Free Lean Analytics Workshop Now Available

Some time ago, Alistair and I did a live workshop in the UK, sponsored by the good folks at Geckoboard. That workshop is now available, for free, on Udemy.

Check it out here:

In the workshop you’ll get 2.5+ hours of content, broken up into 7 sections. We cover all the basics of Lean Analytics and more. It’s a great companion to the book or a primer if you haven’t checked out the book yet.

We hope you’ll enjoy and share with friends!

Freemium and the feature/business tension

Ben pointed out this week in a great post that the key to success for many businesses is to convince users to adopt a tiny, new, addictive behavior. This is essential for the stickiness phase of a company, because it’s what keeps people coming back, and using your product, from which you can then learn and experiment.

But as startups transition from stickiness (what users want) to revenue (what the startup wants) they often face a fundamental tension between usability/addictiveness and money/onerousness. That’s because keeping the money flowing sometimes means not making the users happy. While this might seem obvious, it’s behind much of the hand-wringing and analysis-paralysis of growth. It’s a really hard balance to strike, and it’s one of the reasons startups with good stickiness and virality fail to make it to revenue.

For free B2C applications, if you’re not paying for the product, you are the product. This is certainly the case with social platforms. Facebook pays for all your Likes with advertising revenues; Twitter sells your stream of Tweets as a firehose for others to analyze.

You often can’t do what you want on a free platform. Try mailing someone a link from Facebook on a mobile app. First, you have to open the link in an external browser to get the URL. Sharing is a critical KPI for Facebook, and this is one way to make it harder to do elsewhere.

Facebook has a number of ways to limit your ability to share. For example, it can block content in subtle, even insidious, ways to prevent it spreading.


Is Tumblr really spammy or unsafe, as Facebook suggests? Certainly, the company would prefer that sharing happens on their platform.

This kind of functional jerrymandering isn’t just limited to free B2C applications. Even paying for something is no guarantee of a good experience and you likely still are the product. Getting the functional balance right is a fundamental challenge for startups that use the Freemium model of customer acquisition.

Consider expense reporting service Expensify. I love it. I rely on it. I recommend it to people all the time. But the UI by which you upload, crop, and rotate receipts you’ve scanned is atrocious. So the product metric that you’d care about in the stickiness stage—usability—is bad. If you’re curious, here’s a quick video of me trying to rotate and crop a receipt.

On the other hand, Expensify makes money from a scanning service where, rather than you having to do it yourself, they charge you a small amount to do so.

A strong business metric (revenue from expense report scanning) is encouraged by a weak product metric (frustrating usability).

If you’re a product manager, that sucks.

This is a natural tension. It happens in all product categories. For example, the LinkedIn app for iPad is beautiful. But when you’re reading a story in it, you can’t copy a link to the iPad clipboard. This aggravates me, but it’s a price I’ll pay to play within LinkedIn’s walled garden. For LinkedIn, this is a way of keeping sharing and interaction within their application, encouraging shares within LinkedIn itself rather than, say, on Twitter or email.

A strong business metric (in-network interaction) is encouraged by a weak product metric (crippled sharing functionality).

Evernote is another example. The company wants users to bump up against its maximum free storage threshold so they’ll upgrade to a paid version of the service. That’s why they acquired screen-snapping tool Skitch. They removed a number of features from Skitch when they acquired it, changing how the tool ran. They also added synchronization with Evernote—on by default, of course.

Skitch sync preferences

This means that, towards the end of the month, you start getting warnings from Skitch saying it couldn’t sync its images with Evernote. Each of those warnings is a chance to upsell Evernote users—but it quickly becomes an annoyance, making users save images selectively rather than automatically.

Screen Shot 2013-04-29 at 9.10.50 PM

A strong business metric (upgrades to paid accounts) meets a weak product metric (nagging reminders and interrupted workflows).

In the Skitch case, what Evernote did prompted an Engadget post recommending the best screen-capture replacement to its readers.

LinkedIn, Expensify, and Skitch aren’t B2C applications. But they are freemium products, and they all need to balance product joy with occasional nudging. The next time you’re building an application, or using one someone else has built, take a minute to consider what constraints the designer is working with. Many of them are a function of the business model, rather than look, feel, or usability.

