Self-Experiment: The Anti-Lean Startup

Self-Experiment: The Anti-Lean Startup

I know, we are all tired of lean startup evangelism. We all know its principles, its benefits, and its problems. As I am running the monthly lean startup meetups in Karlsruhe since April 2012 I should really be aware of the importance of applying those methods. I read all the books, tons of blog posts, talked about it with likeminded people over hours, conducted presentations – I can barely guess how much time I spent soaking in those principles for a better understanding of how good products can be built. And it was worth it. I thought.

But then I found myself working on a new project, totally ignoring everything I learned (and even taught to other people) – on purpose! I found myself saying “Let’s just do that and see what will happen. We do not have the time to talk to people.” For me, it is indescribable how counterintuitive the foundation of lean startup still has been while knowing so much about it. How tempting and easy it was to reject everything I have learned before!

But why did that happen? It turns out that we aren’t acting as rational as we think we are most of the time. That is not quite reassuring to know, but there is an upside: being aware of your own irrationality. In the following I will investigate common findings in behavioral economics, relating them to my own learnings and trying to find some simple solutions to avoid those traps.

Behavioral Economics and Irrationality

“Our intuition is really fooling us in a repeatable, predictable, consistent way. There is almost nothing we can do about it” – Dan Ariely

In his great book “Predictably Irrational: The Hidden Forces That Shape Our Decisions” (affiliate link) Dan Ariely provides a dive into psychology and the human’s mind. Based on a set of behavioral experiments, he shows how people react when they are given choices, placebos, social norms, and other things that widely influence our behavior – without us knowing! You can watch this talk to get an understanding of his work:

But what exactly can I learn from behavioral economics when dealing with my lean startup ignorance? In the following there are two findings of behavioral economics I thought of as especially interesting.

Behavioral Economics and Self-Control

“It seems that the best course might be to give people an opportunity to commit up front to their preferred path of action.” – Dan Ariely

In chapter 7 of his book, “The Problem of Procrastination and Self-Control”, Ariely found out that we need commitments upfront for fighting procrastinations. He conducted an experiment where a part of his students could choose their own deadlines for papers submissions and the other part of students just had to submit them at the end of the semester. It turned out that the first cohort not only met the deadlines better than the second, they also got way better grades!

My suggestion for startups: Conduct regular standup meetings every day and talk about each team member’s challenges of the day and the hypotheses they are currently trying to validate. Write down your goals and validate them at the next meeting. Share and discuss if you reached them, if there have been obstacles, and why.

Working alone? No problem! Standup meetings can be quite awkward then, but how about a daily email that reminds you of the hypotheses you want to validate? You for example could set up an OhLife-account and write a diary about your validated learning.

The Optimism Bias

“We are more optimistic than realistic – but we are oblivious to the fact.” – Tali Sharot

In her remarkable talk, neuroscientist Tali Sharot introduces the so called optimism bias. She states that individuals have the habit of overestimating their own possibilites (e.g. career opportunities) in relation to other people around them. For example, although the divorce rate in the US is at about 40 %, almost no one thinks of their own marriage to be divorced.

Be aware of the optimism bias: You all know the optimism: “Let’s not test it, it’s obvious that this is a great product. It will work.” And that’s no problem, because, as Sharot says, “optimists try harder. Optimism leads to success.” But being aware of the bias can lead to a more realistic point of view. Always ask yourself when validating hypotheses if you are acting too optimistic.


“The key is knowledge.” – Tali Sharot

Behavioral economics are great to explain irrational human behavior. We are not in the position to overcome it – we even don’t need to. But being aware of the fact that our mind is fooling us from time to time can help us to be more realistic with ourselves and focus on the right things when working on a project.


Photo credits: bachmont // Flickr