Inspired by the lean software movement

By | November 13, 2015

The following is a draft chapter from Lean Media 1.0. I need your input! Please let me know what works and what doesn’t work in the comments section. Also, if you know someone who would like this, please share it with them!

I’m a media person. I’ve been involved as a producer and manager in various sectors of the industry for my entire adult life. In the early 1990s, I worked in the music business for one of the most successful British dance/pop acts of that era. I also worked for an Asian television network, and later that decade for a daily newspaper and a technology magazine. In the 2000s, my career shifted online. I started with simple websites, and worked my way up to blogs, podcasts, online video, and a slew of experimental sites including a news aggregator and a prediction market. Later, I cofounded a mobile software company and bootstrapped a digital publishing venture.

Over the years I’ve been involved with scores of product launches, new brands, and media experiments. Some succeeded. Most failed. For a long time, I was apt to blame failures on insufficient planning, poor marketing, staff issues, lack of management buy-in, as well as factors beyond my control — strong competition, technology shifts, and economic crises. The successes could be attributed to having a strong team, a solid vision, and a few lucky breaks.

My way of evaluating media changed after attending an October 2010 talk by Eric Ries, a software developer and author of The Lean Startup. Earlier in his career, Ries cofounded a company that attempted to capitalize on the instant messaging craze. As CTO of IMVU, he was responsible for developing a product that used avatars to connect with multiple IM applications. The team planned lots of features, which ended up taking six months to develop.

The initial product was an utter flop. No one downloaded the software, and only after interviewing some testers did they realize most of their initial assumptions about their target audiences were wrong. Testers liked the avatar concept, but hated the IM connections. IMVU ended up throwing away thousands of lines of code before finding a model (based on a 3D virtual world) that worked.

Ries realized that IMVU’s initial top-down approach to product development was flawed. The team had wasted months creating a complex product that no one wanted. However, once they started to listen to what their users were saying, interesting things started to happen. [sum up Ries positive experience with lean]. Ries eventually articulated a framework for product development that drew on his experiences as well as Toyota’s “lean” approach to automobile production (see Chapter X).

This idea immediately clicked with me. Ries’ focus was on software and technology startups, but I realized that the things he was saying about product development, feedback cycles, and speed applied to media content as well.

I had seen it with my own eyes. Print content, websites, video, music and other products that were developed with lean qualities in mind had many positive attributes. They were cheaper to produce, they made it to market more quickly, user feedback loops started sooner, and they were more fun to work on.

Conversely, products that took the “fat” approach — large teams, top-down directives, planning by committee, secretive tests, etc. — tended to encounter problems. They required more staff and budget commitments, took a long time to complete, and more often than not led to mediocre products or expensive failures.

Just as Ries had articulated a framework for lean software startups, I wanted to create a lean framework that was specific to media ventures. While media and technology startups share some commonalities, there are some marked differences in the way a band or a video producer or an online editor approaches their products (content) and connects with customers (audiences).

Creativity and “brands” figure prominently. By comparison, a tech company that makes a gadget or a programmer that develops a service tend to work under technical and business constraints that require a different style of innovation and iteration.

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