Lean Startup Productions CEO on disrupting the conference

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The Lean Startup is a book, a movement, and a method known by many. In short, it can be said that the Lean Startup philosophy "seeks to eliminate wasteful practices and increase value producing practices during the product development phase." But, let's take a step back and look at how it all got started.

Then, we'll jump forward to how this innovative approach to business has spread and helped to disrupt more than just the common workplace. For that, I turn to CEO and co-founder of Lean Startup Productions, Sarah Milstein.

Sarah Milstein of Lean Startup Productions

In my interview with her, I told her how my team operates on a foundation we call "the open source way" which has similarities to the Lean Startup methodology. For one, where we say and do "rapid prototyping" the Lean Startup believes in customer feedback during product development and continuous deployment. These are also two pillars our team upholds at every turn: actionable metrics and structured course correction.

Read on to learn about the roots of Lean Startup movement, the purpose of Lean Startup Productions, and how Sarah turned their conference speaker line-up on its head.

Jen Wike Huger (JWH): Could you give readers some background on what the Lean Startup is all about? Did it begin with the book? How did it change people's perspectives? Specifically, I was wondering if you and Eric Ries noticed managers changing how they managed, and then employees, how they worked?

Sarah Milstein (SM): I'd say that it started by people looking at the ways that we built companies and the way we built products, and they started to question those and come up with new ideas. This group of people started doing that in a couple different ways.

One of them is my business partner Eric Ries who wrote a book called The Lean Startup, as you noted. But, before he wrote a book he was blogging for a number of years. He started blogging in 2008 about these ideas, about how to rethink traditional product and company development. And, the idea resonated with a lot a folks and the blog became very popular long before he had the book contract. I think that's where a lot of the early conversations were happening. He also started speaking at conferences, including the 2009 Web 2.0 conference, which is one of the first places where he and I met. But those were the early days for a bunch of formative ideas and there were other folks, too, who were writing about similar, related things. Steve Blank published a book called The Four Steps to the Epiphany. Other people like Sean Ellis were writing about related ideas about product market fit, so there's sort of a collection of folks who were focused on these things.

Eric has done a good job of synthesizing a lot of the ideas as well as generating a whole bunch of new ones himself.

I was drawn to the idea because it really resonated with me and my own experience of product and company development where things seemed like we were working based on what we should do rather than the reality of what we could do. And this is when we weren't working with a lot of customer feedback, even though we had a lot of customers, and I thought, 'there's got to be a better way.'

So, his ideas really resonated with me, and when you ask if we've seen people start to change their management behaviors—over a long period of time, yes. I would say that for a lot of folks, the ideas really resonated, as they did for me, which is why Eric's blog was popular, and why Random House wanted to publish a book about it. But I think the very specific questions of management techniques is a tricky one, because managers and leaders in companies really have to change how they're behaving for the ideas to work. You have to really start thinking about trying to seek information rather than seeking profits as your varying term goal.

I would say that a question that a lot of people get is around, 'oh we want to talk to our customers more' or 'we want to test out ideas before we throw a ton of resources into them,' but understanding how to really build a learning organization, that's an ongoing process for lots and lots of us. Another way to answer it is, yeah, I mean everybody uses these techniques all the time now. It's true.

JHW: That makes a lot of sense. My manager read The Lean Startup and immediately passed it on to me and said, 'read this, it's excellent.' So, I think that thinking, the Lean Startup thinking, is kind of second nature for a lot of people now and everybody is on board and agrees that it's a great way to do work. So, it's not surprising that it was picked up and adopted quickly, but I think it can be difficult to put those ideas into real life practice. So, is part of what Lean Startup Productions does is shepherd companies through that process?

SM: Yeah, so we have a bunch of different forms in which we teach people management techniques. The Lean Startup Conference is one, we've rolled out a new website called The How, we produce webcasts, and we have a training business. We have a whole range of ways to help people in all different kinds of companies and at different stages learn how to implement Lean Startup ideas effectively.

