My First Lean Startup Machine: A Network of Possibilities

So hey, I’m one step closer to being a triple-threat model: 3D modeler, photographic model, business modeler.

All joking aside, I was really nervous about joining up for Lean Startup Machine (LSM) workshop this weekend. Sure, I had read The Lean Startup book by Eric Ries, but to apply it as a group in a concentrated 48-hour workshop series was different than reading up on inspiring methodology. After all, I’m most comfortable when I get to hide behind a book to give me insight to the world.

The moment that I stepped onto Decentral where LSM would headquarter over the course of 48 hours, people who are strangers to me did an elevator pitch of their startup idea, and then we coalesced into groups around the best ones to create a viable product-market fit. That’s the goal. And the process is something that would otherwise take businesses a few months or more: We had to create the Minimal Viable Product and present it in front of a panel of judges within that time. Plus, we had to gather as many interviews and people-based metrics as possible to declare whether or not we actually had a useful product, and not just a product that no one would buy.

Organically finding the startup group whose idea appealed to us. Photograph by Rami Sayar.

Organically finding the startup group whose idea appealed to us. Photo by Rami Sayar.

I was anxiously certain that I would stick out like a sore thumb. A burden. I have no experience whatsoever in business, finance, accounting, nor even entrepreneurship. Instead, I have a background in academic humanities theory, 2D and 3D visual arts, game engines, and a tendency towards esoteric and tangential conversations. None of them felt like they translate very well to Lean entrepreneurship. But the tipping point is this: There’s no guarantee that people can derive value (emotional, intellectual and/or spiritual) from my art, and that’s the scariest proposition that any artist have to deal with. Everything else, like my worry for lack of business experience, pales in comparison to this desire to do something about this productive stagnation.

Also, is there treasure at the end of the rainbow? I’m curious.

Also, is there treasure at the end of the rainbow? I’m curious.

This is how I work: You think that this 3D real-time game scene below looks pretty good? Think again. I can name forty things off the top of my head that’s subpar with it: It’s in an old game engine, so the lighting shaders and occlusion aren’t as great as it can be. The amount of weathering and grime between bed, lamp, walls and floor are unmatched, making it look like they all come from different decades. The 3D effect could pop out more for the tiles. The metal frame is too shiny. The mattress should be lumpier. And so on goes the tunnel vision. Believe me, it’s legitimate, this is how professional artists ought to think. Similarly, too, this carries into my level of discernment and aggressive rigour for creative writing.


Even the perfectionists are wary of this. But you learn to be satisfied with what you’ve got, because inevitably there’s a deadline. And I suppose there’s a reason I’m pretty obsessive about modelling hospital-related assets… P.S.: It’s really hard for me to post the blue comic doodles in this post because they look really unfinished to me. I had a huge internal fight with it the whole way through.

LSM teaches the opposite of this type of behaviour. It’s much more proactive, focusing on asking questions rather than executing based on a particular set of parameters. They’re two divergent ways of creativity with some very contrasting set of goals. If I could summarize one of the key teachings of the Lean mindset, it is to not assume anything about your final (or even preliminary) product, no matter how “cool” you think that it is going to be for your potential customers. It’s about not thinking about the solution right away until you know the problem that you are trying to solve, and who has that sort of problem or is in need of a new benefit and convenience in their lives. Put that way, it’s incredibly empowering because you’re putting something together for a non-abstract “somebody”, not just taking something apart to put together for the sake of the exercise.

I'm pretty sure that this isn't the solution to the puzzle.

I’m pretty sure that this isn’t the solution to the puzzle.

At the same time, it doesn’t mean that it has to negate the personal vision. It’s not a zero-sum game. The most non-abstract “somebody” is myself. And I’m trying to tell myself this, even though I know that it’ll be a psychological fight all the way: Don’t work in isolation. Don’t be the artist who completely forgets to look at the discerning eyes of another person while working on that beast of an oeuvre. For creatives, I believe that there are times when, as we hit a plateau, it seems impossible to move past that “block”. It shouldn’t be that way, because all art pieces and all forms of storytelling are conversational. They’re meant to communicate.

Sometimes we just gotta have a heart-to-head. (Heart, be nice!)

Sometimes we just gotta have a heart-to-head. (Heart, be nice!)

