A Look Back at Ten Years of the Lean Startup Conference

This year marks the 10th anniversary of the Lean Startup Conference. It started as something with“the feel of a religious revival” for true believers, as as author of The Lean Startup, Eric Ries, puts it. In each iteration, it’s grown and diversified every year, just like the Lean Startup movement itself. “The conference is a mirror of what’s been going on. In the early years it was about convincing people Lean Startup was worth trying and not nuts. But each time it moved into a new industry or a new kind of company or part of the world, the conference reflected that” says Ries. “It’s always had this unusual mix of hardcore startup people and corporate people in the same environment for the first time.”

Dave Binetti, six-time entrepreneur and creator of the Innovation Options financial framework, was at the first conference in 2009. He’s spoken at every conference since and will be our MC next week at the Palace of Fine Arts (pictured). Those first few years, he remembers, “the conference was as much pilgrimage as anything else. We were journeying together into uncharted territory, hoping to discover some new truth about the world that others had yet to recognize — and perhaps to contribute to that epiphany along the way. In the decade since a path has emerged, created by countless entrepreneurs. In a certain sense, the route is now familiar. That said, I learn something new at every conference — something exciting and altogether unexpected that reinvigorates the joy of discovery I value so deeply.”

That experience of evolution combined with annual anticipation is an integral part of what makes the conference unique. Heather McGough, notes that “We look at each year as a way to address what the community is most in need of, and those needs have shifted over the years. There are corporate innovators, non-profits, people building their own playbooks, religious institutions, government. There may be groups that are more advanced, but there are still always people who are just finding out about Lean Startup.”

“A big achievement of the community is to have found a common framework,” says Ries. On the business front, “that’s so important because small startups become big companies. Many speakers from the early years have followed that path, and the idea that they wouldn’t be welcome is totally backward.”

Many attendees have also followed that path, including Eric Steege, currently the Director of Ignite, American Family Insurance’s innovation cultural transformation team. 2019 will be Steege’s fifth Lean Startup Conference. He attended his first three as a startup co-founder and startup advisor. After that, he came with what he calls “BigCo innovation goals.” Says Steege: “One of the biggest surprises, that also seems obvious now, is that Lean Startup and Human Centered Design mindsets and tactics can be applied in any size company and any industry — not just tech or just startups.” For Steege, as for Binetti, this means the conference brings new insights every year. Recently, he’s been inspired by “the amazing examples of applying Lean Startup to Social Impact ventures. Now, one of our Lean Innovation coaches is partnering with our newly formed Social Impact Investing team at American Family Insurance, doing some very cool, impactful work with school districts in Wisconsin.” 

In addition to the multiple uses for Lean Startup he’s been exposed to at the conference, Steege has also taken note of other ways the conference is unusual when it comes to including everyone. “I love how intentional the Lean Startup team has been about diversity and inclusion when it comes to identifying and selecting presenters. I always come away impressed with the diversity of speakers, big company, small company, first-time speakers, diversity of race and backgrounds, especially compared to other conferences I have attended. It’s provided a great model for me as I put on more events locally.”

Even as the conference evolves, it always remains true to its original ethos. “The point has always been to try to get the real, behind-the-scenes stories of what’s going on at startups out into the public,” Ries says. “You have to come share your honest story. That’s the antidote to becoming stale and irrelevant. Things change, so we invite scrutiny and we have skeptics. You want to find out what works and transform accordingly. This is really the only gathering where those things are discussed. It’s all about the truth.”