Month: February 2014

Lean Startup Toolkit

Two weeks ago, I wrote a blog post that asked of the Lean Startup… is it the right strategy or fool’s gold?

For many of our customers and colleagues, the response has been overwhelming. For them, it’s clearly the right strategy; or at least worth trying.

If you’ve decided it’s time to take the plunge with a Lean Startup—whether a new business or product launch—you’re going to need a good set of tools to use. And in keeping with the Lean Startup philosophy, you don’t need to invest a king’s ransom for them.

The Essential Lean Startup Toolkit

While there are many good tools out there, these are the ones that are popular among our customers, associates, and co-workers. This isn’t an exclusive list, by any means. We encourage you to search for the tools that work best for you and your situation.

And just so you know, SmartDraw and those of us who work here aren’t being compensated by any of these companies. We’re just hoping to provide a Lean Startup Toolkit that you’ll find useful.


freshbooksFreshbooks. This cloud-based app lets you do important things—like sending invoices and getting paid!—quickly, at your desk or from your mobile device. They also have great video tutorials and an online get started guide. Oh, and a great blog. I love great blogs.


gosquaredGoSquared. We love stuff that’s easy to use without a training manual (like SmartDraw, for example). The GoSquared interface is really, really simple. Keeping track of your site analytics, measuring social interaction, and even fixing mistakes (such as broken links) is quick and easy.

Browser Testing:

browserstackBrowserStack. Avoid zombie nightmares. Test your virtual machines and devices across all desktop and mobile browsers. Test responsive design across mobile devices, too. Pricing models are suitable for anyone from a team of one all the way up to big-time enterprises.

Domain Registration:

hoverHover. Okay, I get that your edgy domain registrar runs titillating Super Bowl ads. But do you really want to pay them for that when all you really needs is a domain name, some email addresses, and to maybe do it while skipping all the annoying upselling? Hover gives you that, plus great online help resources and real human beings if you call.


shopifyShopify. Set up your online store. Design your store from a template (or create your own), add products, upload photos, and boom! You’re in e-business. Accept payments, set shipping options, even get tools to help with stuff like SEO, email marketing, and analytics.

Email Marketing:

mailchimpMailChimp. Maybe it’s Freddie the mascot. Whatever it is, MailChimp takes something that seems kind of bland and makes it kind of fun. And for your Lean Startup, you can get design templates and send up to 12K emails a month free, with nice upgrades for just a few peanuts.

Email Testing:

litmusLitmus. Checks the stuff you need to know before you send email. Like, how will it look across various email clients and on mobile devices? And because it won’t get read if it’s not in your customer’s inbox, Litmus spam tests it. Litmus offers analytics and integrates with MailChimp, too.


tenderTender. Your customers need help. Stay connected to them with Tender. Build customer support forums, create “echoes” to answer frequent questions with a personal touch, keep discussions focused and relevant with “queues.” Plans start at just $9/month.


linodeLinode. Get all geeky without nerd glasses. Virtual, cloud-based hosting lets you skip the costs of owning or leasing hardware. Hosting centers in the US, Europe and Asia Pacific give you versatility in choosing where your data resides. Plans from $20/month.

digital-oceanDigitalOcean. Get SSD cloud hosting with 55-second provisioning. Tier 1 bandwidth. Easy control panels allow you to create, resize, rebuild and snapshot with single clicks. Plus two-factor authentication for enhanced security. Great for startups with plans as low as $5/month.

Lean Diagrams, Project Management, Web Design, Etc.:

SmartDraw-boxshotSmartDraw. More than 70 different types of charts and diagrams help you design, plan, track, and communicate with powerful diagrams. Automated design is fast and easy to use. Having all of these tools in one saves a bundle over buying several applications individually.

