NYU college dropout, Trevor Owens, filled the gap of lack of entrepreneurial training by creating what is now the world’s leading bootcamp on Lean Startup methodologies. Hosted by his startup, Lean Startup Machine, the events are structured as a weekend-long competition where teams are given hands-on mentorship from experienced entrepreneurs and are expected to come up with validated business concepts by the end. As opposed to a hackathon where the “coolest hack” is chosen as the winner or a business plan competition where judges pick a winner based on the best pitch, Lean Startup Machine competitors are judged based on the metrics of the actual business they have built over the course of a few days. You can just imagine the amount of Red Bull that gets consumed…
Trevor left NYU after his junior year while he was running three businesses: “To finish [at NYU] would cost another $40K. I knew that I was going to run one of these companies after graduation anyway, so I just decided to go for it. I can go back to school and finish anytime.”
He soon dropped two of the fledgling ventures and settled on Lean Startup Machine because of the problem he saw: “Lean Startup philosophy takes a whole different perspective on starting new businesses. It basically says that everything traditionally being taught about entrepreneurship is completely wrong and there’s a much better, scientific way to do things. People are incredibly passionate about it and it’s what got me the most excited.”
At NYU, entrepreneurial activity has exploded in the last few years, partly because of Trevor’s efforts. As he tells it, “When I was there, all of the students wanted to go to work at Goldman Sachs or Google. That’s what they’re conditioned to do. It’s just not what I wanted.”
Indeed, I heard this six months ago from Evan Korth when he came to CMU to recruit summer fellows for the HackNY program. Evan is Clinical Associate Professor of Computer Science at NYU, and co-founded HackNY with Columbia University Professor Chris Wiggins . Evan told me, “Our motto is keep the kids off the street, and by that I mean Wall Street.” HackNY is designed to give CS and technical students startup experience so that they have alternatives to the post-graduation corporate world.
Trevor was inspired by an entrepreneurship class taught by Larry Lenihan, Managing Director of FirstMark Capital. Trevor describes it: “The class was awesome; Larry has a tremendous amount of real-world experience and we got to learn from him every week.”
Lean Startup Machine also has its roots in Geeks on a Plane (GOAP), which is organized by 500 Startups as an invitation-only tour for startups, investors, and executives to learn about burgeoning technology markets worldwide. GOAP’s website states, “We travel by planes, trains, and automobiles to the most exciting international startup scenes with the sole mission of uniting geeks and exploring cross-border opportunities.” It is so cool nowadays to be a geek!
And Trevor is certainly plugged in to the NYC startup scene. He founded Tech@NYU, which connects technologists and entrepreneurs at the university to “collaborate, work together, and learn from one another.” Trevor then became part of the burgeoning NY Tech Meetup, founded in 2004 and which he says “ is the largest in the world now with 17,000 members.”
Lean Startup Machine today. From the first one in the summer of 2010, they have done six more, all over the US. They have four upcoming ones in Europe. The next one is the US is October 13- 16 in NYC.
Their advisory board includes Eric Ries, who founded the lean startup movement and author of “The Lean Startup,” plus Brant Cooper and Patrick Vlaskovits, authors of “The Entrepreneur’s Guide to Customer Development.”
The events are like hackathons, but they are different: “In the first one we coached people to quickly realize the flaws in their ideas and then use that knowledge to change direction [pivot]. Unlike a typical hackathon, almost nothing gets built. It’s about validating the concept before you build it, not just believing “if you build it, they will come.” Participants work in teams of two to six people. On Thursday night we have a kickoff designed for everyone to know each other. Then by Friday at 6pm we expect everyone to have made a team and come up with an idea before we start the workshops.
The event consists of only four hours of content, but there is a lot of outside “homework,” including Brant Cooper’s book, and other materials.
The attendees are from all over – from the Harvard Business School to entrepreneurs to Google employees & PhDs.
The business model is sponsorship and products that are starting to result from the work flow, the first of which is a productivity tool. Tuition is charged although there are scholarships available. Attendees are screened in advance and the teams are forcibly interdisciplinary.
- Cheryl Yeoh went through the program in NYC July 2010 and has since raised $750K from Great Oaks Venture Capital and MI Ventures for her startup, CityPockets.
- Amanda Chocko attended the program in Chicago November 2010 where she came up with the vision for the Michigan Lean Startup Conference.
- Max Cameron was at the Boston February 2011 program and then started Dooo.sh/it, an “almost-free workshop to help you get to a prototype people will actually use,” where he’s helped several founders, “kill stupid ideas quickly.” Max is also an organizer of Lean Coffee Toronto.
The Lean Startup Machine blog features some great testimonials from past attendees:
- Morgan Linton: “To really get some real world experience with the Lean Startup process I took-part in Lean Startup Machine in New York City a couple of weeks ago. This was an absolutely incredible experience that allowed me to go through the entire process in an intense, boot-camp format that was absolutely incredible!”
- Gordon Guthrie: “We are all familiar with the build and launch a product in 48 hours startupa-launcha-builda-thon-a-thingie. Lean Startup Machine is kinda like that, but not really. It lasts a weekend and involves a lot of work, but… The focus is on defining a set of customer and product hypotheses and then testing them – without building anything. The focus is on building product against validated hypothesis – taking your ideas out to customers before investing time and effort to build them.”
- Matthew Hensrud: “So if I were to describe the Lean Startup Machine with a metaphor, it would probably involve a Russian epic — where all of the main characters die in the first 250 pages, and their descendants carry on in the fields telling stories of what it was like back in the day — then in the end, the Bolsheviks arrive and birth an era of shorter bread lines. In other words, heady days of hopes and dreams (original hypothesis), a descent into dismay and fear (idea slaughtering), followed by epiphany and hopefully, success (your customer-development-tested new shiny hypothesis).”
Big challenges. But the volume of activity aside, Trevor has certainly faced some challenges. “It hasn’t been easy, but that’s not what I was searching for,” Trevor explained. His list of the most urgent isssues:
- Finding the right partners. People are always the most important. Ryan MacCarrigan has joined leanstartupmachine.com as Director of Marketing. Ryan went through the program last spring (April 2011 in NYC) and was so enthusiastic that he wanted to help in the area that he knows best – marketing. That help was and is welcome so that Trevor could expand his events and focus on what he does well – producing. Having a great advisory board has helped this 23-year old entrepreneur by giving support and advice when he has most needed it.
- Focusing on one venture. At NYU, Trevor was involved in multiple businesses so picking and focusing on only one was not straightforward. But he knew that to get anywhere you have to focus and really commit to one thing.
- Hiring & developing systems. Coming up with ideas is easy compared to getting something off the ground” “You can’t just do it; you have to build systems and recruit support because you can’t do everything yourself; it takes too much time.”
- Making money. It’s easy to come up with good ideas but making them financially viable is another thing altogether. Trevor needed to be able to pay himself and the company needed to be financially sustainable for a long period of time. The business model for leanstartupmachine.com should get them there.
Conclusion.Lean Startup Machine is a new exciting concept. Keep a look out; it’s likely Lean Startup Machine is coming to your city in the near future.