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.

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.


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 into the lean startup and the concept of 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.


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

This focuses on getting insights as quickly as possible from customers 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. In fact, those are the new pillars that challenged the old assumption of how an enterprise should look like have allowed the lean startup movement, thus the lean startup canvas.

Course: The FourWeekMBA Business Model Innovation Flagship Course

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 and 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 main 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

On 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. In fact, 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 the fact 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.

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.

The business model canvas is a useful way to assess the overall business model. However, as Ash Maurya has noticed, that canvas seemed to be useful 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 adaptation to Business Model Canvas

The main 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 to understand businesses from outside-in, but less to give 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:


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


In short, Ash Maurya took out key partners, key activities, key resources, and customer relationships and substituted it 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:


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


It is critical to remark here that the “unfair advantage” is the essential part of the lean startup canvas and that is why 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 what it’s not a competitive advantage the can bring you toward the 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, keep in mind the unique value proposition, and unfair advantage are not the same thing. 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 perspective of the lean startup canvas, 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 a helpful tool.

However, most of the times 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.”

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

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

As Ash Maurya pointed outthe 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

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

In our interview with Ash Maurya he highlighted

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

In this article, we explored the evolution that leads 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 is a model that 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’d like to remind 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” than 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.

Alternative tools

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



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



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



A tech business model is made of four main components: value model (value propositions, mission, vision), 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 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


FourWeekMBA Business Model Framework



A business model is a framework for finding a systematic way to unlock long-term value for an organization while delivering value to customers and capturing value through monetization strategies. A business model is a holistic framework to understand, design, and test your business assumptions in the marketplace.

3C Business Model



The 3C Analysis Business Model was developed by Japanese business strategist Kenichi Ohmae. A 3C Model is a marketing tool that focuses on customers, competitors, and the company. At the intersection of these three variables lies an effective marketing strategy to gain a potential competitive advantage and build a lasting company.

Handpicked business models:

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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