JWH: How long have you been operating Lean Startup Productions?

SM: Well, the company is about a year and a half old. The conference is five years old, and I got involved in its third year.

JWH: The speaker list is diverse—there are lots of women—which is exciting. What was it like to focus on getting more women and minorities to speak at the conference? Did you achieve your goals and are you happy with it?

SM: I joined the conference in the third year, and in the first two years Eric ran it with a colleague. During that time, most of the speakers invited were friends of Eric's and people he knew, which is a completely legitimate way to develop a conference. A strong trend among humans is that we tend to be drawn to people that are like us in a number of ways, and so his friends and people he knew were a bunch of other white guys. And, they were his speakers and they had good ideas, but it was a pretty limited group in terms of the voices and the diversity of their experiences.

When I came on, I had already been working in conferences at different places for a while and was interested in changing how we found speakers. Eric was totally up for that and was completely transparent about the fact that he had had a very homogeneous group of speakers in the past. There was no resistance on his part at all, and he was very helpful, sort of saying 'here's what we did in the past, we've got to change how we find people if we're going to change what the speakers look like'. So, now we put a lot of time and effort into trying different things to find speakers. When we think of what we're doing to find people who have relevant experience and advice to share but where everybody doesn't already know them: we're not looking to highlight the voices that you can find in other places. Part of our jobs at conferences is finding people you couldn't find anywhere else. And as it happens, when you start looking beyond the well-known people, when you don't look so much at everybody that you know or people who are prominent, you start to turn up a lot more women and people of color. 

JWH: Right, makes sense.

SM: A goal of ours is to make sure that our speaker roster reflects our community and our community is actually quite diverse. It's also a goal of ours to make sure that all of the speakers are great speakers and are really relevant to our attendees. We don't bring in people because they're women or because they're people of color. We bring in people because they're great for our program. But one of the ways that we do that is by looking in places that other people don't look.

It's actually much harder to find women and people of color; just in general, people who aren't as prominent or people you don't know, it's much harder. So I don't want to suggest that it solves itself, but it is a very happy coincidence that our mission of finding people you don't already know and our goal of having a speaker list reflect the community can result in really strong speakers. Those things merge pretty naturally if you're really intentional about it.

JWH: Could you give us an idea of how much work went into it? Is it worth it?

SM: Well, there's no question it's worth it.

I mean the feedback we get from our community—including from white men—is incredibly strong in terms of people's appreciation of a conference that has a really wide range of kinds of speakers. And it just changes the tone of the whole event, and we hear from people all the time that it's very meaningful to them. The conference has grown—it has doubled in size every year since we started doing this.

In terms of the amount of work, it's more work in a couple of different ways. There are two ways that conferences traditionally look for speakers. One is, you invite people you know and you invite people you know of, so you're just purely going out and inviting people who are pretty easy to find, because you already have their email address or they're very public and it's pretty easy to reach them. The other way is to have an open call for proposals where anybody can submit an idea.

Now, both of those things kind of look potentially like they're relatively fair and objective. You're in the business of this conference because you know those people who are qualified to speak and the open call for proposals means that anybody can participate. But the reality is that neither of those systems is particularly fair or objective. They're kind of arbitrary and they're very much rampant, for cultural and behavior reasons, for drawing in lots and lots of white men. And again, some of them will be great speakers, I don't mean to suggest that white men are categorically bad speakers, we have tons of white men who are great speakers; they're just not all of the great speakers. We have many other great speakers who are women and people of color whom these systems don't capture. So, there are not as many prominent women and people of color, so we're not aware of them. We can't just invite them because we don't know they exist. We aren't friends with as many of them, so they're just not already in our contacts list. Especially with a conference like ours, where there's a history of a very homogeneous slate, there's no reason that women and people of color should apply to our conference. They can see that in the past we've only have white men on stage, why would you bother applying?

