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Strategy & innovation

Lean Strategy Not Just For Start-Ups

by Carmen Nobel

Lean start-up strategies aren't just for start-ups anymore. That was the key message that Intuit cofounder Scott Cook (HBS MBA '76) shared in a small seminar with Harvard Business School faculty recently.

Since its launch in 1983, the financial software company has seen a great deal of success, garnering revenues of $4.15 billion in 2012 with products like Quicken, TurboTax, and QuickBooks. But there lies the potential rub.

"Success is a powerful thing," said Cook, who now serves as chairman of Intuit's Executive Committee. "It tends to make companies stupid, and they become less and less innovative."

Avoiding innovation stagnation is the reason that Cook believes established companies need a lean start-up model—maybe even more than start-ups do. An idea pioneered by HBS Entrepreneur-in-Residence Eric Ries, lean start-up thinking entails launching as quickly as possible with a "minimum viable product," a bare-bones creation that includes just enough features to allow for useful feedback from early adopters. The company then releases a quick succession of product upgrades, forming hypotheses and conducting experiments with each new version along the way.

Intuit adopted such a strategy when developing Fasal, a mobile platform that delivers agricultural market price information to farmers in India. With each successive rapid upgrade deployment, the adoption rate grew. That meant that as more features were added or tweaked, there were more farmers to provide useful feedback from the field.

"The more farmers you have, the better data you have," Cook said.

Experimentation can be hard for product teams in large companies, which often don't have the let's-try-some-things-and-see-what-sticks culture of a start-up. Product teams may be disheartened when their preconceived notions turn from promising hypotheses into failed experiments. Cook stressed, though, that failure can yield the greatest lessons in product development. "For me it was seeing my brilliant ideas—which I just knew were right—not work."

To that end, Cook said leaders should take care not to squelch a team member's new idea too soon, even if it sounds unreasonable. He recalled scoffing at a proposal, only to learn that the team putting it forward already had started testing the idea with an experiment. Cook felt bad about his initial response not because the idea ended up succeeding—it didn't—but because he believes strongly in cultivating and maintaining a culture of experimentation.

Of the experiments Intuit has launched in India, some ten have failed, two have succeeded, one is still in its nascent stages, and one is "pivoting," Cook said. In lean-start-up lingo, pivoting means taking a major change of course based on user feedback—the idea being that it's easier to change the direction of a company or product in its early stages than in its later stages.


Managers often think about innovation in terms of exploring new markets. But Cook said it's often wiser for firms to innovate within their well-established existing businesses. This is especially true in industries where there are first-mover advantage network effects—wherein the value of a service is dependent on the number of people using it. Case in point: Amazon.com's attempt to enter the online auction business failed because eBay already had such a strong, ever-growing base of sellers, which begat an ever-growing base of buyers.

Intuit, for example, does steady business with TurboTax, the tax preparation software that has been a part of the company's product line since its 1993 acquisition of ChipSoft. Thus it makes sense for the company to innovate within the realm of tax prep. That doesn't mean the ideas can't be revolutionary. In 2011 Intuit introduced SnapTax, a smartphone app that lets users file their 1040EZ form in 10 minutes.

Cook also stressed the need of having a strong, overriding company vision when establishing an innovative, experimental culture. Intuit's vision: "Change lives so profoundly, people can't imagine going back to the old way." 


Republished with permission from Working Knowledge, a publication of the Harvard Business School. For more, visit HBS Working Knowledge.


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