5 Questions for Heather McGough, Co-founder & CEO of Lean Startup Co.
Impact Through Innovation at the Lean Startup Summit in Berlin
During my pre-conference anticipation of the 2019 Lean Startup Summit in Berlin, I listened to a thought-provoking Frontier Academy podcast with Lean Startup Co.’s Co-founder and CEO, Heather McGough, and their Director of Business Development, Stacy Conlon. They focused on the power of entrepreneurship as a core function in successful organizations of all sizes.
This prompted me to read an insightful blog post by Heather about the best ways to manage remote teams. Her thoughts on effective communication got me curious to hear more about her professional path.
So at the Summit in Berlin, I took up an opportunity to interview Heather. Before sharing a synopsis of our chat below, it’s helpful to note that the Lean Startup Co. was founded in 2015, a few years after Eric Ries’ seminal book The Lean Startup was published.
According to Heather McGough, Eric Ries’ latest book, The Startup Way is about transforming well-established organizations to become continually innovative, and better able to respond to changing markets.
Generally speaking, when people adopt entrepreneurial methods, they can increase innovation and entrepreneurial success rates. Specifically speaking, this has spawned a massive and dedicated movement and community.
I sat down with Heather in one of the offices tucked away in the Alte Münze (The Old Mint) building, while Summit panels, interactive talks, and workshops buzzed all around. In front of a wall decorated with neon pink and black tape art, we covered a lot of ground: writing, her roots working with non-governmental organizations, how to increase social impact, and role models.
I asked her 5 questions and here’s what she said.
Q1. How often do you get to write and reflect, given all your duties?
Heather says there is a ton of learning one does as a founder but finding time to write about it and share those learnings can be difficult. Learning how to hire, fire, inspire, prioritize, and set KPIs across products, among other things can take a lot of time.
We discussed the challenge of writing something helpful, wondering if it’s already been said. This was relatable. I pointed out that the act of writing can sometimes lead you to unexpected conclusions, or enable you to create something that resonates with another person in a fresh way.
Q2. What takeaways from your NGO days do you apply to your Lean Startup Co. work?
1) Perspective: Being able to bring focus to your life on what really matters and filter for her team. She says working in Silicon Valley can have a tendency to polarize on money, power, and ego, so this focus and filter is a real asset. Her company is very mission based.
2) Empathy: The ability to put yourself in another’s shoes, like a customer or a team, is vital. (We heard a lot about the role of empathy during the Summit, as it’s key to both good design and good leadership.)
3) Collaboration: This is essential for the Lean Startup community, which is full of allies and highly supportive. (Note the link above to the online circle has international reach and over 80,000 members.)
4) Knowledge Sharing: Value of sharing knowledge freely. As a consultancy, Lean Startup Co. teaches people to fish, rather than having their clients build a dependency. This contributes to the client’s own sustainability and empowerment.
5) Humility: Heather values humility and so does her team. They seek to make the community and clients heroes within their own organizations.
Q3. How do you encourage others to have an impact, as you did in your NGO work?
With regard to the social sector, she says that for every 10 enterprise engagements, Lean Startup Co. does a social sector project, delivering the same first-class service provided to enterprise clients. She says the company does consultant work across government, healthcare, the environment, and energy and often finds similar hurdles to innovation in each. Separately, Heather noted she is serious about focusing next on what’s at stake for democracy, given the current political climate.
Q4. Can you elaborate on “21st-century uncertainty”, a concept you mentioned in your blog post?
Heather says the speed of technology is the slowest it will be in the future. Technology and tools are only going to change more from here, so the modern way of working will need to continually evolve. Naturally, this may lead to some anxiety about change, but that’s also a call to action to transform.
Q5. How would you explain the Lean Startup Co. approach to someone who never heard of it?
Heather focuses on applying the scientific method to creating and managing startups. She says, make sure to build the smallest thing, put that in front of potential users or customers, and see: are they willing to supply something in return for that product or service? The user reaction can be as small as giving an email address, or as big as a credit card payment, but are they willing to have skin in the game? It is a principled approach to product development that helps you steer, turn, and pivot or persevere as you grow a business.
You can also apply Lean Startup to an entire organization and it has transformational capabilities.
From there, some logical steps follow:
- Start small before scaling up within the organization
- For large organizations, pilot Lean Startup. Have such things as a metrics dashboard and work on real problems, not hypotheticals
- Talk to the leadership and show them the learnings as you go
- Later on, you can focus on deep systems in the organization such as how people’s performance is measured
Leaders should be on board and able to explain innovation, helping the mindset to penetrate all levels. Therefore, communication is key.
Role Models, Work Ethic, and Next Steps
I make an effort to share female entrepreneurial stories to give them more light and increase the number of role models for current and future generations. To wrap up this interview, I asked Heather if she had any role models growing up?
She responded simply, that her parents’ work ethic was deeply ingrained in her and she brings that honesty, integrity, and diligence straight into Silicon Valley, without faltering. And I believe it; I ran into a close colleague of hers soon after, who vouched for working at Lean Startup Co. to be the ‘best job she never dreamed she’d have.’
Stay tuned for my next post to be featured on the NBT Thing Thank featuring more learnings from the Lean Startup Summit in Berlin. I’ll include takeaways from sessions on entrepreneurial culture, lateral leadership, failure archetypes, and more.