- You know nothing
- Suddenly, you know everything
- You realise you might not know everything but you have no idea what you might not know
- You gradually understand what you know a little bit about, and accept that you’ll never know much about anything.
We talk about critical thinking, and in an ultimate irony fail to think critically about what we are saying. At university critical thinking is supposedly one of those skills we are meant to inculcate in ourselves (or that we magically end up with around the same time as we are awarded a diploma on a stage). It conjures vague notions of analysing spreadsheets, debating someone, perhaps being able to disagree with something written on the pages of a foreign affairs journal.
But critical thinking it is to think critically. That is, like a critic. What exactly is a critic? And why should we think like one?
Daniel Mendelson in The New Yorker:
“By dramatizing their own thinking on the page, by revealing the basis of their judgments and letting you glimpse the mechanisms by which they exercised their (individual, personal, quirky) taste, all these critics were, necessarily, implying that you could arrive at your own, quite different judgments—that a given work could operate on your own sensibility in a different way. What I was really learning from those critics each week was how to think. How to think (we use the term so often that we barely realize what we’re saying) critically—which is to say, how to think like a critic, how to judge things for myself. To think is to make judgments based on knowledge: period.”
For all criticism is based on that equation: knowledge + taste = meaningful judgment. The key word here is meaningful. People who have strong reactions to a work—and most of us do—but don’t possess the wider erudition that can give an opinion heft, are not critics. (This is why a great deal of online reviewing by readers isn’t criticism proper.) Nor are those who have tremendous erudition but lack the taste or temperament that could give their judgment authority in the eyes of other people, people who are not experts. (This is why so many academic scholars are no good at reviewing for mainstream audiences.) Like any other kind of writing, criticism is a genre that one has to have a knack for, and the people who have a knack for it are those whose knowledge intersects interestingly and persuasively with their taste. In the end, the critic is someone who, when his knowledge, operated on by his taste in the presence of some new example of the genre he’s interested in—a new TV series, a movie, an opera or ballet or book—hungers to make sense of that new thing, to analyze it, interpret it, make it mean something.”
To think critically, then, is to make the world around us mean something, to us. It is to not simply take your neighbour’s opinion, or your college professor’s, but to develop your own knowledge and taste sufficiently so that everything—whether a piece of furniture or a new movie or a forcefully presented opinion—has meaning to you through your own lenses. It’s basically nothing short of being an individual. That’s why we aim so intently for it—and why we keep improving our critical faculties our whole lives.
Unnoticed by most New Zealanders in May 1939 was the arrival in Wellington of an architect of international stature. Racism, xenophobia and war were driving some of the best minds of Europe to (very) distant shores, and one can only imagine the reaction Ernst Anton Plischke had when he arrived in Wellington with his wife and children. A highly sophisticated and well-educated Austrian, Plischke grew up in Vienna and moved in prominent circles with names across the arts. After graduating from his studies he was immediately recruited by Peter Behrens (who had earlier recruited others central to the Modernist movement like Mies van der Rohe and Le Corbusier); Plischke later joined Josef Frank’s studio, then moved to New York to work for Ely Jacques Kahn (architect of many of the city’s skyscrapers). While in New York he met Frank Lloyd Wright. This is the man—urbane, sophisticated, with a prominent career looking increasingly assured—who, as a Jew aligned to the socialists, fled to Wellington, New Zealand, following the reunification of Austria and Germany.
We do know that life in New Zealand wasn’t the easiest for Plischke. For instance, while working for the Department for Housing Construction—a quickly conceived government plan to cope with looming housing shortages following the anticipated end of the war—Plischke designed the Dixon Street Flats in Wellington. A few years later, his boss Gordon Wilson won the New Zealand Institute of Architects Gold Award for precisely those buildings. It seems that many who he worked with were envious of his talent and whenever possible appropriated aspects of his designs; and as a final insult, his Austrian qualifications were deemed insufficient for him to join the New Zealand Institute of Architects. So, when Plischke finally left his government job, he went into private partnership with a fully qualified New Zealander, Cedric Firth.
During his time in New Zealand (he left twenty four years after arriving to return to Vienna) Plischke designed numerous public buildings, social houses and private dwellings. These certainly set an example. But Plischke also wanted other architects and the public to understand the philosophy behind his buildings—to see Modernism as not just sleek lines and lots of glass, but as a philosophy of living. To this end, in 1947 he published a pamphlet book called Design and Living. It is a remarkable publication, filled with drawings, acting as an architectural primer, a philosophy of modern design, and a portfolio of key Plischke works. For a country facing once again a housing crisis—just as we were when Plischke wrote the book—it presents lessons we appear still to need to digest.
A house is a framework for living
In New Zealand architectural history Plischke is usually presented as one of a band of International Style-ists opposed to any attempt to find a ‘vernacular’—i.e., a ’New Zealand style’—of architecture. Plischke’s kind of modernism has been criticised for being wilfully ignorant of local conditions or culture, for enforcing a supposed rational uniformity on all inhabitants of a building no matter where in a country or even where in the world they reside. This is the same criticism of Le Corbusier’s dictum that “a building is a machine for living in”. People are organic beings, not machines, is the protest.
