lean-startup-canvas

What Is a Lean Startup Canvas? Lean Startup Canvas In A Nutshell

The lean startup canvas is an adaptation by Ash Maurya of the business model canvas by Alexander Osterwalder, which adds a layer that focuses on problems, solutions, key metrics, unfair advantage based, and a unique value proposition. Thus, starting from mastering the problem rather than the solution.

The evolution from lean manufacturing to continuous innovation

As Ash Maurya highlighted when I interviewed him: 

If we go back to, let’s say, the last hundred years or so, that’s when we were in that manufacturing era, and the unfair advantage all companies were all about mass production.

He continued: 

The companies that produced the most amount of products for the lowest costs tended to win. It was all about efficiency. After the war, a number of companies started to get squeezed, and this is where Taiichi Ohno over at Toyota invented the Toyota Production System, which kind of spawned this new way of thinking.

toyota-production-system
The Toyota Production System (TPS) is an early form of lean manufacturing created by auto-manufacturer Toyota. Created by the Toyota Motor Corporation in the 1940s and 50s, the Toyota Production System seeks to manufacture vehicles ordered by customers most quickly and efficiently possible.

As Ash Maurya further explained: 

Taking a lot of Just in Time techniques and bringing in what became eventually Lean Manufacturing. That’s kind of the origin that we trace back a lot of even what we talk about today in the startup world.

Some of those core principles go back to this idea of being less wasteful, and continuous improvement. Now it has morphed over the years, so as the world has changed,as we have moved from that manufacturing era to more digital products, the need for speed became ever more important.

As we got into PC computing, requirements began to change faster and faster, and so methodologies and frameworks evolved.We moved from traditional manufacturing to waterfall.

evolution-lean-manufacturing-to-lean-startup

For more on the historic process that brought us from lean manufacturing to lean startup, check out blog.leanstack.com

When Lean Startup came on the scene, the big shift then was our move away from even just PCs to the internet.

As we moved onto the internet, the connection between us and our customers almost vanished.We’re more connected today than ever before to customers, which means that we can learn faster, but also it means that customers demand more than ever before.

This led us to the lean startup and the concept of continuous innovation

continuous-innovation
That is a process that requires a continuous feedback loop to develop a valuable product and build a viable business model. Continuous innovation is a mindset where products and services are designed and delivered to tune them around the customers’ problem and not the technical solution of its founders.

What is the lean startup methodology?

Steve Blank launched the Lean Startup Movement, which, as he explained in a 2013 HBR article, “Why the Lean Start-Up Changes Everything:”

 It’s a methodology called the “lean start-up,” and it favors experimentation over elaborate planning, customer feedback over intuition, and iterative design over traditional “big design up front” development. 

Today startups take this methodology for granted.

Yet, at the time, this was an innovation, as Steve Blank recounted:

Although the methodology is just a few years old, its concepts—such as “minimum viable product” and “pivoting”—have quickly taken root in the start-up world, and business schools have already begun adapting their curricula to teach them.

lean-startup-vs-corporation

Some of the key aspects of the lean startup movement are based on using a “scientific method” and creating, launching, and growing a startup.

This focuses on getting customers’ insights as quickly as possible without focusing too much on business planning.

As Steve Blank remarked in his 2013 article:

A business plan is essentially a research exercise written in isolation at a desk before an entrepreneur has even begun to build a product. The assumption is that it’s possible to figure out most of the unknowns of a business in advance, before you raise money and actually execute the idea.

Once the money is raised:

Developers invest thousands of man-hours to get it ready for launch, with little if any customer input. Only after building and launching the product does the venture get substantial feedback from customers—when the sales force attempts to sell it. And too often, after months or even years of development, entrepreneurs learn the hard way that customers do not need or want most of the product’s features.

In the lean startup movement and methodology, three things are critically important.

Those are the new pillars that challenged the old assumption of how an enterprise should look and allowed the lean startup movement, thus the lean startup canvas.

Business plans rarely survive first contact with customers

As remarked by Steve Blank, business plans are long documents written by entrepreneurs or aspiring ones in isolation to get money from investors.

Most of the time, those documents won’t survive the first contact with customers. I argue this happens for several reasons.

The business plan’s primary purpose isn’t to plan for the business but to impress investors.

Most of the time, targeting the right market is more a matter of tinkering than planning.