Art is also meant to listen. As Todd Charron explained, “Listening is the willingness to change.” Art is often very much about listening to a broader society in order to cultivate a meaningful reflection of it. So, many of the ideas embedded in LSM itself doesn’t necessarily always have to pertain to customers, but it can work as well for audiences or other receptive learners. Instead of asking people, “Will you buy this”, I can always ask “Is this meaningful to you”, should my key goal privilege cultural and expressive values.

Much of what I’ve learned at LSM is really something indescribable because it is the process of learning for yourself and your team – and learning to fail. What I can say is, I agree with Ramli John when he wrote that “LSM is not a rulebook. It’s a mindset.” And there’s nothing to say that mindsets and pipeline-specific methodologies can’t co-exist together. But it will be an experiment all the way, and many testable hypotheses. It’s where I can’t let too many ideas bubble over without being able to look at the basic chemistry behind it all. Fellow attendee Cherry Rose described it best, and even with a drawing: You start off with a lot of seemingly brilliant ideas, but then you test it and find that you can only take the best, and then layer on new ideas, and keep building and culling. Like layers of sediment.

Bear with me, I'm an Arteeste.

Bear with me, I’m an Arteeste.

The LSM learning would not have been so eagerly appropriated by me for potential use in a non-profit centric mode of production, were it not for the community atmosphere there. I love all the learning and shifting of mindsets at the Lean Startup Machine (LSM) weekend. I have not met a mentor that was not supportive and willing to share their insight, as well as give us the necessary push to move us out of our comfort zone. Everything felt well-paced. There’s almost an “aha, I’m joking”, because the pace was so frenetic and kinetic that made you look back and go, “wow, I didn’t realize I was capable of that”. But the point is that we are capable, and we achieved a lot in those 48 hours.

Is LSM for everyone? Not at all. It’s not a stroll in the park, but more like scaling a mountain. I think some would absorb the value of it much better than others. It’s a draining, sometimes heart-breaking process. It’s like going through an emotional relationship in a compressed timeline. It’s all about facing up to rejections, but also moments of high reward because you know things just clicked. But, most of all, it’s about the willingness to learn and listen. The willingness to help others and to be clairvoyant to the strengths and weaknesses in human nature, of yourself, your team, and of the people that you interview to find your customer base.

Our team picture. We actually had to get out of the building to get real customer responses to our ideas. Photo by Ian Gerald King.

Our team picture. We actually had to get out of the building to get real customer responses to our ideas. Photo by Ian Gerald King.

As a “mountaineer” of LSM this weekend, I think that I really got a glimpse of how different the whole atmosphere of thinking at this strata is. To evaluate my performance through this analogy, I think that I packed fairly light but was not really capable to carrying anyone else’s load. Sometimes my gaze would wander to the faraway vista or the flowers rather than the task at hand. And, while breaks are very necessary, sometimes the tangents strafe away from the goal, even if it was only a few seconds of unrelated discussion. One of my teammates, Joe, was very good at getting me back on track, as he never scolded me when I did not comprehend something. Instead, he led the way by kindly re-enunciating the useful examples, once even with diagrams, thus allowing me to more proactively contribute ideas that are more pertinent.

That’s the other thing: Like scaling a mountain, it takes patience with oneself and with the team. This was something that I think that my team members exemplified well.

I think that, by the end of the week, I had made it to the middle of the mountain. I was looking up at the parts where there are icy slopes and deemed it a bit too scary for myself. I was not able to sell a product to a customer, whether it was product concept or an actual, physical prototype, in order to most truthfully replicate the exchange of value with the early adopter. Mike from my team put forth the Herculean effort to do just that, carrying around 10 pounds of our product to our target market.

If there was one thing I wish that I had discussed more with fellow participants, it is how they learned how to become more comfortable speaking to strangers that they ended up getting some really engaged conversations. Team leader Neil and I did have one case of that where we had a young woman get so excited about our product that she told us what design consideration would work best for her usage. I want to know what would trigger that more, and I will ask for more advice as well as just learn by discovery.

Many useful perspectives to scale a mountain.

Many useful perspectives to scale a mountain.

I had asked the question of whether or not the Lean mindset can be applied to “art” projects. MC and Mentor Jason Cheong-Kee-You offered me the open-ended response: When we are designing startups at LSM, much of it privileges text and speech. What has yet to be explored is the power of visual imagery and interaction, both of which game-making exemplify. How we can create simple and meaningful experiences out of those two additional modes to connect with potential audiences is a very relevant realm to explore. And the neatest tidbit? These experiences do not need to be complicated in order for it to be a testable experiment.

