Why Ben Horowitz’s Article has nothing to do with ‘Lean Startups’

Ben Horowitz has a great contrarian article about ‘Fat’ startups which has caused immediate reaction around twitter and the Lean Startup community. Unfortunately, his article has very little to do with the Lean Startup concept and a lot to do with reactionary CEOs flipping out about the infamous Sequoia presentation. It also has a little to do with how choosing a name is important. For the record Ben Horowitz is right, but let’s backtrack a little bit.

What is the ‘Lean’ in ‘Lean Startups’

The ‘Lean’ in ‘Lean Startups’ comes from ‘Lean Thinking‘ as used in the streamlined production process pioneered by Toyota. This process is designed to banish waste in a production process. In the specific context of the Lean Startup process, it is to ensure that if you’re going to add a feature to your product there had better be a customer there to love it.

What the ‘Lean’ in ‘Lean Startups’ is Not

‘Lean’ in this context has nothing to do with spending less money. It is about effectiveness. It is about preventing your developers writing code that will never be used. It is about making sure that when you only have only one hundred hours to spend writing code, that as many of those hundred hours as possible are spent creating features that customers actually want. Fundamentally, it is about increasing the amount of validated learning you can get out of your process. To do this might involve increasing the amount of money you spend. It may require spending more money on people who are continually testing that your hypotheses are correct on actual users.

What’s the difference?

In Ben’s article we see CEOs reacting to the Sequoia memo, which makes a lot of sense. Around the startup community it was like a meteor had hit. Guy Kawasaki said that if you weren’t paying attention to this memo then you were clueless. Any available investment money dried up overnight. What Horowitz sees in these investment pitches is CEOs trying to display their cluefulness to potential investors by preaching the ‘Low Cost’ mantra. But he’s claiming that sometimes you need to spend big. Is there a disconnect?

Where the ‘Lean Startup’ becomes a ‘Fat Startup’

The critical mission of a Lean Startup (from Eric Ries’s concept) is to get to Product-Market fit.  Horowitz’s VC partner Marc Andreessen describes it as the only thing that matters. This is where the two stories link up. It’s the next stage in the same process – when you have product-market fit and there is a scalable and repeatable sales model you crank up the volume! All that validated learning turns into a method where a smaller amount of sales effort turns into a much larger amount of money. You spend to get there, and then you spend a whole lot more.


Pumping too much money into a small start-up is unhealthy for both the company and the investor. On the other hand, Facebook has raised several hundred million dollars and is on track to produce fantastic returns for all of its investors. So what’s a start-up to do?

The difference here is one of timing. Facebook had phenomenal growth – users on college campuses all across the country were signing up at an amazing rate. That’s a pretty good indicator of product-market fit, and a different ballgame entirely. At this point the organization needs to scale to meet the demands of the market, and to do that you need money. A lot of it.

Hypergrowth Markets

Both Opsware and Facebook had product-market fit and were racing to gain a dominant position in a market where no clear leader had emerged. The decision to shoot for break-even revenue vs land-grab for market share is a strategic play at this stage. They both chose the process that Geoffrey Moore describes for capitalizing on hyper-growth markets in “Inside the Tornado“, which is a place that most startups can only dream of getting to.

Final Lesson?

Sorry Eric, “Lean Startups” is a terrible name for this movement. There’s been too much confusion with people translating “Lean” into “Spend zero money”.

2 thoughts on “Why Ben Horowitz’s Article has nothing to do with ‘Lean Startups’

  1. Dave thanks for analysing the two. It’s frustrating that Ben Horowitz chose to compare fat with “lean” when he meant “cheap” instead. In fact he actually agrees with lean!

    According to the Oxford English Dictionary:

    (of a person) having no superfluous fat; thin.
    (of meat) containing little fat
    informal (of an industry or company) efficient and with no wastage.

    To summarise, lean means there’s no fat, no wastage and efficient, which defines it perfectly, to me.

  2. I agree that lean is not cheap (Steve Blank wrote a post about that last year which I referred to in my post below). However, as Ben writes in the follow up to his fat startup post (in response to Fred Wilson’s rebuttal) it’s not always clear when you have product market fit. To me, that argues for more caution, not less. It argues for lean, not fat. As David Packard liked to say, more companies die of indigestion (too much opportunity) than starvation. Here are some more thoughts on the debate. http://www.blog.altosventures.com/vc/2010/03/ben-horowitz-makes-compelling-case-for-lean.html

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