But in reading Plischke’s own Design and Living one is struck by how far he himself seemed to have moved beyond this kind of international-vernacular debate entirely. In one important section he nods to all the different philosophies of housing, from an ascetic/simple living view, to the Corbusian ‘machine’ philosophy, and even a kind of post-modern ‘home as self-expression’ view. And he then moves beyond them:
“There is the person who says that a house should be essentially a shelter against wind and rain and cold; that any structure which effectively keeps out those elements is a good house. There is the person who wants, besides shelter, something he describes as a snug, cosy home. The man who imagines himself up to the moment will probably oppose that idea and demand that a house should function like a motor-car, or, rather, like an ocean liner: a machine that makes life as efficiently comfortable as possible. Then, we know the person who wants to impress his friends with his success and his worth as a citizen. And we know what his house usually looks like. But there are people who dislike the idea of display, who think that a house should be something more than a shelter or a snuggery or a machine. They realise that a house is a framework in which our lives are lived, and that life does not entirely consist of working, eating, and sleeping. They want a richer and fuller life, and they know that the house they live in can play an active part in attaining it.”
Plischke’s philosophy is far more complex than those other views, but also, in a way, far more simple. Here’s where I think his own origins play a role in having shaped his philosophy. Having grown up in a cultural centre, somewhere where art and culture being discussed at the coffee house was a central part of existence, Plischke sees the buildings in which we live and converse as existing to help bring out those heights of human achievement and accomplishment. Elsewhere he expands on this view:
“Earlier I said that houses make a framework for richer and fuller living: this goes far beyond the materialistic idea that a house should be merely a shelter. A rich and full life can be called a civilised life. And we who belong to a young country just beginning to build should remind ourselves that history does not judge a civilisation by its material and economic organisation alone, but rather by the thoughts and arts that it inspired.”
This is no architect concerned with building monuments to a nation or monuments to himself. It’s almost a modest view—that the best an architect can do is get out of the way and let artists, scientists and workers get on with their lives.
New Zealand housing in crisis
Plischke wrote his book as New Zealand was still in the midst, though emerging gradually, from a housing crisis. The cost of housing was rising; there weren’t enough houses to go around; and government housing programmes weren’t being built fast enough. He had for years been working on social housing developments, and was very sensitive to the charge that as a modernist architect he was elitist, and his homes unaffordable. At various points in Design and Living Plischke responds to that criticism, providing costings for his houses and showing that they fit below the government grant provided for affordable housing.
Though he didn’t put it as simply as this, Plischke seems almost to have a three-point plan for solving New Zealand’s housing woes:
- Adjust expectations
- Build smaller, but more efficiently
- Think at the family, town and city level, not in terms of number of houses built
Way back in 1947 Plischke seemed to take for granted that the way we were building wasn’t sustainable, and that at a certain point we would have to change our expectations about a quarter-acre patch. As he wrote simply,
“The first and most important step towards getting good design and good value would be that we ourselves should revise our taste and our ideas about what we think is good building and good furniture.”
Note that it wasn’t “change the dream of home ownership”, but just that in owning our homes we might need to change our views about the kind of homes we would be living in. This then led on to his view that multi-units were the way to go, and had been unfairly tarnished in the public eye by early failed projects:
“No doubt dissatisfaction can be and has been caused by multi-units when, because of the house shortage, families have had to put up with houses not designed for their needs; but this is rather like having to wear shoes that don’t fit you. The multi-unit proposal is one well worth discussion.”
Plischke thought we could build smaller houses, but not have the impression that we were living in smaller houses. Everywhere in Design and Living he makes suggestions for how to make a small home seem more spacious: use beds that fold-up into a cavity in the wall so that during the day the space can double as a living room; build-in all storage and furniture; put mirrors on the inside of wardrobes so that they don’t need to stand alone, for instance.
And, last, Plischke was adamant that government was using the wrong metrics to talk about housing:
“To many people a housing programme simply means a certain number of houses to be built on a certain area. But a housing programme can also mean the settlement of a certain number of families. You will notice the change of emphasis. The distinction becomes clearer if we think in terms of new suburbs or even of new townships…”
At a time when parties still propose building x or y number of houses, his change of emphasis to the family unit and to suburbs and towns is a good reminder about what is eventually at stake in the building of houses.
— — — —
It is ironic that Plischke’s legacy is still larger in Austria than in New Zealand despite the fact that he spent his most productive years here. Everywhere in Wellington you can see his buildings, from sleek residential buildings popping up over hillsides in suburbs, to his large tower on Lambton Quay. Plischke’s status in the public mind was solidified with a 2004 exhibition at the City Gallery in Wellington put on by the NZ Institute of Architects (the brochure of which I’ve included below).
Plischke’s book Design and Living still seems fresh with ideas, and it’s also fascinating to see how so many aspects of house design that we now take for granted were at one point controversial and revolutionary. It is disappointing that the book is so hard to find—the copy I read was practically falling apart in my hands. Now seems a good time for a re-print, if a local publisher could manage it.
2017 seems an appropriate year for two big shows, the Reina Sofia’s Pity and Terror: Picasso’s Path to Guernica and Tate Modern’s Giacometti. As the White House talks of showing us “fire and fury like the world has never seen”, gallery-goers in Madrid and London can look back to the future and see both how we got where we are and how we know where we’re going. This is particularly useful for those of us born after the Cold War and the age of existentialism, in case we might have believed that everything going on in global politics in 2017 was somehow new.