Payment Gateways:

stripe-logoStripe. Hugely popular payment gateway among developers. Stripe checkout is a customizable payment flow that works across desktop and mobile platforms. Stripe also handles currency conversions—139 currencies with hassle-free security and compliance.

spaceboxSpaceBox. Stripe for non-developers. Do you sell subscriptions or collect ongoing payments like rent or membership fees? You need SpaceBox. Accept customer payments one-time or recurring basis. Membership sign-ups, account management, and billing are done for you. Cha-ching!


duo-securityDuoSecurity. Two-factor authentication platform to ensure security of your data. Easier than tokens. Ranked the #1 Highest Value Security Company by Box. Integrates with a wide range of devices and applications. Free trial and pricing as low as $1/user/month.

Source Control and Issue Tracking:

githubGitHub. Collaborate on software development online. Hosts code review and code management for both open source and private projects. Free accounts for public projects. Private accounts start at $7/month for personal plans and $25/month for organizations.

beanstalkBeanstalk. Another alternative for private code hosting for teams. Version control, access restriction, and anywhere-access from the web and mobile browsers make it popular with users. Freelancers can get a free single-user account with one private repository. Five-user plans just $15/month.

Hopefully, you’ll find these suggestions helpful. Do you have other resources you can’t live without? Let us know so we can add them to our Lean Startup Toolkit.

And happy launching!

Are You a Visual Thinker?

Whether or not you know it, you’re probably a visual thinker. Most of us are.

More importantly, most people with whom we interact on a daily basis are also visual thinkers. So communicating visually offers a significant advantage for those who do so.

In psychology, visual thinking is that which results from perceiving or processing visual stimuli, forms, or patterns. Or in layman’s terms, “a picture is worth a thousand words.”

Using visuals makes information easier to convey, process, and remember.

But what does this mean to you? Let’s take a look at some examples to determine whether you are a visual thinker.

Visual Thinker Example No. 1. Visualizing  Instructions

Which of the following do you find easier. Directions given verbally (or written down) or shown on a map?

Q. Can you tell me how to get from the Broadway-Lafayette Station to the Ukrainian Museum, with a quick stop for coffee at The Bean?

A. Sure. From the station, you want to go east on Houston Street across Bowery, then take a left on Second Avenue. You’ll go about three blocks to The Bean. Then, to get to the Ukrainian Museum, you’ll want to continue north on Second to Sixth Street, then go left. The museum will be about mid-block between Second and Third, on the right.

Or you could use a map, which lets you “see” where you are and where you want to go.


Visual Thinker Example No. 2. Visualizing Concepts

A new house is built on an empty, graded lot. Few of us are gifted with the artistic or creative skill to look at it and imagine an attractive landscape. Even if the landscape designer meets us on site and gives us this description:

I see an inverted “V” shaped walk path to the front porch, with some large stones, Japanese maples and shrubs in the path divide. We’ll use freeform turf along each side of the path and wrapping around the sides of the house. A variety of trees and shrubs will be placed along the front of the house—inkberry, fatsia, summersweet. Along the perimeter of the site we’ll incorporate larger trees such as abelia, goldenrain, and tea olives. Off the dining area we’ll do a patio with a pergola.

Or do you find it easier to visualize the finished product with a landscape plan, such as this?


Visual Thinker Example No. 3. Visualizing a Process

Have you ever tried to explain something to someone, then in the middle of the instruction, stopped to look for a pencil and paper so you could draw a picture or diagram to make it clearer? Here’s an example of a process that might need to be explained to a new employee at work.

When you receive a report request, first submit it to engineering. The engineer will run a database query and produce a report. You’ll need to review and validate the report. If it needs refining, send it back to the engineer. Don’t accept it until it meets all of the requirements. Once it’s acceptable, you can send it back to the person who requested it for presentation to management.

Or you could hand them a workflow diagram, like this.


Visual Thinker Example No. 4. Visualizing Data

It’s easier to process and remember information when it’s presented in visual format. An infographic is a great way to show important information in a memorable way. Let’s look at some statistics about changes in oil production and consumption, for example. First, let’s use a table.


Now look at the same data, along with other related information, presented visually in an infographic.


Without getting into a discussion about the data and trends, which of these presents the same information in a way that’s easier to digest and remember?

Just for Fun – Visual Thinking Puzzles

You’ve probably seen some version of these puzzles before. This one came from an article written by Marcel Danesi, Ph.D. in an article published in Psychology Today. It’s an interesting read. These puzzles challenge us with “whole-part” thinking. Take a look. How many rectangles and triangles do you see?

