Tales From The Trenches: A Nonprofit Person’s Weekend at Lean Startup Machine

I just arrived home from Budapest’s Lean Startup Machine Training, which was 3 days of sweat (literally – it was 90 degrees), hustle and paradigm shifting.

Over three days, 10 teams of 5 competed against each other to see who could master the Lean Startup process. Most teams had wildly different ideas – there was everything from Airbnb for pets, to a new Bitcoin trading system – and each team approached the process differently.

It would be an understatement to say that I went into the training as a skeptic. I love Lean Startup ideas and think they are incredibly powerful (hence my work at Lean Impact), but I have a strong commitment to social good and have spent most my career in nonprofits, so the idea of learning about the principles in the startup context and not the social sector context was daunting to say the least. I can speak ‘startup’ okay, but for a whole weekend? I didn’t know if I’d make it through. But I also knew that I couldn’t keep on working with Lean Impact without trying out this process for myself.

And guess what? It was awesome. And I don’t mean sort-of awesome, I mean transformational. The curriculum forced each team to continuously apply the principles, which gave me very practical knowledge about how to apply Lean Startup tools. In the end, I fundamentally changed the way I think about my projects.

Three learnings from the training stood out to me the most. First, how to design tests that prove your assumptions are right or wrong (VERY difficult and incredibly useful). Secondly, how to let go of an idea that you’ve become emotionally attached to. Each of these topics deserves its own blog post, so I’ll follow up with a series of two more posts.

Lastly and most importantly, I learned that it’s important to get outside of your comfort zone and outside of your sector. I spend a lot of time thinking about Lean Startup principles, but not a lot of time learning about how to use them in the real world. As I mentioned before, I’m that reluctant activist who couldn’t imagine spending a weekend working exclusively with the startup world. Since most of the trainings available for Lean Startup are geared toward startups, I’ve avoided attending until now.

I learned that my thinking expanded in a new way, and in ways that are directly relevant to social enterprises and nonprofits. I began to think more critically about financial sustainability, how to iterate quickly on an idea even if it isn’t fully developed, and how to expose assumptions that I had taken for granted.

This type of learning wouldn’t have happened had I not gone out of my comfort zone. Thanks to Lean Startup Machine, I was able to do that and learn a lot in the process. For more lean events in your area, check out 6 Lean Events You Should Know About. And don’t forget – these events are for you, too!

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