Here’s what you know before going to either of these exhibitions: Picasso’s Guernica is about the suffering of war, and Giacometti’s sculptures are symbols of existentialism. A woman with her head thrown back, screaming, a dead child in her arms; a gaunt, emaciated man walking onwards, to work or to the grave, but ever going nowhere. The twentieth century saw a lot of both war and existentialism, the latter likely growing out of the former. We know that, but because we’ve seen Guernica endlessly reproduced, and because Giacometti’s Walking Man is little more than a substitute for the word existentialism, it has become difficult to see anything more. The question each of these exhibitions asks is: can we un-see the images and artists we think we know, and re-see them in all their depth and relevance? By contextualising the artists’ work chronologically, can we see and feel afresh the stirrings and lessons the images contain; and might we then see more clearly this familiar world that suddenly seems so strange?
To each question, an emphatic “yes”.
Picasso’s Guernica, painted in 1937 for a giant wall in the Spanish Pavilion at the Paris World’s Fair, is, of course, a reaction to the blanket bombing of the Basque town of Guernica by the German Luftwaffe just two months earlier. Yet before the bombing happened, Picasso had already been granted the commission to produce a painting of Guernica’s size for the Pavilion, and he had been experimenting with ideas for a few months. The original plan was to do a version of one of his favourite themes, “The Artist’s Studio”, and he had completed 12 sketches on that idea (and had even planned to put a bust of his mistress at the time, Marie-Therese Walter, on either side of the painting once hung at the Pavilion). As Anne Wagner, one of the co-curators of the exhibition, notes in an article accompanying the exhibition: “It is as if, in his [Picasso’s] eyes, the end was in sight.”
Then the bombing happened, on the 26th of April. What do you do, if you’re Picasso? You’re already recognised as perhaps the greatest living painter, you’ve been granted a huge commission by your home country (though you’ve lived in France since your youth), you’re on the home stretch with ideas for this, the biggest work you’ll ever produce, and then—bombs are dropped. Hundreds, even thousands, are killed (it speaks volumes that death estimates vary so greatly). A town in your home country is literally levelled, and by a foreign country merely practising bombing techniques, showing the world what it’s got, that it’s the most powerful country on earth… It’s a single event, of which you’re only reading news reports (which are vague, at this stage—some are arguing that the bombing was done by Basque anarchists; and you aren’t even seeing any actual photos, because journalists can’t get in or out of the town for some while), and yet—it changes everything. “The Studio: The Painter and His Model” suddenly seems quaint, to put it mildly, and the planned busts of your mistress now seem just daft, self-gratifying to the extreme. Events outside of your control force you to respond. And just five weeks later, you’ve declared Guernica complete.
In getting at the work’s dualities, the other co-curator of the exhibition, T. J. Clark, quotes A. C. Bradley’s description of the Greeks:
“Everywhere, from the crushed rocks beneath our feet to the soul of man, we see power, intelligence, life and glory, which astound us and seem to call for our worship. And everywhere we see them perishing, devouring one another and destroying themselves, often with dreadful pain, as though they came into being for no other end.”
It’s exactly that kind of duality that we see in all Picasso’s work. Picasso famously said that he never painted subjects, but only themes. Anne Wagner explains in an LRB article how Picasso told Andre Malraux after he had completed Guernica that he had painted death “as a skull, not a car crash”. His other themes included birth, pregnancy, suffering, murder, the couple, death, rebellion… For Picasso, there are hideous contradictions he needs to respond to. Just days before he had been working on a painting glorifying art and artists—himself, essentially—as well as his lover, Marie-Therese. He had been glorifying some of those themes like birth and pregnancy (Marie-Therese had given birth to his daughter two years earlier)—which for him were always associated with his own pregnancy, of ideas, and his giving birth to them in painting. He had been glorifying power, intelligence, life and glory, beauty—themes called into question by a senseless, needless bombing. How do you respond, if you’re Picasso?
It’s this kind of narrative that the Reina Sofia exhibition does so well at capturing. We see not just his sketches for Guernica, but his paintings all the way back to his post-Cubist still lives inside his studio, to his disturbing depictions of tangled lovers kissing/penetrating/attacking one another on a beach. We see his changing depictions of the (many) women in his life, and the themes of pregnancy, birth and suffering. And Guernica, when we do finally see it (albeit, perhaps appropriately, from behind crowds) we can’t help but see it differently. Even though we’ve grown up seeing the mural on coffee cups and t-shirts, it has now regained its poignancy and power, and it seems to contain both sides of Bradley’s description of the Greeks. All the death, murder and suffering, yes—but also all the things that cause us to suffer, like our children and our lovers, our ideas (is it Edison’s illuminating bulb that sits above the wails of terror, or Goya’s lantern from the Third of May?) and our religion (a candle is thrust into the scene through a window, giving us light in darkness and inviting us somewhere else—or is this merely a vigil?).
Swollen breasts, life-giving, hang over the child and point at the man pinned by the spooked horse to the ground. But look again, and are not the breasts shaped like bombs; areola, like explosive casing, and nipples like a trigger? For after all, even the dictator, now dropping bombs, did place his mouth here, did gain sustenance here.