Triangle-puzzleAs Professor Danesi points out, these can be frustrating, because it’s not uncommon to come up with a different answer each time you count the smaller pieces of each diagram. These types of puzzles challenge us to look past the obvious, to avoid “not seeing the forest for the trees.”

I’ve included these puzzles to illustrate an important point. A visual isn’t necessarily just a picture. It’s a form of communication that may take many shapes. A visual thinker doesn’t just look at a picture. He or she processes the information contained within it.

But regardless of the form it takes, the visual is a powerfully effective way to communicate almost any kind of information.  Fortunately, today’s technology allows anyone to easily communicate using a wide variety of visuals.

(For the answers to the above puzzles, see Professor Danesi’s article.)

So, Are You a Visual Thinker?

This article is just an illustration, not a scientific test. But chances are you and those around you think and learn visually. Using even simple visuals will enhance the clarity and effectiveness of information you communicate.

Using visuals also makes communicating information more interesting and enjoyable.

“Bright Idea” image created by Nevit Dilmen. Used under creative commons license through Wikimedia Commons.

Lean Startup: The Right Strategy or Fool’s Gold? a business may be one of the most exciting things you’ll ever do. But it isn’t something to take lightly. According to a Harvard Business School study, about three in every four business startups fail[1].

Naturally, entrepreneurs should do everything they can to improve their odds. Many are turning to a strategy known at the Lean Startup.

Here are three frequently cited obstacles to startup survival and how the Lean Startup strategy seeks to overcome them.


These obstacles also apply to many mature companies. The Lean Startup strategy is the answer for both new and existing organizations, according to its proponents.

Yet others disagree. Some of them strongly disagree.

To help you decide whether a Lean Startup is right for you, let’s take a look at this seemingly logical concept and the reasons why some regard it as fool’s gold.

Lean Startup Philosophy

The Lean Startup strategy is actually pretty simple. It encourages the entrepreneur to get a minimum viable product (MVP) into customers’ hands as soon as possible, then test it, learn from it, and refine it into a finished product. Doing this allows the business to learn what customers want and to focus its development efforts accordingly. This is known as the build-measure-learn feedback loop.  

The concept was presented by tech entrepreneur Eric Reis in his book, The Lean Startup: How Today’s Entrepreneurs Use Continuous Innovation to Create Radically Successful Businesses. While originally geared toward technology companies, the idea has expanded to encompass nearly all industries, and is even being applied in the government sector.


The strategy draws upon the tenets of Lean manufacturing—the elimination of wasteful practices with a focus on customer satisfaction through continuous product and service innovation. It also applies techniques used in Agile software development—applying iterative and incremental steps in product creation. A Lean Startup incorporates uses of Lean and Agile diagrams such as 5 Whys analysis, A3 Thinking (which can used to create a lean canvas—a specialized A3 thinking diagram for business models), Process Mapping, and Kanban boards.

Here’s how the Lean Startup aims to overcome the obstacles mentioned above.

Obstacle 1: Incomplete Business Plan

A recent article, “Why the Lean Start-Up Changes Everything,” by Steve Blank, appeared in the Harvard Business Review. (Blank is an associate professor at Stanford University; Eric Reis is one of his former students.) It discusses the “fallacy of the perfect business plan.” Blank likens the futility of trying to accurately predict a five-year business forecast to a comment Mike Tyson once made about his opponents’ prefight strategies: “Everybody has a plan until they get punched in the mouth.”

According to Blank, most businesses don’t survive their first contact with customers. So while existing companies execute a business model, startups look for one. The Lean Startup is “designed to search for a repeatable and scalable business model.”

The Lean Startup philosophy is more interested in getting a product into the hands of potential customers quickly than spending a lot of time on hypothetical business forecasting.

Obstacle 2: Untested Market Demand for the Company’s Product

Developing a finished product is often a time-consuming and capital-intensive undertaking. Worst of all, a traditional approach may produce an untested product that misses the mark and results in failure of the enterprise. The Lean Startup works around this issue through the MVP and a concept known as the “pivot.”