As we mention in the book, Freemium is a risky customer acquisition tactic for a number of reasons, and only works for certain business models and usage patterns. Before you decide Freemium is right for your startup, you need to understand the risks of intentionally frustrating your users.

Great products strike a balance. They make users eager to pay for the service in order to support it, rather than extorting money for features the users feel should be included. This is a real art: too onerous, and you alienate users; not tough enough, and you can’t force people to upgrade or pay in the way you hope, and your business can’t pay its bills.

Now it’s your turn: what metrics do you think a startup should employ to strike the right balance?

How Lean Analytics changed our beta launch strategy

This is a guest post from Kyle Racki, co-founder of Proposify. He asked to write a blog post about his experience reading Lean Analytics. We were happy to oblige…

I finished reading Lean Analytics a few short weeks ago. The timing was good, because I just happen to be launching a startup, and the advice I gleaned from the book has been incredible so far.

For starters, Lean Analytics, while being focused on metrics and numbers, is surprisingly approachable for the average person. It isn’t written for data scientists or mathematicians (God knows I am neither of those), it’s written for entrepreneurs — for people who want to build great products and profitable companies.

Due to the applicable nature of the book, the difficult part of reading Lean Analytics was trying to decide if I should keep reading it or put it down and start applying it’s advice immediately. As I read it, tons of ideas came to mind, and I found myself constantly reaching for my laptop or phone to leave notes and reminders of what to do differently.

One of the things I like best about Lean Analytics is that you don’t need to read the whole thing. The authors, Alistair Croll and Benjamin Yoskovitz, have thoughtfully broken the sections out into chapters that each focus exclusively on one type of business model, such as E-commerce, SaaS, free mobile apps and so on. While I would like to one day read all of the chapters for each business model, I’ve got a company to build today, and so I only read the general chapters plus the two chapters that focus on Software-as-a-Service — the business model my company falls under.

I will outline the three major ways I’ve taken the knowledge from the book and applied it to my own startup, but to start, let me give a little background about my company.

Helping companies win new business

My company is called Proposify–online proposal software that helps businesses of all types write, design and manage proposals faster and more easily. We’ve had the idea in the works for over two years, but didn’t really focus on it full-time until late last year when we acquired some capital from ACOA to aid in bootstrapping the product. In the time since then, we built the MVP and released it to a group of private beta testers (in April 2013). That was around the time I started reading Lean Analytics.

I was pretty nervous reading the first couple of chapters, where it asks the reader hard questions like “Should you even be building this product?” The book aptly points out that all of us (entrepreneurs) are liars, and I didn’t want the book to somehow prove me wrong about my business, and my reality distortion field was in high gear.

There were moments in the book, particularly chapter 15 “Stage One: Empathy” where it suggests that the reader should spend a lot of time “getting out of the building” and talking with potential customers, running surveys, researching competitors and basically trying to figure out if you are building a product that addresses a problem worth solving. It forces you to ask yourself “Will enough people pay me to use this software?” Of course, I did actually do all of this over the last couple of years, but not to the degree outlined in the book.

But I can’t go back in time, all I can do is move forward based on the information I have now. Below are the two major things that changed what we are doing.

1. Knowing what stage we’re at

Like all co-founders of startups, I wear a lot of hats; I’m the product manager, UI designer, UX researcher, QA tester, team and project manager, writer and marketer. I felt a huge amount of pressure in the weeks leading up to our private beta to:

  • design the right product
  • test and find all the bugs
  • drive traffic to the website through
    • Social media
    • Content marketing
    • Paid advertising
    • Offline networking and conferences
  • find and acquire private testers
  • ensure we are tracking the right metrics

That’s a lot of pressure and a lot of different types of skills to have to utilize all at once. However Lean Analytics breaks out the 5 stages of a startup into:

  1. Empathy
  2. Stickiness
  3. Virality
  4. Revenue
  5. Scale

It didn’t take a lot of time to realize that Proposify is at the Stickiness Stage. Right now we have a small base of test users, and I am actively reaching out to them for feedback on our MVP. That means any time or money spent on trying to acquire customers is mostly a waste — at least for right now when we don’t even know if the product has value.