— — — —
In London, at the Tate Modern, Giacometti shows us what humanity looks like when the death, murder and suffering themes win out over their counterparts life, birth and hope. Giacometti was twenty years Picasso’s junior: is this a generational difference, or merely a response to the post-war world? (The two were known to holiday together on the French Riviera, until a falling out, but they remained great admirers of each others’ work).
Walk into the exhibition and in the first room you will be greeted by perhaps fifty busts produced across Giacometti’s lifetime, from the first in 1917 (when he was just 16). At first they are done in plaster, the face a flat disc with features painted on. In the middle period, they are tiny—truly, tiny—because Giacometti was forced to spend the war in his native Switzerland holed up in a small hotel room. He produced sculptures the size he could bring back to France with him in a matchbox—and I think the results are some of his best; a head or body so small you need to strain to see its features, yet attached to a base so large that you can almost feel the unbearable weight of being (I almost felt that Kundera were trying to respond to these busts). And, in his later period, the characteristic elongation from nose to nape, where the face meets in a sharp point before the eyes and extends backwards, all the wrinkles and gauntness exaggerated and emphasised.
If you’re familiar with Giacometti, it shouldn’t be a surprise that these aren’t happy faces. But then again, what sculptor ever painted happy subjects? Bronze and marble (though Giacometti did not use the latter, he did have a preference for displaying the plaster originals before they were cast in bronze) are mediums that say permanence, timelessness, greatness—and so we expect to see grand subjects. Think Rodin, or, in non-figurative sculpture, even Brancusi’s objects have a kind of grand sincerity to them. But what struck me in this first room of the Giacometti exhibition, which I thought the best of all, was how decidedly ordinary and routine all these faces look, how haggard and temporary. To put it more bluntly, even the youngest subjects look not so far away from the grave. And yet—they are for the most part cast in bronze, and will outlast us all, thanks to the artistic efforts of one of our species’ members.
The exhibition is large. We see Giacometti as a struggling Surrealist, struggling because he seemed interested only in the human form (he was later expelled from the group for his continuing to create representational works). We see his Chariot, and The Dog (“It’s me”, Giacometti is reported to have said. “One day I saw myself in the street like that. I was the dog.”). We see the Women of Venice, the plaster originals brought almost all together for the first time since they were displayed at the Venice Biennale for the first time in 1956. There are Giacometti’s oil paintings, with their cage-like interiors which so influenced Francis Bacon. And in the final room we see his towering tall women, double our height, so that we are left with the sense of having walked for a while among giants.
In Picasso: Pity and Terror we saw the coupling of all that is best in the world with all that we would rather not think about—death and suffering with birth and joy. In Giacometti we see the duality of temporality, or of being in human time on the one hand, with the permanence of humankind thanks to our endeavours, on the other. We trudge onwards to work and to the grave, and we have our crises along the way, but all that haggardness is outlasted by the permanence of what we accomplish. It’s a strange duality—and strange too is the sight of Giacometti’s brother Diego throughout the exhibition, looking always so tired of it all, yet being looked at tirelessly by thousands each day, thousands who somehow come out of the gallery with a new vitality.
— — — —
I might be too frank here, but 2017 has had me thinking a lot more about death. Just a few days before I saw Giacometti in London there had been the terrible terrorist attacks on a nearby bridge and at Borough Market. Then there are the talks of war, maybe of the nuclear kind, on the Korean Peninsula—and bombs continue to drop in Syria. More personally, I’ve had to attend the funerals of close family members, and bad bicycle crashes have left me feeling very mortal. (Days after I wrote this Las Ramblas in Barcelona became the site of another terrorist attack—Picasso’s childhood home given a new relationship to Guernica).
These threats and worries aren’t out of the ordinary. Certainly my awareness of them at this age indicates the relative comfort of my upbringing. The second half of the twentieth century has been called the nuclear peace for a reason, and deaths from terrorist attacks have statistically never been less likely. Maybe all that is unique in my thinking about death is having the combination of a growing individual awareness of death—call that growing up—at the same time as politics itself seems for the first time in my conscious life to present death as a possible outcome.
High on a wall in the Guernica exhibition was printed a quote of Hannah Arendt’s, getting at the heart of the idea of death in both Picasso and Giacometti:
“Death, whether faced in actual dying or in the inner awareness of one’s own mortality, is perhaps the most anti-political experience there is. It signifies that we shall disappear from the world of appearances and leave the company of our fellow-men, which are the conditions of all politics. As far as human experience is concerned, death indicates an extreme of loneliness and impotence. But faced collectively and in action, death changes its countenance; now nothing seems more likely to intensify our vitality than its proximity. Something we are usually hardly aware of, namely, that our own death is accompanied by the potential immortality of the group we belong to and, in the final analysis, of the species, moves into the centre of our experience. It is as though life itself, the immortal life of the species, nourished, as it were, by the sempiternal dying of its individual members, is ‘surging upward’, actualised in the practice of violence.”
What I’m talking about is becoming aware of both of these kinds of death, at the same time: death as the most non-political event there is, and death as an ultimate outcome of politics. That’s why 2017 was an appropriate year for these two big shows. In Giacometti we see not death itself, but the non-political awareness of it: the slow decline towards an unobserved, solitary, nighttime departure. And in Pity and Terror: Picasso’s Path to Guernica we see all the contradictory vitality of political death. Mortality, solitariness, ageing and sickness in Giacometti; terrorism, war, energy, and pain in Picasso.