You can see that at almost every conference that has an open call for proposals they report very systematically that they get 10% or 20% of applications from women and about 2% from people of color. Those are incredibly consistent statistics across many different conferences. And part of what that tells us is that the open call for proposals doesn't resonate with everybody in the same way. Like, I'm not the kind of person they put on stage. But there are other cultural norms in play. We have to really do a lot to find people who aren't being captured by these basic systems, so some of that is just constantly looking out for women and people of color who might be good speakers that we can introduce ourselves to and doing more of that. It's just pure networking and being very intentional about doing our networking outside of the groups of people that we already know or know of. And some of it is, once we know some of those folks, they often can help us hook up with communities and associations where we can put out our call for proposals and we can say, 'look, we know that in the past we sucked at this, we didn't have people like you on stage and we're really looking to change that, here's why. We think that there are many good speakers in your community that we haven't been able to find, and we're using a different system now.'

A couple of years ago we had to really talk about how we were trying to change what we had done before. Now we can say we have a track record and can say 'look, you can take us seriously because we have had lots of women and people of color as speakers and they were terrific.' So, it's a little bit easier, over time.

JWH: How many years have you been searching for people in this new way?

SM: Well, this is the third year, and part of what we do as well is offer speaker training. And, we explicitly say that we are looking for people who are new to the speaking circuit. We're changing the terms of what that call for proposals looks like. Often, conferences are looking for a video from a place we're you've spoken previously. Kind of a 'prove your expertise to us'. And we say explicitly 'that's not what we do'. We're looking for something different.

That definitely makes a difference for who ends up applying. So it all adds up. There's a whole series of things that we do: more networking, we're very intentional about trying to connect with people who don't look like us, who we don't already know. And, the wording of our call for proposals is very careful and very particular, and we reach out to people who might be willing to share with their communities. And, we offer things such as the speaker training that I mentioned. There's a whole series of things and all of those things work together.

So, as I said, that's more work than just putting out your average call for proposals or inviting your friends. You have to keep doing that stuff, you have to be continually aware of how people are perceiving you and how some of the things that you're saying might really not resonate with some of the people that you're trying to find, so that's a continual process. It gets easier every time, but it doesn't end. It's not like, oh we just solved it.

JWH: What are some of the methods you use to find potential speakers?

SM: I spend a fair amount of time reading or surfing, just keeping an eye out for people who might have some relevant experience or expertise. But we don't know what it is, so that's kind of the constant process. I think it comes down to outreach to a company because our conference is very specific. Everything has a Lean Startup angle to it, so it's a little weird to reach out to somebody and say I've read this thing about you, but I can't tell if you really use Lean Startup methods, but we'd love to talk to you. So, we sort of find a way to say that, it's a little weird, but we find a way, and we're still constantly looking for folks that way. And I would say as well, sometimes I just say, 'you seem interesting, here's our call for proposals; if this resonates with you please apply to speak'. So, sometimes we have a direct conversation but sometimes we're just inviting them and they may not have seen us before.

Another big way that we find people is we ask people we know who are the women or people of color if they know someone that would be a good speaking candidate. But, it's interesting. Everybody's unconscious idea of a good speaker is somebody who looks like Mark Zuckerberg. And if you ask specifically 'who do you know that's a woman or person of color who would be a good candidate?', we get lists of really good people of color, and everybody says 'oh my god you should really make sure you have, you know, Sue Lee, or you should have...' The list goes on and on, it's amazing. If you're very specific, people introduce the right people and you get good ideas.

Whenever we have a new call for proposals we ask other people for ideas. Eric and I are both active on Twitter, and the conference has an active Twitter account, so we use those channels as well. Part of it, as I said, has to do with the language of our call for proposal that says who we're looking for. And, we use that language in social media as well, so that makes a difference in who turns up.

JWH: Are you seeing other conferences do this? If so, who?