So what I did was stop worrying so much about stuff like customer acquisition or landing page conversion, and instead I put my focus on how to tweak our product so that the users we do have find it more useful and they engage with it.

2. Finding our One Metric That Matters

In order to make our product more sticky, I had to find our OMTM. Originally I had been paying attention to the number of proposals created, thinking that that was some sort of indication of use. There are some problems with this approach though:

  • For starters, a proposal is started with the click of a button, so every user can technically make one immediately after signing into their account, but it will be mostly a blank canvas. That doesn’t mean they used the product.
  • Secondly, the amount of proposals may not be an indicator of engagement, since many small companies don’t need to be constantly producing proposals and may only have one to write every few weeks. As it turned out, many of the beta users didn’t actually create a proposal, because they had to first setup their template, which can take a long time, and doing that alone can give a test user an indication of how the software works.

Instead, I decided to start tracking whether or not a user actually sends a proposal to a client as an indication of whether or not they are using the product. In other words, one or more sent proposals in the given time period (one month) will define that user as active. If they don’t send a proposal, they aren’t active for the given time period. We want to increase our percentage of active users. That’s our One Metric That Matters right now.

After one month of private beta testing, I reached out to our users to get feedback. As you might expect, the responses varied from wildly positive to apathetic. But the consistent theme and likely reason for low usage was that either a user didn’t have any proposals to write at the moment (something we can’t control) or that it takes far too long to setup your template, and aspects of the workflow were unintuitive (something we can control).

So what to do with the data?

Armed with this information, we are implementing a fairly substantial pivot. Whereas before we were targeting firms who have designers on staff and want an online tool to remake their pre-existing proposal online, we are now targeting users without design or proposal writing skills who want a beautiful, ready-made proposal template filled with pre-written content that they can tweak. 

As one of our test users wrote in his survey, “I want you to make me look like a rock star with the least amount of effort on my part.” That has become our company’s mantra and the promise we hope to fulfill. We are reshaping the product to walk users through choosing from a gallery of awesome templates that are designed and written for their industry, and with a few clicks and a drag-and-drop interface a proposal is virtually built in a few minutes. This will take less than a month to implement, but our hypothesis is that this change to the product will drive our engagement metric dramatically.

3. Our line in the sand

As Lean Analytics taught me, I need to create a line in the sand, and then honestly evaluate whether I can reach that line or if adjusting the line is necessary. For now, we need to have a base of early adopters who stay engaged with the product and pay to use it. In order to achieve that, our product needs to solve their problem. We are launching paid plans so that we can begin experimenting with price points and as a way of weeding out casual testers from the real paying users who need to use our software.

Looking forward to the next stages

In the book, there’s a chapter on virality – the third stage in a startup. It sparked a wealth of ideas for my product, because I hadn’t actually realized before that our product is inherently viral–users send proposals to clients with the tool, which is kind of like free marketing as long as the client notices our branding. 

The question is, how do we encourage free promotion without alienating our customers? After all, I want Proposify to make our users look great and keep their clients’ attention focused on their brand, not ours. There are some ideas we have written down, but the great thing is that we aren’t even at that stage yet. For now, I’m going to focus on product/market fit, and user-engagement/stickiness, and once we reach or exceed our OMTM – 50% active users, we’ll move on to goals like lowering churn, improving conversion-to-paid and viral coefficient. Once those metrics are as good as we can get them, we’ll start looking at CAC (Customer Acquisition Cost) and LTV (Lifetime Value), and then look to drive revenue and growth.

The greatest thing I learned from the book is: we can’t focus on everything now — doing so will actually shoot us in the foot. All we need to do is focus on the One Metric That Matters right now. Once that goal is reached, or we learn what we need to from it, we can then focus on the next metric. 

This has given me a huge amount of confidence moving forward, and I wouldn’t have gained it without reading Lean Analytics.

Great feedback about Lean Analytics

The positive feedback we’ve gotten about Lean Analytics has been awesome. Not everyone thinks the book is great (that’s fine, Alistair and I have thick skin, and we know it’s not perfect!), but for those of you that have read it and shared your feedback with us, thank you.