To close off, I subtitled this blog post as a “Net-Work of Possibilities” because it really is about understanding how our work and our solutions are tied to a network of different groups of people, whether they are consumers, audiences or developers, and what they each need. Cast too wide of a net, and the product that you have spent all your energies building might be something that is not useful to anyone, and thus not useful to a company. But at the heart of it, it is also about motivation and creation, and thus the core observation and organization skills enhanced through LSM can be adapted through so many kinds of projects, even when maximizing monetary gains is not its primary goal.


Thank you to all those who made the weekend possible: Mentors Jason Cheong-Kee-YouIan Gerald King, Robert Mackenzie, Nick Piquard, Todd Charron, Jane Wang, Rami Sayar, and many others! Thank you also to my team Neil Lachapelle, Mike Imeson, and Joe Goski, whose creative energies are really inspiring! Thanks also to fellow participants Cherry Rose, Padraig O’Shea, Sergey Kalnish, Andrew Witchell, David Lewis, Shuai Zhong, Ashlam Abowath, Fahad Khan, Juan Galt and numerous others for welcoming the sharing of ideas! Hope to meet up with you all again to continue such creative conversations.
6 replies
  1. Adam Gersbach
    Adam Gersbach says:

    Yes! …”key teachings of the Lean mindset, it is to not assume anything about your final (or even preliminary) product, no matter how “cool” you think that it is going to be for your potential customers”

    Awesome! …”What has yet to be explored is the power of visual imagery and interaction, both of which game-making exemplify.”

    Actually there is so much awesomeness in this post – best post I have read regarding lean startup for a long while. Brilliant article Tanya. Thank you so much for sharing.

    I am creating a series of lean startup educational materials for all types of tech teams especially game devs including concept artists and designers. So this post means a lot to me.

    What do you actually have in mind to incorporate lean startup for you as an artist?

    Just in case you are interested let me share my recent experiences – I will try and keep it short which will be difficult ;-)

    These are early days in regards to testing this methodology with a game dev team but I am seeing some really cool results when the lean startup mindset is understood and embraced by game dev teams.

    For example – from one of the 2 teams I have just started working with locally here in Australia: Just by sharing the concept art and overview of the story with a 8 potential players provided responses that inspired new ideas – in fact a series of new characters and objectives. Even a different – a more fun way of telling the story.

    Therefore it’s quite evident even this early in my experiments that asking potential players a series of questions and building relationships during (even before) the development process can steer the game into new places the dev team may have never thought of.

    Another thing I am noticing is the other parties feel connected with the game. It’s like a win/win sort of balanced relationship where the dev team and the other party, which surprisingly could be just about anyone, really enjoy the experience.

    There are other benefits that come about that I am noticing during these very early days but one thing for sure – creating a minimal viable game, the next step for the teams I am working with, is definitely adding excitement for the teams and will no doubt result in feedback loops etc far earlier than anticipated.

    Initially I was perceived as mad by the teams but I was persuasive and it seems to be working out.

    All the best Tanya. I am looking forward to see how you will incorporate lean start methodology for your career.

    • Tanya Kan
      Tanya Kan says:

      Adam, thank you so very much for such gracious ideas and energy in your writing! I am very glad that these ideas seem pertinent to you and hopefully those that you work alongside. I have been hearing that Sydney has been really innovative with new initiatives and with lots of incubator and community involvement in new media and tech startups, so it is not surprising to me that there is interest in creating Lean game development teams! I’m excited what forms this will take as, I, too, have only begun to explore its boundaries.

      I am not even sure at this point how I might incorporate lean startup as an artist and a game designer. I used art broadly in my article, so that it would be applicable to friends of mine who hail from a completely traditional background as well. For my own practice, I have focused more on a 3D game dev pipeline for, game, VFX and visualization, so that might not be the same experience as that of a traditional artist.

      That caveat aside, I noticed that there was a disconnect between 48-hour game jams and how we devs work when we’re not in that game jam environment. After LSM, I believe that it is that the mindset is different, and there’s not been an “in between” where we try to ease back into a more efficient way of thinking about productivity and experimentation but start dreaming too soon about the end product. After all, at the conclusion of a successful jam, you already have a working game mechanic together with the beginnings of an aesthetic. At least, I found myself in a bit of that stagnation regarding experimenting and asking more questions; I immediately want to execute. Additionally, we as a team believe that we have much more time in the world to achieve certain milestones which are very solution-driven. And that’s possibly where the high-octane energy from jams slow down. The other part of it is, of course, you receive feedback, whether from the press or from fellow devs. That dries up when you’re working on your own, outside of jam context.

