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A Few Words of Advice for Lean Mentors

This past weekend, I once again had the pleasure of mentoring at Lean Startup Machine DC (#lsmdc). It’s always a great experience to be around so many people who are passionately involved in understanding and solving problems and changing the world. Over the course of the weekend, I spent more than 24 hours mentoring teams, and afterwards, I talked with many of the participants about the mentoring process, what was helpful, and what they wished had gone differently. Here are the primary things I learned.


Early on in the weekend it almost doesn’t matter what you do as much as it does the act of doing it. It is important for teams to get through their first Build-Measure-Learn loop quickly to get them over their fear of making the wrong decision and help them realize that they can pivot quickly. Encourage teams to get in front of customers early, even if their first experiment isn’t fully thought-out.

Start with the Problem, Not the Solution

Watch out for teams that dive right into designing their product. They often seem to be making lots of process and will tell you so if you drop by, but they are usually spinning their wheels, and need a kick to get out of the building.

Don’t Plan. Act.

When you’re building anything from scratch, it’s easy to get ahead of yourself. Remind teams not to worry about where the business is going to be in two years. Tell them to figure out the first step and then do it.

Be a Scalpel, Not a Firehose

To borrow from Dan Pink, “Your goal isn’t to demonstrate how much you know or to catalog your many insights, but to leave the audience with one idea to ponder — or better, one step to take.” These teams are surrounded by a myriad of information and it’s a challenge to take it all in. As a mentor, part of your job is to help them pinpoint the right information for the challenge that is immediately in front of them. One participant at #lsmdc explained, “The one thing I felt that all the mentors could do better is provide coaching on action steps. As in, ‘This is what you should do, and here’s how to do it'”.


Lean Startup Machine is a fast-paced weekend. Thinking over some decisions can be valuable, but many decisions don’t need hours of discussion and analysis. Make reversible decisions quickly. Timebox. Don’t wait. In one case, a team had set their minimum success criteria and the early data already showed they weren’t going to hit it. Their feedback: “Your suggestion to pivot immediately rather than continue waiting for survey results saved a great deal of time and frustration.”

Focus on Currency

As anyone who runs a business knows, cash is king. Other forms of currency are equivalent to some discounted value of cash. Letters of intent, email addresses, and people willing to give you the time of day are valuable to varying degrees, in many cases proportional to the amount of friction in the collection process (if all they had to do was click a button, that’s cheap; if they had to jump through some hoops and still bought in, you’re doing better). Remind teams that currency is crucial for validation. One participant said “the most impactful thing you did was to keep asking “Is anyone paying you yet?” — That helped keep me on track.”


Have your participated or mentored at an LSM event? What have you found worked well, or needed improvement? Add your thoughts in the comments below.

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3 Responses to A Few Words of Advice for Lean Mentors

  1. Elizabeth Page April 1, 2012 at 12:22 pm #


    Hi Teague,

    Kudos to all the mentors at DC StartUpMachine last weekend. Thanks especially to the social entrepreneur mentors–I spent so much time explaining what social entrepreneurship wasn’t that I lost traction right out of the gate, and were it not for the huge push from you and the other mentors, I may have spent my weekend working and spinning my wheels.

    Mentors were incredibly generous resulting in two pivots gleaned from insights directly from the customer development interviews. Priceless insight–priceless experience. Best weekend and best bang for the buck I ever spent on entrepreneurship training. Thanks-a-million.

  2. David Rees August 7, 2012 at 1:39 pm #

    Good thoughts Teague!

    In terms of action steps I would suggest narrowing even a bit more. For LSM I feel like our main goal is to ensure they understand the action steps in terms of the process vs. action steps for their specific case. As an example, instead of suggesting what changes their solution or problem hypothesis might need to pivot, instead talk about what actions/processes they could take to explore the problem space using the new information they had from customers.

    That is hard to do when you are being asked for “the answer” and the weekend clock is ticking – but they will obviously have many ideas and startups beyond the one they chose this weekend, and our goal is to give them them tools, process, and confidence to kick butt on all of those as well :).

    • Teague August 7, 2012 at 3:20 pm #

      Agreed. I do think the weekend is more about teaching people to use lean methodologies than it is about running them through one case.

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