I wanted to share some of that feedback with everyone, to give you a sense of how people are reacting to the book. It’s interesting to see what resonates with different audiences. The reviewers are a mix of entrepreneurs, marketers, analysts and more. You might also discover some new blogs that you find interesting…

  • Lean Analytics Book Holds Secret To Quickly Building A Better Business by Kevin Kauzlaric. (I couldn’t have written a better headline myself!) “For all this book has provided me with, I sincerely believe this might be the best book for entrepreneurs in 2013. I think you ought to read this book at least once and probably should have a copy handy for when you change your OMTM as you successfully move along in your startup or new business project.”
  • Lean Analytics: Snapshot Review by Christopher Millard. “There were a number of small but important facts scattered throughout the book that elicited a small “huh” from me as I read. For example, I learned the speed at which a user invites a friend to try a service is an order of magnitude more important than the number of friends he or she invites total, and without taking this speed into consideration the Viral Coefficient is relatively pointless.”
  • Book Review — Lean Analytics by Christa. “Owning a copy of Lean Analytics is like having a management consultant / cheerleader / truth sayer right by your side every step of the way. Get it and use it well.”
  • Practice to Theory and Back Again by Matt Heusser. “There is one chapter that is worth its weight in gold [in part, about the Lean Canvas], that has broad general applicability. It is advice on how to define and position your business, regardless of if you are a startup, an IT shop, or a lawn mowing service.
  • Book review: Lean Analytics by Marc Abraham. “Lean Analytics is a great book for anyone who wishes to learn more about validating an idea, building the right product and measuring growth.”
  • Book Review – Lean Analytics by Richard Brock. “Lean Analytics is packed to the rafters with great real world examples making it easy to translate theory into practice. If there is one book you read this year that will accelerate you I would recommend Lean Analytics.”

Thanks again to everyone that’s bought the book, read it and shared their feedback. Alistair and I really appreciate it.

We hope to have more stories from people that have used the book to improve their businesses in the near future. Those anecdotes and case studies are starting to emerge, which is very exciting for us, and will be worthwhile to share as additional examples that can help everyone.

Guest post: Vanity Celebrations

brydonpicBrydon Gilliss founded the shared office space ThreeFortyNine in Guelph where he plays with Startupify.Me, Ontario Startup Train and 20 Skaters. A serial entrepreneur and fervent community builder, he’s also busy organizing a train-full of founders for this summer’s International Startup Festival.

One of the most often-repeated themes from Lean Analytics has been this: If a metric won’t change your behavior, it is a bad metric. So when Brydon mentioned to us that we’re all celebrating the wrong things, his comment made a lot of sense. Here are his thoughts on the subject, in our first guest post.

The moments we choose to celebrate say a lot about what we consider important. They’re a proxy for the metrics we value, because we’re signalling to others by their very celebration. And yet, I’ve always been of the belief that startups tend to celebrate the wrong things.

If that’s true, what signals are we sending? We celebrate product launches, government grant acceptance, fundraising, winning pitch contests, and so on. Too often, these are the vanity metrics of our startup ecosystem.

Of course, some of these events are worthy of celebration. A grant lets us live to fight another day; a winning pitch might drive sales or help us to hire a key employee. But they would be way down on my list, personally, if my goal was to build a real business. Let’s stop concentrating on celebrating events like taking on debt or winning what is often little more than a beauty contest—and focus instead on what we should celebrate but rarely do.

At ThreeFortyNine, we celebrate the achievements that matter to the business model. Consider, for example, the first time you sell something to a complete stranger. That’s worth celebrating because it’s the first sign your business might have legs of its own. In our Founder’s Club events, we celebrate selling our first train tickets to strangers; Foldigo celebrated its first-ever sale to a stranger. Our plan is to build up this list and move it into our monthly socials.

We’re building our Startupify.Me program around the concept that talented developers stepping into startup life need options. Incubators, accelerators and government grant programs funnel them into a single, traditional path, thereby discouraging experimentation. We want our cohort to have the option to create a lifestyle business or even a small, local business—if they choose. Of course, any of them can still try and swing for the fences, but the key is that they have all of the options available to them when they start.