SM: I got an interesting email from some folks at Intuit. They are running a new conference called QuickBooks Connect. It's in October in San Jose, and I had written a piece last year after the conference about the various things I was doing to ensure a more representative speaker line-up, and the Intuit folks had read that and emailed me to say that they were implementing a lot of the ideas. And, successfully! Because their speaker line up was looking a lot more diverse than it would have if they hadn't really been looking into it. And, the biggest thing that they found was that having the intention to change it was critical.

If you aren't very intentional consistently, it just doesn't work. The way I put it, white men fall out of the sky—it's amazing. Again, many of them are good candidates, but they are not the only good candidates out there. And there are more good speakers than we have spots for, right? And we want to have a representative group, so we have to find some other ways than just standing there with a bucket that collects people falling out of the sky. So here, the intentionality, I thought Intuit just put that really beautifully. The biggest lesson is that you really have to commit to it. And for your particular communities, that might mean finding different ways to communicate and connect with people who are typically underrepresented at conferences. But you have to make a pretty big commitment, and it's not just that one person makes that commitment—and they're like the diversity officer or something—it's something that the people who are leading the conference really have to commit to.

JWH: It seems you need to talk to people differently in order to reach a different crowd, that you need to be aware of what you're saying and how you're saying it to reach different people. But also, you're still talking to human beings who are intelligent and entrepreneurs and people who know what they're doing out there in the business world. So, just having the intention gets you so much of the way, and then you can strive to get on message to talk to different people.

SM: Yeah. And, I think commitment is probably a stronger word for it. There are tasks you have to do; it's not quite as big a stretch to put your mind there. It definitely requires a lot of heads up work, and I think part of that is what you just said: that a lot of this is about reaching different audiences and being sensitive to the fact that what looks to you like very neutral language might actually be very off-putting or unappealing or just doesn't resonate with everybody that you're trying to reach. So, the intention has to then be backed up with some testing with different communities. For example, would you apply based on this or talk to us or do we need to say something else?

JWH: You mentioned earlier that it's getting easier to find diverse speakers, once you sort of learn the better methods for reaching new audiences, but do you feel like your success is growing every year?

SM: Yeah. We can point to our past two years and say 'look, we know we said we were going to do this, and we did it. And we've been really transparent about how we do it too, and we tried some things that do work, and we talked about what didn't work'. So anybody who is skeptical, we've got a nice history to show. So, that makes it easier in terms of outreach and there are more people who know of us and know that we are committed to having a representative speaker roster, so they're more willing to apply or pass it along to friends or what have you. That makes it easier for sure.

We haven't reached a point where women and people of color are falling out of the sky; that's not how it works. It's incredibly interesting that the vast majority of people that we can think of off the top of our heads, that apply through the call for proposal, and that just reach out to us randomly to ask if we are interested in having them speak, are a lot of white guys. But, I think we are getting better at figuring out the other things without just having an open bucket attached to people falling from the sky.

JWH: Have you had any push back on implementing a more diverse speaker line up?

SM: Well, almost none. I mean, surprisingly almost none. Of course we occasionally get a comment on a blog or somewhere or on Twitter, but not that often. These comments say that we're picking people because they're women or people of color, and that it's not because they're qualified. But no, it's amazing. The push back has been very limited.

JWH: Do you respond to that or do you let it go?

SM: Usually other people in the community jump in and say you're not getting the point. When I wrote about our speaker selection process in Putting an End to Conferences Dominated by White Men, that post had the most vile comments imaginable. It was truly a classic troll coming out of the woodwork, but there were a few people I didn't know who responded to the trolls and were like you're not getting the point here at all. In general, I'm sure there are people who think that we're completely on the wrong track and just don't say anything, but fine, that's great, I'd rather not know, because the business is growing, so we're clearly not creating a problem for ourselves or our audience, we're increasing the market and delivering an amazing program.

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Jen leads a team of community managers for the Digital Communities team at Red Hat. She lives in Raleigh with her husband and daughters, June and Jewel.

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