And usually, a business plan is biased by the view of the world and untested hypotheses by the person drafting it.

Five-year plans are worthless and a waste of time

In the HBR article, Steve Blank remarks the waste of time a five-year business plan represents:

No one besides venture capitalists and the late Soviet Union requires five-year plans to forecast complete unknowns. These plans are generally fiction, and dreaming them up is almost always a waste of time.

Start-ups are not smaller versions of large companies

One of the critical differences is that while existing companies execute a business model, start-ups look for one

This point is critical because of a large organization or existing companies operating with known business models.

The lean startup instead iterates until it finds a business model that fits that startup.

Steve Blank defines the lean startup as:

a temporary organization designed to search for a repeatable and scalable business model

It is crucial to emphasize that the business model needs to be repeatable and scalable.

The lean start-up movement is about agile development

Agile development is a methodology that works hand-in-hand with customer development.

agile-methodology
Agile started as a lightweight development method compared to heavyweight software development, which is the core paradigm of the previous decades of software development. By 2001 the Manifesto for Agile Software Development was born as a set of principles that defined the new paradigm for software development as a continuous iteration. This would also influence the way of doing business.

This methodology “eliminates wasted time and resources by developing the product iteratively and incrementally.” 

The lean startup canvas vs. business model canvas

In the Business Model Canvas, nine building blocks help us assess any business model.

business-model-canvas
The business model canvas is a framework proposed by Alexander Osterwalder and Yves Pigneur in Busines Model Generation enabling the design of business models through nine building blocks comprising: key partners, key activities, value propositions, customer relationships, customer segments, critical resources, channels, cost structure, and revenue streams.

The business model canvas is a helpful way to assess the overall business model.

However, as Ash Maurya has noticed, that canvas seemed helpful in hindsight.

In short, he was looking for a way to get more insights on what business model would be best suited for a start-up before it scaled up.

This is why in 2010, with his article “How to Document Your Business Model On 1 Page,” he came up with an adaptation to the business model canvas with the new lean startup canvas:

Ash Maurya’s adaptation to Business Model Canvas

The primary purpose follows the lean startup movement by Steve Blank, and it tries to create something more actionable compared to the business model canvas:

  • Create a Business Model versus Business Plan
  • Ash Maurya found the business model canvas a bit too general for a lean startup 
  • The business model canvas might be good for understanding businesses from outside-in, but less to giving actionable insights to the insider entrepreneur

That is why he created his version for the lean startup canvas.

As Ash Maurya mentioned in “Why Lean Canvas vs. Business Model Canvas,” he recruited other entrepreneurs:

To start building an online version of Lean Canvas with the initial goal of facilitating more of these learning conversations in my workshops, and subsequently opening it up to everyone.

As Ash Maurya was adding four more blocks (problem, solution, key metrics, and unfair advantage), he needed to take out four building blocks:

lean-startup-canvas-vs-business-model-canvas

The Lean Canvas is an adaptation of the Business Model Canvas by strategyzer.com

Sourceblog.leanstack.com

In short, Ash Maurya took out key partners, key activities, key resources, and customer relationships and substituted them with a problem, solution, unfair advantage, and key metrics, respectively.

As he mentioned in his 2010 article, that is built upon these nine building blocks:

There’s a clear delineation down the middle, on PRODUCT versus MARKET and here’s a brief description of each block and the order in which I like to think/validate them:

1. Problem: A brief description of the top 3 problems you’re addressing

2. Customer Segments: Who are the customers/users of this system? Can they be further segmented? For example, amateur photographers vs. pro photographers. If I have multiple target customers in mind, for example, graphic designers vs. lawyers, I will create a separate canvas for each. More than likely a lot of the other pieces like problem, solution, channels, etc. will be different too.

3. Unique Value Proposition: What is the product’s tagline or primary reason you are different and worth buying?

4. Solution: What is the minimum feature set (MVP) that demonstrates the UVP up above?

5. Key Activity: Describe the key action users take that maps to revenue or retention? For example, if you are a blogging platform, posting a blog entry would be a key activity.

6. Channels: List the FREE and PAID channels you can use to reach your customer.

7. Cost Structure: List out all your fixed and variable costs.

8. Revenue Streams: Identify your revenue modelsubscription, ads, freemium, etc. and outline your back-of-the-envelope assumptions for life time value, gross margin, break-even point, etc.