Summer in London was bookended this year by two very different kinds of events. Maybe it’s crude to speak of them in the same paragraph, but it’s the kind of opposition we’ve seen throughout these two exhibitions, the kind that Picasso spent his life depicting. Summer began with terrorism, and it ended with Wimbledon—and at Wimbledon, with an old genius, facing ageing, mortality and decline, showing it’s not all over yet. “Genius is not replicable”, David Foster Wallace wrote of Roger Federer (and I read him as writing of genius everywhere, including that of Picasso and Giacometti): “Inspiration, though, is contagious, and multiform — and even just to see, close up, power and aggression made vulnerable to beauty is to feel inspired and (in a fleeting, mortal way) reconciled.”
It may be fleeting indeed, but that reconciliation is what art—and especially that of Pablo Picasso and Alberto Giacometti—finally offers us.
Note: As if to emphasise the point, from late 2016 to early 2017 the Musee Picasso in Paris curated an exhibition called Picasso-Giacometti, putting together for the first time the work of these two artists. I didn’t get to see the exhibition, but it seems too fitting that the two artists met in Paris, half way between their later stand-alone exhibitions in Madrid and London.
New Zealand’s Productivity Commission recently completed its report into the future of tertiary education in the country. Released rather quietly in March, the report then came back into the headlines when it was discussed last week in select committee.
A Stuff.co.nz article covering the committee’s discussion began by asking:
Just because someone wants to go to university, does that mean they’re entitled to a massive taxpayer subsidy?
The Productivity Commission doesn’t think so and neither does National MP Maurice Williamson.
Art history, ever the victim of public debate, was chosen by MP Maurice Williamson as his example to explain the report’s recommendation:
Put simply, the government would decide, for example, how many lawyers, vets, accountants or teachers it needed each year and subsidise accordingly.
Anyone falling outside of the “need” category would still have access to courses but would need to cough up the cash themselves.
Williamson broke down his argument by taking a look at art history.
His data suggests about 10,000 students took the subject at Auckland University, which he says he has no issue with but the question was whether taxpayers should fund it.
“Maybe we want 500 art historian graduates that we fund well, the next cohort moderately maybe and the last cohort is anyone who wants to can but they fund it themselves.”
The report deserves a longer response, but suffice it to say for now I think it shortsighted and disappointing. Worse—it thinks us a two-dimensional country, where students are just future workers, and professors merely employees. That higher education might have something to do with educating citizens, or determining what we in fact should value as a society, was wholly forgotten.
“In truth, the care and expense of our fathers aims only at furnishing our heads with knowledge; of judgement and virtue, little news. Exclaim to our people about a passer-by “Oh, what a learned man!” and about another “Oh, what a good man!” They will not fail to turn their eyes and their respect towards the first. There should be a third exclamation: “Oh, what blockheads!” We are eager to inquire: “Does he know Greek or Latin? Does he write in verse or in prose?” But whether he has become better or wiser, which would be the main thing, that is left out. We should have asked who is better learned, not who is more learned.”
To be better learned is to have learned also to apply one’s knowledge to one’s life; to be more learned is to be a walking encyclopaedia. The latter, however, is more easily measured and more easily observed, for we can always recite facts. Wisdom must be demonstrated over time, and often requires certain circumstances to be seen.
But always our aim should be to become better learned. That alone is what helps one to live.
Note: The essay below is one I completed for my International Baccalaureate extended essay for high school, back in 2012. I’ve had a few questions about it recently (there are some links out there to an old blog post of mine on the topic) and so am re-publishing it now. At the time I was working on a startup of my own and was interested in how Eric Ries’ Lean Startup methods had become so popular that they were being used in all kinds of inappropriate circumstances. I wanted to work out the limits to their use.
The original essay is published unedited (excuse the youthful writing) and footnotes have not transferred across.
Empirical studies show that over a period of five years, seventy-eight percent of all early-stage Internet technology companies can be expected to fail. This is a dire result; interestingly, the vast majority of these companies utilize similar strategies for bringing their product to market.
In recent years, a subset of early-stage Internet companies (companies whose primary product is a website or Internet application) have been following different principles – lean methods – and have taken a step away from traditional methods for bringing a product to market. These new companies refer to themselves as “Lean Startups” (a term credited to Eric Ries, who has written an influential book by the same name), and label companies using traditional methods as “Fat Startups”. They take their name from lean manufacturing, which saw success in Japan with companies like Toyota being revolutionized. Lean manufacturing, and subsequently lean startups, at their core revolve around removing any activities that are wasteful.
Lean startup methods are tools and philosophies that allow early-stage companies to bring a successful product to market by focusing on learning through validation of hypotheses. A company will make a guess as to who their users are, and what product they want, and will then test this assumption in real life through a low-cost, basic version of the product. It will then continually adjust the product, or start all over again, based on the evidence shown through its customers’ usage. They do not spend on marketing or sales until they have a validated product, and therefore consume less capital than fat startups. They are capital efficient as they recognize sooner if they are heading towards success or failure. Other advantages and disadvantages of lean methods will be made clear throughout this essay.
As a number of companies utilizing lean methods reach success, the methods are increasingly being adopted. The vast majority of new Internet technology companies use lean methods. At the same time, numerous lean companies are failing, or not living up to expectations made of them. It is likely that there are scenarios under which utilizing lean methods will aid a company in bringing a successful product to market, and there are also definable scenarios where the use of lean methods will hinder a company. By defining these scenarios, we could help new companies to make more effective decisions about the methods they use to bring a successful product to market.