“We didn’t get to where we are today thanks to policy makers – but thanks to the appetite for risks and errors of a certain class of people we need to encourage, protect, and respect”,

—Nassim Taleb

Only in recent years have books like Lean Analytics begun to draw out the real risks of obsessing over feel-good data that does little for the business—so-called “vanity metrics”. There’s a very real danger if a young entrepreneur believes that success comes in the form of taking on debt, winning a pitch contest and launching a product. Those may be required for some businesses but they shouldn’t be misconstrued as success.

Part of the challenge here is the proliferation of what I call success turnstiles in our ecosystem. These are entities whose prime motivation is to funnel as many businesses as possible through their turnstile. It’s a pure numbers game for them as they chase their success metrics. These entities tend to be government funded and these success metrics are defined by bureaucrats and can be tracked up the organizational hierarchy to a speech-writer’s desk.

We need to lead real conversations about what success is because it comes in many shapes and forms. Advocates of this more mindful form of celebration include Jason Cohen imploring founders to get 150 customers instead of 1000 fans and Rob Walling helping startups to start, and stay, small.

Here’s an initial list of milestones and accomplishments worth celebrating to get you started.

  • Performed 30 interviews with real potential users.
  • First customer acquired.
  • First customer acquired without knowing where they came from.
  • Covering your monthly personal costs.
  • Identifying the first product feature a potential customer will pay cash for.

Which vanity metrics need to stop being celebrated? Which do we need to celebrate more?

Lean Analytics and Football


Although Lean Analytics focuses mostly on tech companies, Alistair and I quickly realized while doing our research that the principles and tactics of Lean Analytics apply to many types of businesses. We managed to highlight a few examples in the book, including Solare, a San Diego-based restaurant that uses two key metrics to guide their decision-making.

Recently, Curtis Peterson reached out to us about a blog post he wrote, Lean Football Play Calling. The basic premise is that Lean Analytics can be used to make better plays during a football game. Curtis talks about a couple of hypotheses that he has around “explosive plays” and the use of play action passing.

It’s fascinating to see Lean Analytics applied in areas outside of technology. It’s not surprising though, because the challenges remain the same. And the way to get things accomplished remains the same. You have a goal. You need hypotheses on what to do (experiments to run) that you think help you achieve your goal. And you need to measure your progress.

Curtis hasn’t tested his theories out (it’s the offseason!) but I’m hoping he will, and I’m hoping others will as well. It’d be fascinating to see if a structured approach like the one he’s proposing can help in winning football games. Wouldn’t that be something?

Photo from Flickr.

Lean Analytics Sweepstakes Complete! Big Winner Announced

The Lean Analytics sweepstakes was a great event with thousands of dollars in prizes from a bunch of great companies. In total we’ll be giving away 56 prizes ranging from t-shirts to a free trip.

Prize winners were selected at random.

If you won a prize you were notified by Twitter or email, so please check those carefully. I’ve heard back from a lot of the winners, but not all of them. I’ll reach back out in another week or so to those remaining winners that didn’t respond.

The grand prize is a free trip to the International Startup Festival in Montreal. It includes a free ticket, $1,500 for travel/hotel and a few other goodies.

So who won?

Our grand prize winner is: Damian Matheson!

damian mathesonDamian (@iamdamian) is a 23-year old entrepreneur living in Toronto. He got the entrepreneurial bug thanks to attending the Digital Specialization program at Ryerson University (inside the Digital Media Zone). Previously, he was studying Criminal Justice at the University of Guelph.

Damian is the co-founder of FoodStory, which aims to bring farmers’ markets online and into the 21st century. Consumers will be able to log onto the website, see a profile of each of the attending farmers/vendors at the market, connect with them, learn their story (so they know they’re truly supporting a real local farm), and then see what will be available.

“Ultimate, we are creating a service that allows consumers to receive a completely customizable weekly box of farm-fresh goods right from the farmers’ markets, delivered right to consumers doors,” says Damian. “Think of it as a customizable, multi-farm online shopping experience with a strong emphasis on the connection between consumer and producer.”

