Posts

,

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.

ParturitionWard_120818_Render03-1020x710

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.

At a terminal: Breakdancing and the globalized dance market

This might be difficult to read but it was harder yet to write, as I have more uncertainty and more questions than I have answers.

By now, it is no secret that I am plateauing in dance. I have this vital need to see breakdancing through different lenses, because this is what I do. Beyond fun, beyond camaraderie, why would I chose acknowledge this cultural practice over others? I am voicing a dialectical reflection with myself, analyzing disparate perspectives that I am given without drawing straightaway conclusions. I have silenced my questions for too long for fear that I might insult my friends who have spent years perfecting their art; friends who highly motivated and conscientious, whom I look up to and call them my mentors. But I must question more fundamentally what my relationship to dance is. It is, after all, a revitalizing exercise to question the basis of one’s reality, if I could stretch this idea so far.

Little little am I capable of, with these small hands of mine.

Proponents of the b-boy world promised this culture to be truly hybrid, identifiable and unalienating to youth, even breaking the boundaries of race and coming to its own in a “global village” sustained by expression. Being part of this world for nearly a year and being a spokesperson of its universalizing merits, I have uttered the very same assumptions. However, in this premature post, I will challenge that assertion and present breakdancing as something with limitations, even though it does offer reforms for the practice and visibility of dance.

Some definitions need to be clarified: I shall peruse the term ‘breakdancing’ over that of ‘bboying’ as more authentic for the phenomenon of what I am to analyze. The distinction is that breakdancing is a terminology coined by the media, often criticized for the inevitable appraisal of the dance’s potential profit-making capability. In contrast, b-boying is a name of respect amongst its ground-level practitioners. However, my contention is that the magnetism of popular media is ever more nuanced than bboys on the whole would identify it as. Indeed, I believe that breakdancing has failed to shake off the mold given to it by popular media. It is empirically observable that breakdancing is a dance style that persists as a profitable fascination in commercial arenas, something that is unprecedented amongst dance styles in scope except for “hip hop dance” that had been christened by music videos from its offset, and disco to a lesser degree if one wants a historical parallel. B-boys are all aware of its associations in trendy, modern music videos, but I hear no haranguing against its non-self-reflexive stuntsmanship. Rarely do I see us take a critical approach against working alongside the hegemonizing big brother media in its mode of address. We still demand the flashing lights, being the nightclub Epicurean, party-know-it-all, MTV-saturated attitude of b-boys lined up like military big guns as the crowning glory of our achievements. This isn’t what the basic language of a cypher circle is about, but it is what breakdancing has transformed itself to under the aegis of popular media, and what constitutes a great part of this generation’s imagination, dancers included.

Is breakdancing’s implicit growth sustained by popular media a necessary evil of its survival as basic techniques, or is its rhetoric merely reification (that is to say, the sociological definition: a hegemonic ideology naturalized by the common citizen which simultaneously supplaints their critical awareness for the power structures that disadvantages and alienates their true interests)? I would say that it is a bit of both: that breakdancing by its nature contains such energetic, blown-up moves that translates smashingly well under the big lights and the visceral Hollywood HD. However, this is not an inevitable, natural progression. Recall that bboying began from the streets as a form of the simultaneous, with its own rites of passage in technical ability that is preset on physical presentation rather than on a marketable culture (the packaged goods of certain shoes, certain brand labels making it big). The image of breakdancing that I see today are squandered in a moneyed exchange more than most styles of dance, especially when I see that it has become a global phenomenon as glorified in the documentary Planet B-Boy. It has become an exportable commodity to reach out to the nag value of the Westernized youth community, to enhance their sensibilities for a new cellphone, a gadget, sweets, Puma fall collection. contend that breakdancing has a crisis of identity even as it spreads globally. How many times have I seen in my mind’s eye the right way to execute a move as something that I’ve seen sponsored by Converse? How often do I hear that the only way to make a living as a breakdancer is to make yourself good enough that you represent the spirit of what you do in commercials? That’s the harsh light that I believe the younger generation of potential bboys absorbs with the blanket association of “breakdancing”.

Is there a difference between the sponsorship of the considered “high arts” – classical dances such as ballet-, and the sponsorship of street style dance? Once again, yes and no. HSBC sponsors Stars on Ice (freestyle figure skating), the Globe and Mail and CTV sponsors the National Ballet of Canada’s ’08-’09 season. Perhaps the less benign example is Stars on Ice, but even the sponsors for the National Ballet of Canada, although they are local media conglomerates, do not offer one distinct product-based business rhetoric that breakdancing thrives through. In other words, these dance styles’ sponsors do not permeate a sustained, militant, overt message of trendiness aimed at the youth to make them purchase particular and specific consumer items (Nikes, Samsungs, Toyotas). My reason for wearying this point is because I wholly believe that it makes a difference in what motivates the base of our creativity.

