Serial entrepreneur Steve Blank wrote the ‘Startup Owner’s Handbook’ to relay what he had learned from running startup organisations. The book tries to impart the techne of building a profitable startup and does so in a brilliant and original way. He rejects the old business plan driven model for running a new company. He claims that no one can know how a product will fare in the market before they try it out. He recommends that products should be developed through cycles of contact with consumers. Blank sees the book as the application of scientific methodology to a craft which has hitherto been flaky, impressionistic and imprecise. His followers (e.g. Eric Ries) have reframed his advice as a structured methodology, playing St Paul to Blank’s messiah. In their telling it ceases to be practical advice born of experience and becomes the one true path to success in business.
Here I argue that Blank mistook the nature of his advice. It does not resemble a universal ‘scientific method’ because such a method does not exist in the form he claims. His methods do not resemble the work of scientific giants, neither does it provide a cast iron route to success. Blank’s valuable insights are really an attempt to harness the power of an “evolutionary search algorithm”. He seeks to evolve a “fit” between business model, business plan, product and market.
If the value of his techne – Blank’s account of his craft – is not in question, does the framing matter ? It matters because the content of the original insights have been progressively corrupted in the development of a ‘customer development’ orthodoxy. Far from being a isolated discovery by Blank, this is a particular application of an universally pervasive algorithm that has been studied extensively by mathematicians – ‘substrate neutral evolution’. Putting ‘Customer Development’ in its real context helps us to polish the glass and see the value in Blank’s insights clearly once again.