Congrats Damian, and congrats to all the other winners!

Let me thank each and every one of you for buying Lean Analytics–the response has been awesome. Alistair and I are blown away and really appreciate it.

Meet us in London for the Lean Analytics Workshop hosted by Geckoboard

geckboard lean analytics workshop

The folks at Geckoboard are awesome. They’ve contributed to our sweepstakes, where you can win awesome prizes (including a free trip). I did an extensive interview with Geckoboard’s CEO, Paul Joyce, which you can watch on Vimeo. And now, they’re hosting a 1-day workshop event for Alistair and I in London.

The event is on Friday, June 7, 2013.

They put together an awesome site (better than anything we could do ourselves!), which you can see here:

Tickets are £120 and space is limited.

Alistair and I are very excited about going to London and sharing Lean Analytics with the community. It’s going to be a great, interactive format where we work with local startups and help them out with their analytics. If you’re in the area or nearby and want to hang out, we hope you’ll attend!

SXSW, bikes, and the Zen of finding things out

This is a really long post. It’s overly personal. It’s a bit of a travel triptych. But if you read through it, I hope you’ll find that there’s an important lesson in here for entrepreneurs.

I was in Austin for SXSW this year. It was my first time there—I’ve always had some other event to attend. I’ve been told it has long since jumped the shark, and many who’ve decried its demise say it’s proof that technology is mainstream. With that in mind, and not knowing anyone, I fully expected it to feel like crashing someone else’s high school reunion only to find that all the cool kids had already snuck out the back for a smoke.

I was presenting a workshop on social media measurement, playing the part of the curmudgeonly entrepreneur; and I was there for the launch of the book, and as a mentor for Eric Ries’ Lean Startup event.


I also managed to squeeze in an interesting afternoon with librarians at a guerilla “salon” they’d erected just beyond the confines of downtown Austin. Turns out I knew people, too: Blake Robinson of Analect took me under his wing, and my colleagues from Decibel showed up towards the end, ushering me into a fantastic set by Flying Lotus. I also had a bumpy, sweaty ride around the city on an RV that felt (and smelled) like a moving version of Spring Break. It says a lot about the festival that this RV had just performed engagement ceremonies for the Twitterati.

But all of these paled in comparison to my experience with bikes.

I need to be less sedentary, and I’m trying to find hacks to do so, as I’ve outlined elsewhere. When I started planning for SXSW, the closest hotel I could find was five miles North of the city. Wary of waiting in interminable shuttle lines or spending a lot on cabs, I thought that it might be good to have a bike.

A bike has other benefits, of course. It’s good exercise. It doesn’t burn gas. Bought from Walmart or Target, it costs less than six cab rides. And I can leave it to Goodwill, or a Boys & Girls Club, or some other association, so someone can benefit from a nearly-new bike.

Enamoured with this idea, I shopped around. Sure enough, a simple, one-speed road bike was $99 on I’d made up my mind: In a few weeks, I’d buy it, and ship it to a friend’s in Austin. I didn’t want it lying around in her house for too long, after all.

When the middle of February rolled around, I went back to Walmart, only to find the price had gone up by $50. Undaunted, I bought the bike, and shipped it. I knew I’d have to do some assembly, but this seemed a small price to pay.


Shortly after I’d drop-shipped the bike, I found out that another friend (who’s busy changing the world) wouldn’t be able to make it, and her partner had a spare room in downtown Austin at La Quinta, just a few blocks from the conference. The long journey I’d feared would, for the most part, not happen. I’d be walking distance from things for much of the conference.

(If you came here for Lean Analytics stuff, bear with me—we’re getting there.)

A few days later, I flew from Montreal to Newark, where, apparently, they don’t know how to deal with snow. As a result, I arrived in Austin late, missing a dinner and a Big Data meetup. I took a taxi to the Holiday Inn Express far North of the city, and crashed, surrounded by boxes of books rushed from the printer to my hotel.

I woke early the next morning, and my Austin friend came to pick me, my luggage, and my boxes of hot-off-the-press books up.

