Lean Startup Anti Patterns

Todd Wyder


Andrew Koenig in his seminal book, AntiPatterns, describes an anti-pattern as a pattern that may be commonly used but is ineffective and/or counterproductive in practice.  He goes on to say there are two key elements in an anti-pattern:

  • Some repeated pattern of action, process or structure that initially appears to be beneficial, but ultimately produces more bad consequences than beneficial results, and
  • A solution exists that is clearly documented, proven in actual practice and repeatable.

 As I am working with some of the folks in the Lean Startup Challenge, I am seeing several anti-patterns that I thought I would share, so you could avoid these pitfalls.


Using Proxies for Customer Development


Using surveys instead of customer interviews.  The thinking is that they can get more responses quickly (quantity over quality) or they already know what the market needs, so a survey will just confirm that (they are a proxy for the market).


Slow, painful death.   Because the entrepreneur isn’t getting high-fidelity, detailed feedback about their problem and solution, they take the survey feedback to be an indicator that they are right and thus end up building something no one will pay for or needs.  Entrepreneurs tend to have reality distortion fields and survey results fuel them.   Because they aren’t doing interviews, they miss the nuances of the customer interaction, which would tell them that their problems isn’t that important to them, but there is another related problem that is really painful.


Get out of the building!  To quote Patrick Vlaskovitz, “If you are pre-Product/Market Fit and you aren’t actually “Getting out of the Building” (actually talking to your customers), you aren’t doing Customer Development, and your startup isn’t a Lean Startup.”  So, go out and interview customers.  Don’t hide behind a survey.  If you are going to be an entrepreneur,  you have to get good at talking to customers.

For more on this:




Asking folks outside the market their opinion


Posting on startup boards for folks to give them feedback on their MVP, logo, splash page, prototype, value proposition, etc., where startups are not their customer.  (Note: if startups are your customer, see below).  Also, using crowdsourced feedback such as UTest, Feedback Army, Usertesting.com, etc.) where the testers are not in one’s target market.  Also, asking feedback of one’s friends and family, even if they are in the target market.


Again, slow, painful death due to building something that nobody wants or is willing to pay for. Because the folks who are giving their opinions are outside of the entrepreneur’s market, the entrepreneur isn’t getting the same type of feedback as their customers would give them.  Thus, they are deluded into believing they know what the right thing to do is.   Other startups want them to succeed as do their friends and family.  The startup is trying to get feedback from those who are easiest to approach.


Again, get out of the building.  Ruthlessly focus on getting feedback only from those in your target market.  They will tell you what works or resonates and what doesn’t. 


Lack of focus


The entrepreneur has more than two or three customer segments and is trying to validate all of them.  Another symptom of this is the entrepreneur has an overly broad customer segment that isn’t easily defined other than something like women 20-40.  Both of these symptoms are typically accompanied by the belief that if they left someone out, they would be losing a market.


Paralysis, probable asphyxiation, and inability to validate the business model.  The entrepreneur gets conflicting information from a broad audience and isn’t able to nail a laser focused business model.  They also are not able to identify the early evangelists from the broader market, so will run out of money when they try to market their product due to ineffective marketing.


Figure out who the early evangelists are.  Trim down your market until its just a micro-segement. The other segments will be their later.  Remember that Facebook started out as an app just for Harvard folks and then they expanded to other schools.  In my own company, which serves commercial real estate brokerages, we segmented down from all commercial real estate to being focused on retail, from all brokers to just tenant brokers and from all geographies to just Chicagoland.  Choose a small, identifiable market of those folks who are likely to be early evangelists and get a razor sharp focus on them.  Then you will find out if it is the right market or not.  If not, one can pivot.  But failure to focus means lots of wasted time.


Startups/developers as a customer segment


The entrepreneur sees a problem in starting their own business and goes to startup events and talks to other startups that resonate with that same pain.  So, they have a focused market, where they can get great feedback and encouragement.  The developer version of this ailment starts as a painful development problem that the developer figures out a way to solve and knows lots of other developers who have the same problem.


Loss of oxygen due to hemorrhaging of money and time.  While the startups and developers all agree that it is a very painful problem that needs solving, they will ALWAYS choose a free option that doesn’t work as well, do it themselves (typically in the developer manifestation), or go without because they don’t have any money.  Think about it, if you are in a startup or are a developer and are reading this, you know what I mean.


In the startup form of this ailment, pivot into small – medium sized businesses.  They may not have the exact form of this problem, but likely have a related problem.  For the developer, just open source it and get your cred.  Then find a business guy who has a kick ass idea and work with them.  There are tons of them looking for you.


I hope this was helpful.  Please let us know some lean startup anti-patterns you have found.




Post a comment

or to post comments


Russ U

I agree with this, in part.


That is, I don't believe that you need to disregard surveys, for example. Surveys, in conjunction with talking to real users, or even a similar segment, can provide a lot of information.


Combine that with frequency and variable approaches, and you can learn a lot in a short amount of time.

The point is, of course, that you should not rely on any one method with a dogmatic approach. If you want to approach other options, try multiples, until you get a "point of least astonishment" (or a point where you can start to be predictive in behavior and responses based upon previous respondents). Analyze the data, look for patterns and understand what's happening.


In terms of "asking people outside of your market for their opinions", this falls into a similar boat. It should be more than acceptable to find a small set of these people to talk to and to gather some "oh sh¡ts" about your material, particularly before investing in the spend to identify and speak to those in-market.


I think you're mostly saying to get out of comfort zones and don't fall into these obvious traps, but it's important to note that all of these things have a degree of "yes, and..." to them.

Paul Katsen
Thanks for the post, Todd. Very helpful anti-patterns. You can't build a foundation with surveys, but it will take too long to build the whole house on interviews. You really need a good mix to get a deep understanding of a customer.

Oh no!

You're fresh out of job post slots.

Upgrade your planmanage current jobs

Create an account

Let startups find you

Create a profile and upload your resume today.

Explore the local startup scene, find your
dream job and hang with fellow techies.

No sales pitches, just awesome original content.

Oh no!

You're fresh out of job post slots.