The MVP, or minimum viable product, is a product that has just enough features to be deployed for testing to early adopters. This is a group of prospective customers who are savvy enough to understand the company’s vision through an early prototype model, and willing to offer feedback. The idea is for the company to avoid, as early as possible, building a product that customers don’t want. Developing an MVP is the first step in the build-measure-learn feedback loop.

In a pivot, a business hypothesis about the product, business model, or engine of growth is tested. If it fails, then a corrective course of action is taken.

Creating a product in this manner becomes an iterative process between the business and its prospective customers.

Obstacle No. 3: Lack of Adequate Funding

It’s no secret that most startups fail due to under-capitalization. But is it just a capitalization problem? Or is the real issue that all too frequently, startup capital is depleted during the development of an end product that customers simply don’t want.

The Lean Startup approach is intentionally geared to reduce the need for heavy upfront capital investment. This is done by quickly (a) building a basic product (the MVP) for launch, (b) testing the market’s acceptance of it, and then (c) iterating the product or service through innovation and customer feedback.

Lean Startup: A Model for Existing Companies, Too

The concept of the Lean Startup isn’t just for startups, according to Steve Blank. In our fast-paced world, things change rapidly. Markets face continual disruption. Businesses, regardless of size, must be adaptable. Innovation is replacing domination (think about how new technologies ended the dominance of Microsoft, for example.). The old “business as usual” paradigm doesn’t work any longer.

Whether a start-up or an existing business, Blank is adamant about one thing: companies have to understand what their customers want. “It’s easier to avoid failure if you build a customer-centric business. You need to get your hands dirty.”

Counterpoint: Drawbacks to the Lean Startup

It certainly wouldn’t be fair to discuss all of the wonderful things about the Lean Startup without mentioning that the concept also has detractors. One of these is entrepreneur/author Jon Burgstone. In an article he wrote for Inc Magazine, Burgstone discusses what he sees as a major flaw in the concept of going to market with a minimum viable product.

While he agrees with the concept of customer feedback, Burgstone says that taking a “lackluster product” to the market is, well, “insane.”

He points to Facebook, Google and Apple’s iPod (more thoughts on this later) as examples of products that weren’t the first to hit the market in their respective niche. Rather, they took similar, “lackluster” products and made them viable.

“Perhaps smart entrepreneurs should watch the efforts of lean entrepreneurs and then pull an Apple, Google or Facebook on them,” Burgstone says. 

John Finneran writes about software, IT, and financial services. His blog article, The Fat Startup: Learn the lessons of my failed Lean Startup, makes it pretty clear where he stands on the idea.

Unfortunately, Finneran’s software startup took an opening round, Iron Mike-style punch in the nose. The first customer demo was a disaster. “Though charmingly polite, our clients were humiliated by the demo and too irritated to ‘iterate’ our minimum viable product with us.”

There were lessons learned. Finneran calls them “unlean” lessons.

The ideas of using “early adopters” and “earlyvangelists” may be unrealistic. “For every customer or prospect we talked with, the risks of innovation (failure and losing their job) far outweigh the hypothetical benefits we proclaimed. Customers just want reasonably priced software that does its job, not help you launch your Lean Startup adventure.”

Finneran offers four “unlean lessons” for anyone considering a software startup:

1.    Mediocre execution will kill your startup.

2.    Forget MVP—narrow the scope until you can develop an extraordinary product.

3.    Fund your marketing budget sufficiently.

4.    Beware of any “shrink-wrapped utopia offered by the entrepreneurial dream industry.”

So, What Is the Answer to the Lean Startup Question?

Is the Lean Startup a viable, valuable alternative to the entrepreneur? Or is it just another idea offering great promise but lacking real rewards?

Before I offer my $.02, I will tell you that I’ve done a number of business startups in my life. All of them were before I knew anything about the concept of a Lean Startup. So whatever knowledge I have is purely observational, not experiential. But to me, the concept makes a terrific amount of sense.