Books at the hotel

We drove to a Walmart near her house for supplies. This was my first real warning. In front of me were rows and rows of pre-assembled bikes, hanging from the rafters in an array of styles.

Prebuilt bikes at Wal-mart

Had I known I’d be here to buy a helmet and other things, I could simply have bought a bike that was ready to ride, and skipped the assembly, and not needed tools. Lesson learned.

Eventually we found our way to the bike supplies themselves. These were, to say the least, lacking. Most of them featured a licensed cartoon character of some sort, and few of the helmets fit my head.

Walmart bike gear

The locks were witheringly frail, but I rationalized that a cheap bike was unlikely to get stolen. In the end, I left with a helmet, lights, a bike lock, and some basic tools. I was also $97.22 lighter.

Walmart receipt

Then we went to her place, and I spent an hour or so assembling the bike. This was a sweaty, uncertain process. Fortunately, I’d found the right tools, but even then it was tricky in places, particularly in getting the brakes properly aligned. After an hour, I stood back to review my handiwork.

Assembled bike

Now, if you look closely at that picture, you’ll realize something that had only just occurred to me. Those tires aren’t inflated. Lesson learned. Having not thought this through, I now needed to find a bike pump. My friend drove me to my second hotel, downtown—already, I was missing the opening sessions of the Lean Startup workshop at the Hilton—and fortunately the parking staff had an air compressor on hand.

I thanked her for her help, changed, and biked off towards registration. I flew down a surprising number of hills on my way towards the river, regretting with each street I crossed the potential energy I was bleeding off, and the kinetic energy I’d have to give back on the return trip.

I need to pause, at this point, to say one important thing:

Having a bike at SXSW is fantastic.

The feeling of caroming around corners, hair in the wind, street rolling by, is wonderful. It’s exhilarating. I have no regrets. But if that sounds like foreshadowing, well, it is.

Badge and swag retrieved from the well-oiled machine that is SXSW, I hopped back on the bike—which handled fairly well—and pedalled a few blocks to the Lean Startup event. I spent some time there, and left to meet Blake at a party. I walked out of the Hilton with a spring in my step, ready to board my trusty steel steed and head off to the event …

And stopped. My front tire had a flat.

I texted Blake to tell him I couldn’t come to the party, because I had to fix my tire. Then this happened.


Apparently, SXSW provides. In this case, it provides a Chevy Volt party next to a bike repair shop.

Okay, if you’re here for the Lean Analytics stuff, this is where it will make sense. Because as I walked the ten blocks to Mellow Johnny’s, I had time to reflect. Normally, all of this would have made me furious—paying too much, realizing I’d made dumb mistakes, having a flat. But I was kind of enjoying it. My whole frame of mind had shifted from “I need a bike” to “I am running an experiment.”

As I’d been preparing for the trip, I’d thought to myself, “maybe someone should start a business for travellers who want to keep in shape.” For all the reasons I’ve mentioned, having a bike in a city is great. And giving it to goodwill—possibly with a tax receipt in the process—might make it a viable business model. But I hadn’t got out of the building.

Now here I was, decidedly out of the building, walking a dilapidated bike down a dusty street in a city I didn’t know. And I was loving it. I’d learned at least ten things about this hypothetical bike-in-a-city business in less than a day, and all of them were crucial to the business. Never mind that I had no intention of setting up such a business. Simply viewing it as an experiment turned every mishap into a triumph.

It’s hard to explain the Zen-like calm that had overcome me. But I didn’t have time to muse any more—I’d arrived at my destination.

Random bikeshop

Outside Mellow Johnny’s, it was SXSW as usual—dozens of people, all staring at their phones, oblivious to the other people they’d travelled hundreds of miles to see. I walked my bike into the store and introduced myself to one of their staff.

His first reaction was a compliment—he liked the bike. It seems the designers at Walmart had conceived a vehicle that, on initial inspection, looked solid and well designed. I explained the provenance of said bike, and the history, and he quickly changed his mind.

He agreed to repair the tire, and check the brakes for me. There was a small tear in the tube, so he’d replaced it. As it turns out, the tires on the bike weren’t standard, requiring not only a new tube but also an adapter for the valve. Lesson learned.