The aim of this essay, therefore, is to explore and discover the circumstances under which lean startup methods are appropriate for use by early-stage Internet technology companies. While lean methods are applicable to companies of all ages and industries, this essay is limited to early-stage Internet technology companies so that its findings can be particularly relevant, and therefore beneficial, to a specific group of companies.
Through this essay, circumstances where lean methods should and should not be used will be made clear. As a result, the failure rate of early-stage Internet technology companies could be reduced, as they begin to use methods appropriate to their individual situation.
Entrepreneurial ventures, if successful, can create jobs and growth in an economy. This leads to an improved standard of living for many individuals in society, and will lead to wider benefits for multiple reasons, such as the company’s ability to pay additional tax.
Therefore, if the failure rate of early-stage Internet technology companies is reduced, many people in society will be better off.
Appropriate Use Circumstances
i. Introduction to extreme uncertainty
For decades, traditional early-stage business methods (now referred to as fat startup methods) have been suitable for use by all businesses. The majority of new companies simply bring an existing product into a new local context, or bring a new product into an existing market. In each case, the conditions are predictable, as numerous other businesses have carried out the same process. Eric Ries notes that this is why most traditional businesses can be funded by a bank loan – they are so predictable that a loan officer can assess their risk and give loans.
However, since the creation of the Internet, many new ventures are bringing new products into new, or re-segmented, markets. In these cases, the business knows nothing about its customers or their desires – it is operating under conditions of extreme uncertainty, or ambiguity.
Fat startup methods involve traditional, milestone-based product development. A concept is created and then undergoes development, including the development of marketing materials based upon market research. Next, it is tested, and finally it launches to users. Under scenarios where the market is known, these product development methods work well as the only variable the company needs to focus on is execution. The traditional product development method is illustrated below.
For Internet technology companies, the product development method is largely ineffective. Companies will go through the cycle, consuming resources as they do, without knowing if the product is what the market wants. It can lead to a large waste of resources, as in the classic example of a failed fat startup, WebVan, an online grocery retailer that consumed approximately USD$1.2 billion in venture capital, and entered bankruptcy shortly after.
Lean methods, in comparison, are inherently useful to companies operating under extreme uncertainty. They focus on validated learning – “…a rigorous method for demonstrating progress when one is embedded in the soil of extreme uncertainty…”. Whereas the product development method is linear, lean methods (which include Steve Blank’s theories on customer development) are circular – a company will repeatedly carry out certain tasks in order to find what is successful. In extreme uncertainty, a company’s knowledge of its customers and product is limited. Lean methods therefore force the company to focus on learning before investing and acting.
The following part of this essay explores the circumstances where it makes sense for an early-stage Internet technology company to utilize lean methods. It is assumed that all of the following scenarios are within the boundaries of extreme uncertainty.
ii. Entering a new or re-segmented market with a new product
Ansoff’s Growth Matrix is a tool that can simplify, and describe, the activities companies should undergo when entering different combinations of new and existing markets with new and existing products. According to Ansoff’s Matrix, companies are diversifying when entering new markets with a new product. However, Ansoff’s Matrix is designed for use by existing companies that are looking to grow – it is not ideal for use by early-stage companies with no existing product and no defined market.
For the purposes of early-stage Internet technology companies, I have developed a specifically revised version of Ansoff’s Matrix. Let it be called the Startup Strategy Matrix. It retains the axes and labels of Ansoff’s Matrix, which are still applicable and useful, but makes different recommendations to early-stage companies. It builds on the research of both Steve Blank and Eric Ries in making recommendations to companies on appropriate strategies.
The Startup Strategy Matrix tells us that if we are bringing a new product into a new market, lean startup methods should be pursued, and there should be a focus on innovative customer development. This is the corner of the Matrix where there is the most uncertainty – almost nothing is known about the company’s customers or their desires. The company should therefore focus on learning and discovering customers’ desires and preferences before embarking on any other activities. Lean methods will allow the company to do exactly this, while preserving capital.
It is worth noting that if a company is re-segmenting an existing market as either a low-cost or niche entrant, the company essentially falls into the bottom-right of the Startup Strategy Matrix and should use lean startup methods. They have no solid evidence of their customers’ preferences, and are unsure which customers from the whole market will be a part of the re-segmented market. Therefore, they should use both lean and customer development methods in order to discover truths about their precise market.
There are very few circumstances in which it would make sense for a company with a new product entering a new or re-segmented market to use fat startup methods instead of lean ones. The company would be making too many imprecise inferences about fundamental parts of the business, such as their value proposition and growth strategy. If they do not know their customers yet, it is impossible to have any evidence on whether these assumptions are correct.
iii. Companies with an in-house technical development team
An early-stage Internet technology company employing a number of technical developers will be heavily advantaged through the use of lean startup methods. Here, business theory is heavily linked with technical development processes.
Traditional development methods are referred to as Waterfall, or Stage-Gate. A development team is given a brief with multiple milestones for a feature. They will complete multiple features, and then launch many features in one batch. This is a slow development method that gives a company little time to learn from its customers about how they actually use the product – this is not in line with the goals of a company using lean startup methods.
