How To Start Using The Lean Startup SEO Style

Do you remember the very first day in your office? The first moment of walking into the office as the newbie? That's exactly what I recall doing not too long ago here at Distilled. As well as being greeted by all the smiley happy faces, there was my desk space complete with laptop, monitor and a Kindle. Loaded to that Kindle,  an armoury of recommended reading materials including The Lean Startup.

Working my way through The Lean Startup got me asking, why would Distilled ask me to read this and how does it apply to SEO?


What Is The Lean Startup?

The Lean Startup is a book written by Eric Ries based upon pioneering methods of product and business development used in companies around the world such as Kodak, Toyota, Dropbox  and Eric Ries’ own company IMVU.

The Lean Startup talks about entrepreneurship, being productive in an unconventional way and ultimately generating a successful business.

After reading through The Lean Startup, I decided to take some of its principles and see if they are being applied here at  Distilled, and where in the world of SEO they could work.

The Power of Small Batches

Working in small batches is a great way to increase productivity and avoid problems further down the chain of production. It creates an environment where problems can be discovered early and no further progress can happen until a solution has been found.

The Lean Startup demonstrates the power of small batches in an experiment where one hundred envelopes are stuffed with letters. Each envelope needs to be addressed, stamped, filled with a letter and sealed. There are two ways to go about this;

  1. Fold all the letters,  then address all the envelopes, then  stamp the envelopes, put all the letters in the envelopes, and then finally seal all the envelopes.
  2. Fully completing each envelope before moving onto the next one (single-piece flow)
This second method is the counter-intuitive way of completing the process. Our natural instinct is to complete the process using method one, with the belief we will become more efficient because we expect to improve at a simple task we repeat over and over. However when working with bulk our intuition doesn't account for the extra time required to sort, stack and move around the large piles we work with.  In the experiment the counter-intuitive way was actually quicker, and not just in this test, but also in many further case studies.

One of the final stages of this process was to put the letter in the envelopes. But what if at this point we discover the envelopes are too small? We would have just wasted a vast amount time putting addresses and stamps on one hundred envelopes. With a single-piece flow we would of discovered this problem after the very first one!

Use Small Batches Instead Of Bulk

One of the main problems we can encounter as SEO’s is being stuck in a production line. Waiting for one person to sign off a previous piece of work, whilst waiting for drawings to arrive from designers or data from researchers only for it to all land on our desk at once. This creates periods of high and low productivity, opposed to a steady work flow.

For example I have a client who owns and they want to build a localised landing page for all of the cities where they sell blue widgets.

The content list consists of the top 200 cities to buy blue widgets, which is outsourced to be written. A brief is produced and along with the city list, sent to the writers. A couple of weeks later my inbox is overflowing with 200 city descriptions each around 400 - 500 words each. Upon closer inspection I discover the writers interpretation of my brief is way off the mark. It may be that the initial brief wasn't clear enough, but it still leaves a huge quantity of editing to be done.

So how could this problem of been avoided? This is where single-piece flow comes into practice. Reflecting on the previous envelope task it will appear this method may take more time and effort, but as we have already learnt the whole process will actually become more efficient.


Initially send the writer a much smaller batch, maybe even just a single article. Once this article is complete it is returned and edited. Feedback regarding this article is then sent back to the writer so it can be implemented on the next article.

Even though this system may become more time dependant early on, each time this cycle is competed it will fix minor errors, making them much less likely to be repeated in the next article. Overall this will increase the speed at which content can be produced, edited and signed off due to less errors being made, as the result of a more efficient system.

Minimum Viable Product for SEO’s

A minimum viable product helps to start the learning process as quickly as possible by putting assumptions to test. Instead of investing huge amounts of time developing a product, features or campaigns, only to put it out there and find there is no demand, we can roll out a much simpler version and get real customer feedback in a much shorter time frame thus avoiding the potential waste which may occur.

Not too long ago Distilled produced a piece of content for Simply Business titled Simply Business Step-by-step Guide to your Social Media Success. This is a great example of the type of content we as SEO’s can produce on the ideals of a MVP.

If we rigidly stuck to the principles of a MVP perhaps our original starting point could of been to perform a smoke test. Quite simply the idea of smoke test is to find out whether users would be interested in the product or not.  To begin learning at the earliest possible opportunity we could’ve begun by asking a group of small businesses, “Would you like a guide explaining the best way to run your companies social media?” This can be a really useful method of getting feedback on assumptions you may of made regarding your product before investing further time, effort and money. However the feedback could have been as straight forward as “no”. But would this of stopped us building the guide?

It's really important that when building a MVP it has a chance of gaining traction. When giving their feedback small businesses would of had no idea about the depth of this piece of content, therefore completely misinterpreted our intentions by making their own assumptions about the type of product we were going to produce.

Build Measure Learn

The Guide to your Social Media Success was the MVP for a potential series of these types of products. Distilled kept the product leaning towards being an MVP by not investing the time in producing the content within the guide itself to answer business’s questions. Instead we built a list of really great content we thought business’s should be looking at to accomplish social media success, and produced a guide that aimed to be user friendly and remove the hassle of businesses having to do the research themselves.


