startup concept. He shared the following titles.
Strategy and Structure: Chapters in the History of the Industrial Enterprise, by Alfred D. Chandler (MIT Press, 1962). “Strategy and Structure, like everything Chandler wrote, is brilliant — turgid (you can read one out every five pages and still get it), but brilliant. The fact that organizational charts were not found chiseled on the pyramids and the notion that structure follows strategy changed my life. Read it because we haven’t quite come up with an organizational model that solves the strategic problems we are facing today with the internet and disruption and speed.”
The Innovator’s Dilemma: When New Technologies Cause Great Firms to Fail, by Clayton M. Christensen (Harvard Business Review Press, 1997). “Christensen’s The Innovator’s Dilemma is the foundational read for managing disruptive innovation. Since then, Christensen, who was channeling Schumpeter, [the inventor of the term ‘creative destruction’], has bounced between arguing that innovation comes from startups and that innovation comes from corporations. The answer, of course, is that he is right in both cases.”
The Lean Startup: How Today's Entrepreneurs Use Continuous Innovation to Create Radically Successful Businesses, by Eric Ries (Crown Business, 2011). “Eric is the best student I ever had. He’s the Johnny Appleseed of lean startup, and if it wasn’t for him, I’d be a semiretired teacher who came up with a nice little theory about customer development. He took my work, coupled it to agile engineering, and launched the lean startup movement. His book shows big companies how to become more entrepreneurial.”
Business Model Generation: A Handbook for Visionaries, Game Changers, and Challengers (Wiley, 2010) and Value Proposition Design: How to Create Products and Services Customers Want (Wiley, 2014), by Alexander Osterwalder and Yves Pigneur, et. al. “Any idiot can make a complicated thing sound complicated and it takes an artist to make a complicated thing simple, but it takes a genius to make a complicated thing something that someone else can explain — and that’s what Alex enabled us to do with lean startups. He gave us a canvas for the framework. The ratio of number of words to impact is incredible in these books. They are quick, insightful, tactical reads that are respectful of executive time.”