A lean startup, by contrast, will have its technical development team utilizing “Agile” development methods. The creators of such methods describe them as valuing “individuals and interactions over processes and tools, working software over comprehensive documentation, customer collaboration over contract negotiation, and responding to change over following a plan”. This description lies in stark contrast to the workings of Waterfall methods, which value the opposite concepts.
With Waterfall methods, if there is an error in a piece of code, the company will not discover this until it pushes the code to users, which will happen in a large batch along with many other features once every month or so. An error could potentially cause the failure of all of the company’s software, rendering its business temporarily unable to function. Because the company has also pushed other features and code to users at the same time, it will be hard to discover the error that caused the problem.
Agile development is one of the tenets of lean startup methods. It requires that the company publish code to its users the moment it is written, and then monitor the results. In terms of manufacturing, it is the equivalent of small batch sizes, which are proven to be more efficient. If there is a problem with the code, it will be discovered immediately, and can be fixed straight away because there will only have been one piece of code that could have caused the problem.
If a company employs an outside software or web design and development firm, it likely has little control over how its product is developed. However, if the company employs an in-house development team, and if one or more co-founders of the company is part of the technical team, then lean startup methods (and therefore agile development methods) should be used. Using agile methods will reduce the risk that an error in code could disrupt the company’s functioning, and will also allow the company to test many additional features on its users.
iv. Where virality is a company’s growth strategy
The nature of the Internet allows many technology companies to achieve organic viral growth. A user of a company’s product, such as a social network, will derive additional benefit from the product if more people are using it. Users therefore have an incentive to share the product quickly and with many people, allowing a company to gain very large numbers of new users, or customers, in a short space of time.
Many early-stage Internet technology companies base their entire growth forecasts upon Metcalfe’s Law; namely, that the value of the network of users as a whole is proportional to the square of the number of participants of the network. In order for their business model to function, the company is required to achieve viral growth. It should be noted that viral growth is a form of organic growth as it is achieved using the company’s existing resources.
Viral growth is a process that is not easily replicated, and many companies try in vain to achieve it. There are few rules for achieving viral growth, and so companies go about achieving it in their own ways. In order to best achieve viral growth, a company should carry out significant amounts of testing.
If the company were to use traditional fat startup methods, they might invest heavily in developing a product that turned out not to achieve viral growth. Lean startup methods, by contrast, involve testing different methods for achieving viral growth until one works.
We can see that by utilizing lean methods, a company can preserve resources until it has a working model for achieving its growth formula.
Inappropriate Use Circumstances
i. Entering existing markets with new products
Referring to the Startup Strategy Matrix (fig. 2), the top-right corner corresponds to a company entering an existing market with a new product. When a company enters a new market with a new product, it must first discover who its customers will be. Lean startup methods allow it to do this by continually testing different hypotheses to discover its market and their preferences. However, if a company is entering an existing market, it is not necessary for it to test hypotheses to discover its customers.
Instead, there will be existing knowledge of customers within the market and their likes and dislikes. The company can draw on this knowledge to create their new product, or can carry out market research to find out what their customers will buy before embarking on building the product.
The Startup Strategy Matrix states that innovative product development methods should be used when entering an existing market with a new product. As much is already known about the market, a company must simply carry out market research and then execute its plan correctly in order to succeed. Traditional product development methods (see fig. 1) will allow the company to execute successfully, while innovation will ensure that the company builds a new product with points of difference that the market will respond to favorably.
Were lean startup methods to be used in this situation, the company would waste time trying to gain knowledge that it could have discovered much more quickly through other methods. Because of this wasted time, the company could potentially be beaten to market by another company and miss the opportunity. Ben Horowitz, a successful entrepreneur and venture capitalist, says about using lean methods; “you may lose your opportunity to win the market, either because you fail to fund the R&D necessary to find product/market fit or you let a competitor out-execute you in taking the market.”
ii. Entering new markets with existing products
Groupon is an Internet technology company that saw huge success in the United States, quickly becoming the fastest-growing company the world has ever seen. Their business model involves selling coupons to large number of consumers who are incentivized to share the coupon with their friends. While Groupon quickly expanded and launched their service in many cities within the United States, other entrepreneurs saw their success and began replicating their business model and product (in this case their website) in new markets.
Again drawing upon the Startup Strategy Matrix (fig. 2), these Groupon “clones”, as they are referred to, correspond to the lower-left corner. They are companies entering new markets with existing products.
Groupon’s success was not market-specific. In every state within the United States that Groupon expanded into, the result was similarly large growth. It was clear that Groupon’s product was one that humans in many different markets desired.
It appears that having first-mover advantage is hugely important in launching companies based on Groupon’s business model. Indeed, the first four companies following this business model to launch in major cities in the United States now control an estimated 89% of the market.
Lean startup methods can take longer to execute than fat startup methods because they require a circular approach. Multiple hypotheses are tested until the company has a model that is proven to be working and has discovered its market. However, since companies have seen Groupon’s business model work in multiple markets, they can be sure it will work in any new market that they introduce it to. They have no real need to execute lean startup methods, as they already know what product should be built. They are also heavily incentivized to be first to market in order to gain large market share. Were lean startup methods to be used, companies could miss out on being first to market by working to prove hypotheses that had already been proven correct by existing companies in other markets.