Johnnys receipt 2

$30 poorer, but delighted with the staff, service, and coffee at Mellow Johnny’s, I headed off. I was only slightly worried by his parting words: “I fixed those brakes as best I could, but I wouldn’t go down any hills if I were you.” After a few more events that evening—abetted by my ability to flit from venue to venue quickly—I returned to my hotel, locked up the bike, and went to sleep.

The following morning, I found a relatively unsullied coffee shop with good Wifi, did some work, grabbed a great brunch at an Exact Target party, and went to see friends at the Canadian tech pavillion. By now, I’d noticed that my bike had some wear and tear. The seat, for example, had started to split from the moisture and exposure of the overnight rain. Lesson learned.


Then I returned to my hotel for a board call, and headed back out to meet my friend and past co-author Sean. We decided not to wait in the line for Girl Talk, and instead headed to the Driskill.

Now, if you’d been out all night, you might be upset when you walk out of the bar and find …

… your back tire now has a flat.

Not me. My Zen-like attitude was unassailable. Joy! More data points for my test case! More lessons learned!

Sean clearly thought I was mad. But I was reminded of something Dave McClure said at Startupfest last year: The only thing worse than bad feedback is no feedback at all. Here I was, walking back to La Quinta with a flat tire once again, absolutely swimming in negative feedback!

The following morning I had to pack my bags and leave them at the downtown hotel. My respite from the long ride was over; I’d have to rely on my bike to get to and from the original, distant hotel. I walked back to Mellow Johnny’s and had the bike repaired a second time.

Johnnys receipt 3

Another $24.80 spent. I did learn, however, that renting a bike from Mellow Johnny’s would have cost me $25 a day. I took a moment to delight in this nugget of competitive pricing data, and another lesson learned.

I biked off for a quick chat with some of the folks from Soundcloud, then made my way across the bridge to a video interview I had scheduled with the folks at Software Advice (which I’ll post here sometime soon.)

Did I mention that having a bike in Austin is amazing?

The wind across the river, and the spring sun, were fantastic. I climbed a short hill, and turned down a smaller road towards the studio. And then I noticed that the wheels were making a strange noise.

Flat number three.

Again, at this point, I’d normally have thrown the bike off an embankment. But this was a lesson, to be consumed, considered, and shared, dear reader, with you. I walked my bike the remaining distance to the studio, and did the interview with Ashley Verrill, who handled a rather sweaty guest with poise and aplomb. Shortly afterwards, I was scheduled to speak with a bunch of librarians about Big Data, and they’d kindly offered to pick me up. So I asked them if they had room for a bike.

We squeezed the bike, and five passengers, into an SUV and crawled the few miles to the next venue. It was during this drive, shoehorned between seats and spokes, that I learned I was far from the first to consider getting bikes in each city I visited. No, David Byrne has been doing this a long time, and has even written a book—the Bicycle Diaries—about it.

The hypothetical-startup-founder in me celebrated: I’d unearthed a competitor! Another lesson learned.

When we finally reached our destination, my Austin native—who’d patiently waited while I assembled the bike in the first place—was there. She told me of a friend had recently lost everything, even her car, and badly needed a way to get around. So I gave her the bike, with $20 to fix the third flat.

Things have a funny way of working themselves out.

I’d spent $314.49 on my bike experiment. The rest of the conference was uneventful by comparison. There were some great parties, and the aforementioned RVIP. Reggie Watts helped us skip a line. And the workshop went really well, giving me insight into how social media marketers and agencies think about metrics—and into why vanity metrics won’t die. But that’s for another day.

I learned a lot from the experience. It reminded me just how vital it is to get out of the office and try something yourself. And it demonstrated what a difference it makes when you think of your experiences as experiments. They cease to be disappointments and become learnings. Even if you’re not starting a company right now, pick a crazy, hare-brained idea and see if it works. It’s refreshing.

Ultimately, when you’re trying something new, you’re not defined by your idea, your product, your plans, or your services. Rather, you’re defined by what they’ve taught you. This is true for founders, but it’s also true for humans. It’s a much more Zen way to look at your life.

And that’s why, for me, the best thing about SXSW 2013 was a shitty bike.