      For actual techniques, I really do think I need to explore it further. I’m thinking of filming as well about some of these findings, since I love organizing footage and being in front of a camera. Even though it’s a bit of a time sink in terms of coordinating all of that well!

      So, I completely agree with you about the necessity of creating feedback loops, which is exciting for the team as well as the people who may one day become the customers and the early adopters. I think that I actually need to term it not a “minimal viable game” in my head, but “minimal viable concept of a game”. The former already makes me think of something that is more complicated than it needs to be, possibly because I really care way too much about how a product is made (whereas the customer doesn’t really care – ie not how textures are atlased, nor the architecture of the code, just as it works on their system). I hope that I get to hear more about your process with incorporating lean startup methods with those you work with as well! I think they shouldn’t perceive you as mad at all; You’d just be strategizing better to bring that energy from jams forward throughout the development cycle.

      Please keep in touch to let me know how your teams and your projects are doing!

      Wishing you all the best,
      Tanya Kan

  2. Adam Gersbach
    Adam Gersbach says:

    Yes, Sydney is buzzing with several incubators filled with passionate people following the lean startup strategies – lots of activity and very exciting.

    It’s interesting how you noticed the differences in mindset. I focus on mindset quite a bit with my teams and your observations re “in between” have me thinking.

    I’m finding that the whole process of using the lean startup methodologies for any type of project is enhanced and a great deal easier with teamwork. However, working alone for a good percentage of the time is extremely important but it’s evident that creative people can tend to go around in circles or at least become less productive working alone for too long. There are obvious peaks and valleys of creativity which is totally normal but I have noticed that sharing progress and mixing ideas with a team helps to avoid the deep valleys.

    Without getting into any of the details I am working with mini dev cycles, which I am still testing. Very simple but quite effective. Something like… Team – Alone –> Team –> Feedback –> (repeat) all the time being aware of the shared vision – the goal and the next milestone.

    Filming your findings is a great idea especially if you think there is a definite journey ahead of you. The process will surely bring about many insights, perhaps a really deep understanding of the big picture as well as an understanding of the many intricacies.

    I like your term – ‘minimal viable concept of a game’. That is definitely a milestone to arrive at and I can clearly see how that must be a major step along the path.

    I will be sure to let you know how things are going with my work. I was planning to release the case studies in October but it may be sooner if the current pace keeps up.

    I also hope that you continue to share your thoughts and activities relating to this subject.

    You are spot on with, ‘to bring that energy from jams forward throughout the development cycle’.

    Thank you, I really do appreciate this discussion :-)

    • Tanya Kan
      Tanya Kan says:

      Hi Adam,

      Hope that you’ve been having a great week! Sydney does seem to be a place where lots of producers, founders and developers are open to sharing their processes and their experiences! I hope to visit one day.

      The difficulty of working remotely and without an office is a real one, where, in my experience, project leads by necessity would put in more initiative than talents on contract. I want to see if including members of the team and encouraging them to communicate outside of their specialization, even in a broad design sense, may help bridge that gap. As you said, “sharing process and mixing ideas” definitely continues the conduit of positive energy to realize a production cycle. I think that encouraging programmers to understand artists and artists to understand programmers may actually help people feel like they have more access and ownership to the project that they’re part of, and then they are more able to take initiative and deliver results that fit within existing values of the team and company. Also great for learning, because we’re getting over those initial stages of discomfort outside of our specialization. It sounds like something that works, and I’ve heard it applied in other game studios and advertising agencies. And I think that it can still work towards the MVCs of a game!

      Hope to hear more from you as you progress with work! Please connect with me when you have the case studies released as well, I’d definitely want to learn more.

      Thank you for continuing the discussion in turn!


  3. Ramli John
    Ramli John says:

    Hi Tanya, awesome you got a lot out of LSM. I remember the first time I attended LSM, I’ve read the Lean Startup book but really experienced it in the workshop. I also learned not to assume anything! Awesome write-up. Looking forward to hearing what you’re up to next.

    P.S. Thanks for the link to one of my post :)

    • Tanya Kan
      Tanya Kan says:

      Hi Ramli,

      You’re very welcome! Thank you for giving more inspiration to this post, and for enjoying it. I am glad to meet so many diversified and talented professionals at LSM. I think that diversity really contributes to the learning of not assuming anything. Looking forward to keeping in touch!



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