The feedback gained from this piece was then used to learn how to make future content even better. First of all from the data gathered we learnt people actually wanted this information. Second of all, from the comments and feedback they gave Simply Business we discovered people and businesses found it useful.

This allowed Simply Business to make the decision to move forward with the amount of time and resources they allocate to producing more of this type of content. Building on top of the original MVP concept, they are now producing guides that feature their own videos made from scratch like its Guide to Wordpress for Small Businesses.

A MVP can become a great way for SEOs to receive feedback on the hypothesis we make extremely quickly. So in this case Distilled thought there was potentially a demand for a social media guide. By using the foundations of a MVP we can start to cut down on wasted efforts and use the feedback we gain to aid us in shaping our future campaigns. This feedback will give us nudges towards where we should perhaps pivot (explained further down) in the future.

Be A Toddler, Ask Why... a lot!

Back at LinkLove 2012, Will Critchlow gave a talk titled Mediocre To Great (view the whole video over on Distilled U). He touched upon a principle that features in The Lean Startup and we put into practice when focusing on any piece of work called “The Five Whys”.

This is how Will explains the Five Whys,

This is the idea that in order to fix root causes of things, when something goes wrong you should ask why five times, a bit like a toddler.

Our outreach campaign isn't really working. Why?

Nobody's responding to our emails. Why?

Because the content we're talking about is on a spammy-sounding commercial domain. Why?

Eventually you get to the root cause, you fix that, and everything goes a lot better. That's the idea."

This doesn’t necessarily mean “why” has to be asked five times, sometimes three or four can be sufficient to get you going in the right direction and discovering some solid root problems.

The core idea of the Five Whys is to “tie investments directly to the prevention of the most problematic symptoms”.

The Lean Startup discusses how using the Five Whys encouraged IMVU to build an employee training program. Imagine they had just started to receive complaints about a new product;

  1. A new release disables a feature for customers - Why? A particular server failed
  2. Why did the server fail? Because an obscure subsystem was used in the wrong way
  3. Why was it used in the wrong way? The engineer didn't know how to use it properly
  4. Why didn't he know? Because he was never trained
  5. Why wasn't he trained? Because his manager doesn't believe in training new engineers because he and his team are too busy
What began as a purely technical fault, turned into human error which was caused by the root problem, a lack of training. IMVU could have very simply just fixed the initial error and moved on. However the next time this engineer makes an update the same problem could occur again. By finding the root cause of the problem we can begin to prevent the same errors happening time and time again.

Remember its Five Whys, Not Five Blames

When asking the Five Whys, normally something hasn't quite gone to plan and the results weren't as expected. People have invested their time and effort into this project and all with good intentions. This can make them naturally defensive and try to deflect blame to another department or another reason.

A tactic to avoid falling into this trap is to ensuring everyone affected by the problem is in the room when analysing the root cause. This may be difficult as we all have extremely busy schedules but it's important because the person who is out of the room could easily be targeted as a scapegoat. When blame does inevitably arise it's important for the most senior members of the room to repeat the mantra;

If a mistake happens, shame on us for making it so easy to make that mistake.”
Remember the aim of this process is to get to the root of a problem and not pin the blame on any individual or department. Its about developing a system that will prevent the same mistake happening again and not putting yourself or the client in that position again.

The purpose for using the Five Whys as an SEO may not strictly be limited to just finding root causes and solutions. It can be a great planning aid when stepping out on any project, whether it be a blog article, outreach, or something on a larger scale. Asking Five Whys can be a great way to justify and validate your future decisions.

To Pivot or Persevere?

The final point I want to touch upon is when working on a campaign, at what point do you say, “this just isn’t working”? What if just around the corner is the reward for all the previous effort, or what if that reward never comes?

Eric Ries sums up coming to this decision by making the following statement, “if we’re not moving the drivers of our business model, we’re not making progress. That becomes a sure sign that it’s time to pivot”

As SEO's we are fortunate enough to be surrounded by a huge amount of data and analytics which can be gathered at an extremely high rate. We can physically see if that needle is moving. This allows us to make informed decisions, noticing any positive or negative effects from early on and take the necessary pivots to adjust our strategy to cater for the demands of users, Google and our clients.

The key thing is not to leap from one vision to something completely different. This would just generate more waste. Instead use the knowledge you have gained from previous efforts and instead of disposing of it, make a pivot and use that information to fuel future products and strategies.

We have been doing these pivots (perhaps unconsciously) for a long time. We are constantly having to take pivots forced upon us by the changes Google make to their algorithms. Gone are the days of article spinning and directory submissions. We have had to change our strategies instead now focusing on getting ourselves and our clients to produce quality content, making the internet a place full of pages people actually want!

I genuinely think we can all be more productive and guide our clients to becoming more productive by applying even just one of these methods. What do you think?

Have you tried being “Leaner”  already and what results did you get?

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