9, Unfair Advantage: I left this for last because it’s usually the hardest one to fill correctly. Jason Cohen, a smart bear, did a great 2 part series on competitive advantages. Most founders list things as competitive advantages that really aren’t. Anything that is worth copying will be copied. So what is a competitive advantage:

lean-startup-canvas

The Lean Canvas an adaptation of the Business Model Canvas by strategyzer.com

Sourceblog.leanstack.com

It is critical to remark here that the “unfair advantage” is an essential part of the lean startup canvas, so it is crucial to understand it deeply.

What is an unfair advantage?

As Jason Cohen remarked in Real Unfair Advantages:

Anything that can be copied will be copied, including features, marketing copy, and pricing. Anything you read on popular blogs is also read by everyone else. You don’t have an “edge” just because you’re passionate, hard-working, or “lean.”

Thus, as he remarked in the same article, “the only real competitive advantage is that which cannot be copied and cannot be bought.”

I suggest you read the article carefully, as he mentions six things that can give you an unfair advantage:

  • Insider information.
  • Single-minded, uncompromising obsession with One Thing.
  • Personal authority.
  • The Dream Team.
  • (The right) Celebrity endorsement.
  • Existing customers.

It is also critical to know that it’s not a competitive advantage that can bring you toward an unfair advantage.

As Jason Cohen pointed out in “No, that IS NOT a competitive advantage,” although common misconceptions, the following are not competitive advantages:

  • We have feature X.
  • We have the most features.
  • We’re patenting our features.
  • We’re better at SEO and social media.
  • We’re passionate.
  • We have three PhDs / MBAs.
  • We work hard.
  • We’re cheaper.

Also, remember that the unique value proposition and unfair advantage are not the same things.

As remarked in “Why Lean Canvas vs. Business Model Canvas?

The job of a UVP is to capture a customer’s attention while the job of the Unfair Advantage is to deter copy cats and competitors. These two are often NOT the same thing.

and he goes:

For example, with Facebook:
UVP: “Connect and share with the people in your life.”
UA: Large network effects

Is a lean startup canvas for anyone?

From the lean startup canvas perspective, it is essential to remark that this might not be suited to anyone.

As noted by Ash Maurya, “lean Canvas was designed for entrepreneurs, not consultants, customers, advisors, or investors.

Is it better to use the business model canvas or the lean startup canvas?

The answer isn’t easy.

I like the business model canvas to have an overview of other businesses.

For instance, if I’m studying business models for Apple, Google, Amazon, and so on, the business model canvas might be helpful.

However, most of the time, those companies created a business model based on a lot of tinkering rather than design.

Also, the business model canvas might be better suited to understand how to run the overall business rather than have more insights about product development to reach the so-called “product-market fit.”

product-market-fit
Marc Andreessen defined Product/market fit as “being in a good market with a product that can satisfy that market.” According to Andreessen, that is a moment when a product or service has its place in the market, thus enabling traction for the company offering that product or service.

If you need a canvas to understand your customers’ problems better, I will start with the lean startup canvas.

If, instead, you need a canvas to understand other businesses or an overview of your business, the business model canvas might be more suited.

As Ash Maurya pointed out,

the most important takeaway is that you document your key business model assumptions (and learning) in a portable format that you can share and discuss with people other than yourself.

The 10x growth model

moonshot-thinking
Moonshot thinking is an approach to innovation, and it can be applied to business or any other discipline where you target at least 10X goals. That shifts the mindset, and it empowers a team of people to look for unconventional solutions, thus starting from first principles, by leveraging on fast-paced experimentation.

Another paradigm of a lean startup is that of looking at exponential growth

In our interview with Ash Maurya, he highlighted the following: 

When we looked at Facebook, for instance, they out of constraints of no money had to go to one campus and then they went to three other campuses and then they kind of rolled out systematically.

10x kind of puts that into more of a systematic context. What we generally tell people, if you’re giving yourself permission to scale, instead of thinking of, “I’m just going to launch to everyone,” start with one customer.

I know one sounds just wrong, but that is what I call the singularity moment of a product. The moment you can get one person to buy your product and part with their hard earned money, that’s something to celebrate.

Now one, of course, is not enough, but if you think about it, every company, whether it’s , Facebook, your company, starts with one customer. Everyone starts in the same place, and then they double and then double subsequently many many times.

