We were thrilled to have our panel idea, "What does the Lean Startup look like for the Social Sector" chosen by voters on SOCAP Open as a panel for this year's conference. And yesterday's turnout for the panel (standing room only, with many others reported to have left when they saw the overflow) speaks to the SOCAP organizers' wisdom to let the crowd pick topics they're interested in hearing about. We're hoping to have the same crowd-sourced opportunity to discuss Lean Impact at SXSW in March - today's the last day, so please help us out by voting here, now! 

lean startup

We presented three principles from the Lean Startup approach to remind participants of our guiding principles:

  • rely on customer feedback, not intuition or academics
  • experiment and test your product or service, don't get stuck in an abstract planning mode
  • fail fast and forward, capturing the lessons you learn from things that don't work

The discussion couldn't have been better, thanks to excellent panelists Chase Adam, Christie George, Megan Kashner, and Tabreez Verjee, and a room full of engaged participants. The list of hot topics is too long to do justice to before running off to SOCAP Day 3, but some highlights listed below, and friends at GatherWell shared theirs here.

- The juiciest debate was Who's the Customer for social enterprises. The crux of the discussion was the two-sided market for many social enterprises, with donors and/or philanthropic investors as one group of 'customers,' and beneficiaries or end users of the goods or services as the second group. Lean Startup principles boil down in many ways to customer-focus, so social entrepreneurs have to be very thoughtful to identify how they're focusing on each of these two groups of customers. Of course, beneficiaries are the ultimate reason for being and primary driving force behind the development and offering of social enterprise products or services, but if donations are part of the venture's business model, the founders cannot ignore donors as a crucial stakeholder group to keep engaged. The Inspiring Capital approach of helping social enterprises become self-sustaining by generating independent revenue streams mitigates this potential conflict.

- Megan Kashner raised another great point that social enterprises are generally dealing with real people's lives, not software code as many lean startups do.

- Be humble! Chase Adam pointed out that being lean is all about being humble and listening to your customers.

- Finally, there was a general solicitation to entrepreneurs and donors to consider and apply lean principles in a genuine and thoughtful way. Lean is not just 'by the seat of your pants' or cheap. It's a demanding and intentional strategic approach to building a business (searching for a replicable and scalable business model, as Lean Granddaddy Steve Blank would say). Tabreez feels that 'lean' is becoming a buzzword used by too many people who don't really grasp the philosophy underlying the approach. He suggested that entrepreneurs wanting to go lean first find a 'lean' mentor who can push them to be and stay lean in a truly strategic, thoughtful way. He also recommended finding 3-5 businesses that you respect for being lean, and emulate a few strategies they have used.

Please let us know what you think, and follow the hashtag #leanimpact on Twitter, particularly for the Lean Impact Chat every Wednesday at 2 pm EST / 11 am PST. We'd love to hear how leanimpact.org can help you understand and apply Lean Startup Principles for the social enterprise you love that's changing the world!