Review of Eric Ries: The Startup Way

In his earlier book, The Lean Startup, Eric Ries put forward a framework for successful startups, albeit in the world of Silicon Valley. These included building minimal viable products (“MVPs”), extensive customer-focused testing based on a build/measure/learn method of continuous innovation, and deciding whether to “persevere or pivot”. This is of particular interest to me because most of these concepts and frameworks have been used with our client base of growing (but not hyper-growing) agencies.

In his new book, The Startup Way, he turns his attention to multinationals (GE, Toyota…), the Silicon Valley tech titans (Amazon, Google…) and the next generation of Silicon Valley upstarts.

The startup mentality is arguably the best way to create innovation and bring new ideas to market. This book is all about nudging, or even demanding that organisations (that tend towards “all that is bad about bureaucracy”) fuel the future with an entrepreneurial spark.

There actually needs to be a third book. If book one is about high-growth tech startups, and book two is about reinvigorating monoliths and potential monoliths with an entrepreneurial spark, then the third book should be about treading the line between being “too big to be small and too small to be big”. I am talking about those growing independent businesses of 20-100 staff that are neither on the sexy hyper-growth trajectory nor are they plodding and turgid.

These agencies and businesses, the ones I work with, need to maintain their entrepreneurial spark while recognising that they also need to put systems and processes at the heart of their offering.

Once able to sell on the “‘cos we try harder and we’re incredibly cheap” mantra, they now have to deliver results consistently based on the mantra of “results guaranteed” or “look at our reputation” and this change in sales pitch comes with a changing business model as the cost of maintaining the business changes from creating fee-earners to having to employ increasing numbers of non-fee-earners which hits profitability and slows growth.

Stuck in the middle, agencies that are “too small to be big and too big to be small” have a specific set of problems: re-investing in the infrastructure, redesigning the offering, re-organising working practices, investing in the culture, identifying the changing customer needs.

Ries’ plea to maintain the entrepreneurial spark is recognised by these agency owners as they feel that they consistently have a model that is lagging behind what is required of the business as it rapidly passes through the growth stages and pains moving from baby to infant to toddler to child to adolescent to young adult to adult.

These businesses seem to spend most of the time, in effect, changing an aeroplane engine while the plane is in mid-air. All this is done without a playbook, usually made-up on the hoof.

So, my request to Eric is this: Great book, well written and well researched. Brilliant for your target audience but what about the army of ambitious, fast- (but not hyper-) growth, under-the-radar, independent, agencies and businesses that are struggling with the need for systems and processes while one foot is still in their startup past?