If you think of 10x, that is really a sequence of doublings through the power of three is 8x. If you keep doubling, you will eventually 10x, and most people will have 10 customers. You will 10x once, some of you will get a hundred customers, you will 10x again.

The only difference between a company like Facebook and say, my company or your company, is Facebook just doubles more times in rapid succession and we will, and they keep doubling and then they eventually slow down.

We may not need to get that big because our business model starts working for our scale much, much sooner. The whole idea of 10x-ing is almost giving you a mathematical way of thinking of permission to scale.

The way I break it down is I get, no matter what the idea is, I will get a startup or corporate innovator to start thinking of, “How do I convert my first customer, and then how do I get to 10, how do I get to 100, how do I get to 1,000?”

That nonlinear thinking automatically works towards prioritizing the right types of risks.

If we think about the world we live in today, most products, not all, but most products don’t suffer from technical risks. They suffer from customer and market risk. When you are only serving 10 customers, you can fairly easily do that from a technical perspective.

You may only need one web server, for instance, or you may be able to provide high touch onboarding. That allows you to supplement the shortcomings of a fully scalable product.

By giving yourself that permission of doing 10 customers initially, you can do that. As you go to the next level, it’s not about getting another 10 customers, now you have to get 100 customers. That forces you to start investing incrementally in things that will need to scale.

You don’t have to go all the way to scale, but it’s an incremental way of not just doing easy jumps. It’s still hard, but they are manageable harder steps in that journey.

Key takeaways

  • We explored the evolution that led to the lean startup movement.
  • From that movement, it was clear that a scientific method based on experimentation, tested assumptions and continuous iterations is the key.
  • From this movement, the lean startup canvas was born. This model helps entrepreneurs get actionable insight for business and product development.
  • This is based on a profound understanding of the problems your customers are facing and the unfair advantage you can build or have built into your business.
  • I want to remind you that the lean startup canvas is a practical and portable tool for the entrepreneur.
  • The main aim is to have a holistic view of your business on one page, which allows you to iterate on your business model.
  • Thus, I’d say that the lean startup canvas is as much about “market-business model fit” as it is about “product-market fit.”
  • In short, you aim to generate a repeatable and scalable business model that unlocks value for your organization as quickly as possible.

Related Business Tools

Business Model Canvas

business-model-canvas

The business model canvas is a framework proposed by Alexander Osterwalder and Yves Pigneur in Busines Model Generation enabling the design of business models through nine building blocks comprising: key partners, key activities, value propositions, customer relationships, customer segments, critical resources, channels, cost structure, and revenue streams.

Lean Startup Canvas

lean-startup-canvas

The lean startup canvas is an adaptation by Ash Maurya of the business model canvas by Alexander Osterwalder, which adds a layer that focuses on problems, solutions, key metrics, unfair advantage based, and a unique value proposition. Thus, starting from mastering the problem rather than the solution.

Blitzscaling Canvas

blitzscaling-business-model-innovation-canvas

The Blitzscaling business model canvas is a model based on the concept of Blitzscaling, which is a particular process of massive growth under uncertainty, and that prioritizes speed over efficiency and focuses on market domination to create a first-scaler advantage in a scenario of uncertainty.

VTDF Framework

business-model-template

A tech business model is made of four main components: value model (value propositions, missionvision), technological model (R&D management), distribution model (sales and marketing organizational structure), and financial model (revenue modeling, cost structure, profitability and cash generation/management). Those elements coming together can serve as the basis to build a solid tech business model.

BMI Framework

business-model-innovation

Business model innovation is about increasing the success of an organization with existing products and technologies by crafting a compelling value proposition able to propel a new business model to scale up customers and create a lasting competitive advantage. And it all starts by mastering the key customers.

RTVN Model

design-a-business-model

FourWeekMBA Business Toolbox

Business Engineering

business-engineering-manifesto

Tech Business Model Template

business-model-template
A tech business model is made of four main components: value model (value propositions, missionvision), technological model (R&D management), distribution model (sales and marketing organizational structure), and financial model (revenue modeling, cost structure, profitability and cash generation/management). Those elements coming together can serve as the basis to build a solid tech business model.