I’ll also tell you that it’s a lot easier to be a critic than an innovator. So I applaud Steve Blank and Eric Reis for their innovations.

As to the two dissenting opinions offered, I’ll give John Finneran his due. At least he attempted to follow the Lean Startup formula. It clearly didn’t work for him. Was this the fault of the method or the practitioner? I can’t say, but I think his “unlean lessons” are worthy of entrepreneurial heed.

Both Finneran and Jon Burgstone throw MVP, categorically, under the bus. In doing so, I think they’ve both gone too far. I believe they’ve misinterpreted what an MVP is supposed to be.

Burgstone calls the MVP a “lackluster product.” Have I misread or misunderstood what I’ve learned about the Lean Startup philosophy? I don’t think so. To me, there’s a huge difference between a “minimum viable” and a “lackluster” product.

For example, Burgstone cites the iPod as an example of a new device that replaced a lackluster product to dominate its market niche. This is true. But he overlooks an important historical detail. The iPod started out as an MVP—prototyped, tested, and iterated based on results of feedback. One has to wonder, had Apple focused all of its attention on developing a final product, would it have been the awesome iPod we know today? Or might it have been something… dare I say… lackluster?

The key point is this: Minimum Viable Product and Lackluster Product are not synonymous. If your product is a piece of crap, by definition, it’s not viable. An MVP should be an awesome product—with the minimum feature set needed to make it worthy of testing. No more, no less.

To throw out the entire Lean Startup concept over a misinterpretation of what constitutes an MVP is, to me, a potentially huge mistake.

So, is a Lean Startup right for you? As with anything, much will be determined by the practitioner. Producing a shoddy product and hoping market testing will make it viable won’t work. Insufficiently funding your startup with enough capital will, most likely, be fatal.

You have to be informed, prepared, and capitalized.

So go ahead and be Lean. But be smart, too.

And build something awesome.


[1]According to research done by Shikhar Ghosh, a senior lecturer at Harvard Business School, based on a study of more than 2,000 companies that received venture funding from 2004 to 2010.

Winter Olympics 2014 – Infographic and Schedule of Events’s that time again for Olympic glory. With the Winter and Summer Olympic Games on a two-year rotation opposite each other, it seems like we are never too far away from the most engaging international sports competition.

The athletes. The medals. The host country. Sports fans around the world attend or tune in to the Olympic Games for varying reasons but mostly for the pride of their country.

And over the past 20 years, we the spectators have witnessed some of the sporting world’s most unforgettable moments. Below are a few fond “thrill of victory” memories. Do you remember when…

Dan Jansen finally won the gold medal in 1994 after failing to do so in 3 previous trips to the Winter Olympics?

Or how about when Austrian skiier Hermann Maier, aka the “Hermanator” dominated in Nagano 1998, just days after a spectacular, seemingly death-defying crash?

Or what about Jimmy Shea’s accomplishment of being the third member of an American family to appear in a Winter Olympics and went on to be the first U.S. athlete ever to win the gold in men’s skeleton?

Just in case you’re wondering… yes, I do remember the Miracle on Ice (hope you enjoyed the video above), as well as the Jamaican bobsled team’s inauguarl entry into the Olympic bobsledding competition but I did state “moments of the past 20 years.” Hard to believe those significant Olympic events happened well over 25 years ago!

Not all memories are so wonderful, though.

Who could forget the Tonya Harding / Nancy Kerrigan scandal surrounding the 1994 ice skating team? As you recall, an associate of Harding’s ex-husband clubbed fellow U.S. ice skater Nancy Kerrigan in the leg. The attack on Kerrigan was intended to boost Harding’s ability to compete on the U.S. ice skating team.

Or the death of Georgian luger Nodar Kumaritashvili just prior to the 2010 Winter Olympics as certainly one of the most somber of memories.

If you are excited for this Winter Olympics 2014 to begin in Sochi, Russia, below is an infographic about the Winter Olympic Games of the past 20 years along with this year’s schedule of events.


What are your favorite Winter Olympics memories? What are you looking forward to most in the 2014 games? Share your thoughts with us, and enjoy the games!