John and I recently attended a Lean Startup Machine weekend bootcamp in DC. This was an opportunity to learn and apply Lean Startup principles to a real-world startup idea in a highly focused setting. There were about 60 attendees and over 15 mentors and speakers – including lean movement founder Eric Ries – so we received constant coaching and inspiration throughout the weekend.

Idea #1: Online Resume Builder

We came in to the weekend with an idea for a web app that would help techies write high-quality resumes. On Friday night, with the help of our newfound teammates Mark and Ryan, we identified what we thought was a promising target market and business model: sell the app to recruiters as a way to improve the quality of their candidates’ resumes and therefore help those candidates get interviewed or hired.

Before Lean Startup, we would have spent 6 months planning and building the tool, and then tried desperately to get anyone to use it. This is the typical “build it and they will come” approach to startups.

As a developer, it’s very daunting to commit to spending several months slaving away on a loosely defined product that may or may not work. Somewhere in the back of your mind you are aware that even if you build it right, there are no guarantees that anyone will want to use it.

By applying Lean Startup principles, we learned to first identify and validate the assumptions in our plan before building anything. We spent much of Saturday contacting recruiters and learned that our core assumption – that poorly written resumes pose a major hurdle in the placement of candidates – was false. Most recruiters told us that they focus more on building strong relationships with employers and job seekers, and through the strength of these relationships they are able to effectively place their job candidates.

It was a disappointing discovery, but one that we reached after only a day’s work, and not after several months of working hard on a product that was trying to solve a non-existent problem. We could then apply another aspect of lean thinking – qualitative observations – to pivot our strategy towards a better problem/solution.

Idea #2: eHarmony for the Job Market

Through our discussions with recruiters and hiring managers, we noticed a theme that employers care as much about a candidate’s personality and how well they might fit into the company culture as their hard skills. We also heard them say that it is difficult to quickly identify candidates that would be a good fit based on a resume alone. Phone interviews with job candidates are the typical technique to solving this problem but they are lengthy and inefficient. We now had a validated problem: employers do not have a quick way to tell which candidates will be a good fit for a job in terms of their personality.

We spent Saturday night brainstorming and came up with an exciting potential solution: a site that acted like an eHarmony for the job market, sorting candidates not only by their hard skills but also by their personality match with employers.

Minutes after coming up with our idea, we spoke with a co-founder of 2 major job board websites. One of his companies had tried to create – in his words – an “eHarmony for the job market.” Despite having plenty of resources behind it, it failed – largely because job seekers weren’t willing to spend time filling out personality profiles the way date seekers are. That job seekers would be willing to do this, we realized later, was a key assumption we’d taken for granted. And it was wrong. This quick invalidation of our solution was another disappointment, but we went to sleep Saturday night knowing that (for a second time now) we’d avoided investing in an unviable idea.

Idea #3: 5-Minute Interview

On Sunday we returned to what we learned through our interviews the day before, and picked up on two more useful themes, or problems. Hiring managers had told us that 1) they are overwhelmed by resumes and desperate for ways to “cut through the noise,” and 2) they could often tell within 5 minutes of a phone interview if the candidate was a promising match.

This led us to our next solution: a web app where job applicants submit 5-minute audio or video responses to open-ended questions posed by employers. Employers can then share, review, and rate those responses to quickly vet candidates – prior to spending time scheduling and conducting phone interviews.

In discussions with the mentors, we identified what we thought was a good market for this product: tech startups that recently received funding. With only a couple hours left to start validating this solution, we did two things:

1. We created a minimum viable product or MVP: a simple landing page (see below) that described the product and included a 1-minute demo video, along with a “request private invite” form. We then searched Crunchbase to identify potential customers and searched Twitter to find founders of those companies likely to be online on Sunday. Our plan was reach out to these founders on Twitter and drive them to our landing page. But as we were running short on time, we made a new discovery …

2. We found a well-credentialed startup that had built something very close to our idea – and attracted buzz in Silicon Valley – but then had suddenly stopped to pursue something else. We tracked down one of the co-founders and asked why they abandoned the video interview product.

Their target market, he told us, was the same one we’d identified: tech startups. But they struggled to gain adoption in this market because, given the low supply and high demand for programmers, tech startups’ pain point isn’t too many resumes from job-seekers; it’s too few.

We were able to leverage months of this startup’s marketing efforts to quickly invalidate another assumption. But we also learned something equally critical: their product had gained strong initial traction among a set of companies they weren’t targeting: those hiring lots of customer service reps and sales reps. This just wasn’t a market they wanted to pursue.

As the buzzer sounded Sunday afternoon – with our heads spinning – we’d arrived at a validated problem and initial validation of a solution. Unlike at most startup bootcamps, we’d spent almost no time over the weekend on design, code, or technology. Instead we’d learned a process much more critical for new business ideas.

Applying Lean Startup at Marketade

Not only has Lean Startup changed our approach to our own product ideas, it has changed how we work with our clients. Rather than jumping straight into designing and coding a web site or app, we’re helping clients first identify and validate their assumptions – quickly and cheaply – and then change course or scrap the idea when necessary.

As Warren Buffet says, “if something’s not worth doing at all, it’s not worth doing well.”