Web3 Business Model Template

vbde-framework
A Blockchain Business Model according to the FourWeekMBA framework is made of four main components: Value Model (Core Philosophy, Core Values and Value Propositions for the key stakeholders), Blockchain Model (Protocol Rules, Network Shape and Applications Layer/Ecosystem), Distribution Model (the key channels amplifying the protocol and its communities), and the Economic Model (the dynamics/incentives through which protocol players make money). Those elements coming together can serve as the basis to build and analyze a solid Blockchain Business Model.

Asymmetric Business Models

asymmetric-business-models
In an asymmetric business model, the organization doesn’t monetize the user directly, but it leverages the data users provide coupled with technology, thus have a key customer pay to sustain the core asset. For example, Google makes money by leveraging users’ data, combined with its algorithms sold to advertisers for visibility.

Business Competition

business-competition
In a business world driven by technology and digitalization, competition is much more fluid, as innovation becomes a bottom-up approach that can come from anywhere. Thus, making it much harder to define the boundaries of existing markets. Therefore, a proper business competition analysis looks at customer, technology, distribution, and financial model overlaps. While at the same time looking at future potential intersections among industries that in the short-term seem unrelated.

Technological Modeling

technological-modeling
Technological modeling is a discipline to provide the basis for companies to sustain innovation, thus developing incremental products. While also looking at breakthrough innovative products that can pave the way for long-term success. In a sort of Barbell Strategy, technological modeling suggests having a two-sided approach, on the one hand, to keep sustaining continuous innovation as a core part of the business model. On the other hand, it places bets on future developments that have the potential to break through and take a leap forward.

Transitional Business Models

transitional-business-models
A transitional business model is used by companies to enter a market (usually a niche) to gain initial traction and prove the idea is sound. The transitional business model helps the company secure the needed capital while having a reality check. It helps shape the long-term vision and a scalable business model.

Minimum Viable Audience

minimum-viable-audience
The minimum viable audience (MVA) represents the smallest possible audience that can sustain your business as you get it started from a microniche (the smallest subset of a market). The main aspect of the MVA is to zoom into existing markets to find those people which needs are unmet by existing players.

Business Scaling

business-scaling
Business scaling is the process of transformation of a business as the product is validated by wider and wider market segments. Business scaling is about creating traction for a product that fits a small market segment. As the product is validated it becomes critical to build a viable business model. And as the product is offered at wider and wider market segments, it’s important to align product, business model, and organizational design, to enable wider and wider scale.

Market Expansion Theory

market-expansion
The market expansion consists in providing a product or service to a broader portion of an existing market or perhaps expanding that market. Or yet, market expansions can be about creating a whole new market. At each step, as a result, a company scales together with the market covered.

Speed-Reversibility

decision-making-matrix

Asymmetric Betting

asymmetric-bets

Growth Matrix

growth-strategies
In the FourWeekMBA growth matrix, you can apply growth for existing customers by tackling the same problems (gain mode). Or by tackling existing problems, for new customers (expand mode). Or by tackling new problems for existing customers (extend mode). Or perhaps by tackling whole new problems for new customers (reinvent mode).

Revenue Streams Matrix

revenue-streams-model-matrix
In the FourWeekMBA Revenue Streams Matrix, revenue streams are classified according to the kind of interactions the business has with its key customers. The first dimension is the “Frequency” of interaction with the key customer. As the second dimension, there is the “Ownership” of the interaction with the key customer.

Revenue Modeling

revenue-model-patterns
Revenue model patterns are a way for companies to monetize their business models. A revenue model pattern is a crucial building block of a business model because it informs how the company will generate short-term financial resources to invest back into the business. Thus, the way a company makes money will also influence its overall business model.

Pricing Strategies

pricing-strategies
A pricing strategy or model helps companies find the pricing formula in fit with their business models. Thus aligning the customer needs with the product type while trying to enable profitability for the company. A good pricing strategy aligns the customer with the company’s long term financial sustainability to build a solid business model.

1 thought on “What Is a Lean Startup Canvas? Lean Startup Canvas In A Nutshell”

  1. Hi Prashanth, thanks and good point! Timing is extremely important and sometime it might be too early for a product. I believe in that case part of the strategy is communicating the problem rather than the “disruptive idea.” In that case, it will be important to communicate the unique value proposition and tools like the lean startup canvas might be more valuable for that: https://fourweekmba.com/lean-startup-canvas/

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