Revolutionizing Publishing with Lean Startup

For 94 years, the Harvard Business Review (HBR) has stayed true to its mission to bring the best ideas in leadership and management to their audience of successful business people. That mission is still at the core of what they do, but as the publishing industry has shifted in the wake of the digital revolution, HBR has faced the same choice as many other notable publications: Evolve or Die.

Eric Hellweg, managing director of product management and strategy for HBR, came on board with the goal to help drive that evolution by expanding HBR’s product into one that meets the needs of modern audiences. Following the methodology of some of Lean Startup’s intellectual forebears, he and others at HBR began the process of shifting the mindset at an established, century-old organization.

He spoke about this experience – and the team’s ultimate success – at The Lean Startup Conference 2015. Implementing some of the concepts of Lean methodology at a well-established company is quite different than doing it at a new startup, but it is equally integral to product and brand development.

There are advantages to starting with the foundation of a successful company, such as a loyal audience, willingness to pay for products and thus the opportunity to test new ones. However, there are some setbacks that you certainly wouldn’t find at a startup. For example, Eric shared an anecdote from early on in his time at HBR, when a colleague rather emphatically said, “We will be blogged about, but we will never blog.” He also noted that it’s harder to sell people on the idea of ‘failing fast’ when there’s an established reputation to uphold. Perhaps most interestingly, employees at HBR had very little experience talking to users and implementing feedback.

That said, he found that Lean Startup and other related frameworks are a strong foundation for developing a product-focused discipline within HBR. At The Lean Startup Conference, he shared a framework that proved invaluable to the team in building a successful digital business inside an established organization.

1. Be something

In order to be something, you need to evaluate the current organization to determine what you’ll forget, what you’ll borrow and what you’ll learn. You’ll need to forget legacy approaches that aren’t adaptable. In HBR’s case, they need to forget the print editorial process and adapt one that was more suitable for the digital platform. At the same time, you also want to borrow elements of the core company that can give you an advantage, i.e., a strong user base. Along the way, you learn what,s appropriate as you grow your innovation and identity within the larger company.

2. Be patient

Eric noted that at the outset (and even along the way), transformation can seem daunting. Especially if you’re used to the way things work in the startup world, you may have to temper your expectations when working inside established organizations. HBR started its digital transformation eight years ago, which is a testament to how much can be accomplished with measured, consistent work.

3. Be obsessed with the user

User feedback is a key pillar of Lean Startup, but for HBR, that required a shift in how they thought about their audience. Previously, they had subscribers: people who made a purchase at the beginning of the year and consumed the content determined by editorial. As they made the move to digital, they had to think of their audience as members of a community, which was centered online, nurtured with content and measured in continuous engagement both online and off.

Of course, one of the biggest changes came from realizing that HBR was no longer just an editorial publication, but a company with a real product that was independent from editorial. The UX and editorial are equally important elements, but they don’t need to be run by the same people. To that, taking the leap towards innovation and establishing the product function with HBR has enabled writers and editors to focus on what they do best. The ability to think of these disciplines as independent ultimately supports the growth and overall excellence of the brand.

Continue learning with Lean Startup Co. in 2016. We have a new series called Lean Startup Labs, in addition to our flagship Lean Startup Conference in the Fall.

Written by Rachel Balik, contributor for Lean Startup Co.