It is clear that in scenarios such as that of a Groupon clone – when entering a new market with an existing product – utilizing lean startup methods will lead to missed opportunities for many companies.
Utilizing fat startup methods, in contrast, will lead to faster execution because they take a linear approach, and allow the company to spend on marketing to take advantage of being amongst the first to market, gaining market share.
iii. When selling to quality-conscious market segments
Certain market segments, such as the super-wealthy, value quality as one of the most important factors in making a purchasing decision. As a result, the majority of companies, and fat startups, build products according to the theories of W. Edwards Deming. Deming believed that the customer was the most important part of the production process, and therefore high quality should be focused on to boost efficiency. In addition, companies will utilize Kaizen theories of continuous improvement, as well as a Total Quality Culture, to ensure that quality is kept high.
Lean startup methods require that a “minimum viable product” (MVP) is created and launched to users in order to test assumptions about the market and product. An MVP allows the company to preserve resources by producing a product that is missing many features and is of lower quality, while still testing assumptions.
This essay argues that if a company is entering a market segment that is conscious about the quality of the product, lean startup methods should not be used. The low-quality MVP may damage the company’s reputation, and cause it to lose many sales in the future.
iv. When following an external growth strategy
Some early-stage Internet technology companies find themselves in situations where an external growth strategy will best allow them to take advantage of opportunities. For example, Twitter pursued external growth strategies by acquiring products such as Tweetie, a mobile-application version of Twitter. Twitter had no mobile application of its own, and found that it could best take advantage of the opportunity in the mobile space through an acquisition, rather than building its own product in-house.
If a company finds that it can best respond to an opportunity through an acquisition, merger, or takeover of another company, then fat startup methods should be pursued. These methods will enable the company to raise sufficient capital in order to carry out external growth.
A company using lean startup methods, by contrast, would be unable to carry out external growth due to the time it would take to validate hypotheses about the opportunity being pursued. For example, Twitter noticed an opportunity in the market for mobile applications and decided it should enter this market immediately. If it had used lean methods, it would have had to first validate its hypotheses about the market. The time needed to do this could have allowed another company to take advantage of this market opportunity first.
Two things are worth noting here. Firstly, a company may at first follow lean startup methods but then spot a market opportunity. If the opportunity is large, it may be beneficial for the company to change to a fat startup strategy in order to pursue that opportunity quickly through external growth. Secondly, it can be said that companies using fat startup methods therefore carry more risk, as they do not take time to validate assumptions. They will simply enter a market to ensure that an opportunity is not missed, even if some of their assumptions later turn out to be incorrect.
The benefits of lean startup methods are clear. They allow companies operating under conditions of extreme uncertainty to reduce the risk inherent in their venture through validating hypotheses based on experience. They enable companies to operate using small batch sizes, and better manage in-house technical development.
However, it is also clear that lean startup methods are not appropriate for use by early-stage Internet technology companies in all situations. The use of lean startup methods in certain situations will damage a company’s ability to grasp an opportunity, and to react boldly enough with large amounts of financial capital.
The results of this essay – based on research by both scholars and entrepreneurs, as well as first-hand observations of companies – have led to a set of clearly defined scenarios where lean startup methods should, and should not, be used.
In initially deciding on a startup strategy, companies must examine the type of market they are entering, and what product they are entering it with. The Startup Strategy Matrix (fig. 2) was developed as part of this essay. It clearly describes the strategies that companies should use based on their market and product combinations. This should be the main factor in a company’s choice of startup strategy.
The Startup Strategy Matrix allows us to say that in general, if a company is entering a new market with a new product, it should use lean startup methods. However, a company must continue to examine whether lean startup methods remain relevant throughout its process of discovering its market and product.
This research has also shown that if a company discovers that it is entering a quality-conscious market segment, it should change strategy to traditional fat startup methods in order to take advantage of Deming’s theories on quality. Additionally, if a company deems that it needs an external growth strategy to take advantage of a market opportunity, it should alter course and utilize fat startup methods.
Many of the insights in this essay are non-exclusive. For example, if a company begins using lean startup methods because it is entering a new market with a new product, but then finds a lager opportunity in a different market segment, it should change its strategy accordingly. The initial strategy chosen should merely guide a company to discovering new information, at which point a company may be required to change strategy.
It should be noted that some unexplored areas could have added to the conclusiveness and scope of this essay. First, the real-life applicability and usefulness of the Startup Strategy Matrix should have been tested in order to understand how the Matrix affects the strategies that a real company uses. By giving the Matrix to various companies, and monitoring their results in comparison to new companies not using the Matrix, the effectiveness of the Matrix on company development could be tested. While this would have been ideal, it was not within the scope of this essay, as it would have required a large amount of time to determine differences between the companies’ development.
Secondly, additional examples of companies using different startup strategies would have helped to clarify the circumstances presented in this essay, such as a real-life example of a company trying to achieve viral growth. However, early-stage Internet technology companies are by nature protective of their internal company information, to ensure that competitors cannot prepare a similar product before the company launches its product. This made the finding of real-life examples difficult and outside the scope of this essay.
The findings of this essay offer clear scenarios relevant to all early-stage Internet technology companies. It is hoped that the conclusions will help companies to find the most relevant strategy, and to adjust it in the light of new information. Companies following startup strategies relevant to the circumstances presented in this essay should increase their chances of success.
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