There’s recently been a recent influx of b-boy crews who reach out to the greater community with youth motivational programs, partly motivated by finding a younger and bright generation to pass on the technical and stylistic elements, partly to ride the wave of interest in alternate forms of more communitarian growth in a child’s athletic and artistic development. I quite support the perspective that a form of dance that emphasizes more groupwork and the pooling of teaching ability is a reform in the right direction from the chauvinized, singular development in some forms of competitive sports. Furthermore, it builds upon spontaneity of space, sound, and all its perceivers, and thus it has the potential to be performance art in the high art sense without being high art.

However, we preclude too much when we rule that breakdancing is inherently more democratic than any other forms of physical expression. Youth programs centered around breakdancing that I see nowadays are the step in the right direction. However, it does not step far enough if it merely gathers interest from pre-teens towards corporate aims. Pre-teens are particularly susceptible because of their expectation of the commercialized cool. Thus, any youth programs applying bboying as an art form should gather that interested energy and transform it into something more sustainable and creative, than being able to chose between one product and another. I’d go so far as to say that it can be this community effort that lends itself further to the survival of grassroots bboying, because the commercial alternative is that a trend is a trend and it will go out after a fashion. So the argument goes if one would see bboying as a subculture rather than just another mutation of hegemonic commercial culture, writ slightly unusual to give consumers a semblance of choice.

Commercialized culture must be readily made palatable to a large audience to be profitable, and has at its disposal an immense fund to play up ideas in order to make attractive a product, thus perpetuating its engine. This is of particular concern to the scholars of previously colonized countries as they are just coming out in their own with distinct political and civil identities, as well as social and cultural representation, and global cultural flows become ever more stringent. For example, sub-Saharan African filmmakers are particularly worried about the Ghettoization of their youth, or the glamorization of the ghetto as emulated from MTV hip hop. Breakdancing, when globalized for export, is therefore immaculately packaged with the raw attitude, the underdog with riches, the big-guns masculinity, and the energetic sexual fetishization. It must be pointed out that sub-Saharan Africans are aware that African Americans mean more Americans than Africans by virtue of their life opportunities and mediated identities. In the space of cultural Africa negotiating still against the subservience of colonialism and neocolonialism, breakdancing could never be seen as something hybrid and a “universally positive language” but a Western one. There’s a fragile line to preserve what’s theirs (“African-ness”) in the arts, when the language of the educated population has eroded to French, a cinematic technology informed by a French-German sponsorship and expertise, political arts seen as continentally bad-humoured, and economics in relative squalor to everyone else’s. The post-colonial generation had thusly sought to revolutionize not only the storytelling to have something relatible by the local masses, but also in the form that it presents its images as distinctly uninformed by Hollywood conventions. My friends, that is a more authentic hybridity than what breakdancing has currently achieved.

An eerie echo of this reification comes the construction of an attitude amongst South Korean bboy crews. History, that is, the telling of the past with the voice of the victorious, is placed into the mainstream in the Gamblers crew’s Battle Of The Year 2005 showcase (as seen on Planet B-Boy). In the performance, the crew is divided into two, one side wearing red and the other wearing blue, signifying the two parts of Korea. They spar with dizzifying array of flares and footwork, but at the end the two sides synchronize in mutual agreement that they share the same values: a reunification. Although clearly intended to be interpreted as a peaceful exchange of “culture” without fisticuffs, this could be seen as a disturbing Western cultural hegemony, precisely what the North Koreans abhor of their racial kin. It also distinctly begs the question of ‘where’s the East?’ in the phenomenon of globalizing street dance markets.

However, I remain optimistic that there can be new insights into a form of popular dance practice that is also not thoroughly informed by commercial rights. In talking about alternative energy, David Suzuki exclaims that “it’s an opportunity, not an impossibility”. He also finds that people tend to care after the environment as a side-benefit in a lifestyle that they conceive as good, rather than care for the environment as a prime motivation in and of itself. So too, I believe that the same can be applied to cultural energies, to see alternative mindsets as not only permissible, but necessary to a well-rounded cultural environment. The very existence of African Cinema as appealing and vibrant to Cannes and New York audiences gives me abundant hope.

Let us, at last, wrap up this chapter of discourse with the following anecdotes. In a number of my posts I have shared some thoughts where my opinion is one informed by film, or literature which relates to it. Suzuki’s declaration is stated in an episode of CBC’s Nature of Things, and my example of sub-Saharan Africa relate back to articles of John Akomfrah and Jude Akudinobi on the resilience of African Cinema. Any university-level film course endeavours to question how we relate to mediated ideology, and how the construction of any ideology can differ from the constructedness in the status quo. I find this to be important in questioning basic assumptions and values that spring from these sources, and what alternative sources can offer. I want to be able to say, you don’t need to buy into mainstream culture, whatever that mainstream culture consists of, and why. I want to believe that we the world’s people are not captive audiences to one cultural hegemon, and I want to be able to prove it.