Lean Startup in the Defense Industry

Going through Techstars Boulder as the CEO of Candl last year was an amazing experience for a lot of reasons. I learned a lot about cofounder dynamics, emotional intelligence, investor relationships, coaching/mentoring, and how to focus on the right things in a startup.

Of all the skills, frameworks, concepts and tools I learned during Techstars, it was the Lean Startup philosophy that has helped me the most in this next phase of my career.

Before Techstars I had not been exposed to Lean, Agile, Scrum, or anything even remotely similar. A Lean Canvas was an entirely new artifact to me. I had been trained in my MBA program on how to build 90+ page business plans, and had lawyers build a 300+ page PPM (private placement memorandum) at the cost of around $35K to raise funding for my first startup back in 2010.

I’m currently reading a book called The Corporate Startup, which walks through how to implement many of the Lean Startup processes and mindset in a larger company. It’s a timely read given that I am now the Vice President of Innovation at Envistacom.

Lean Startup preaches these three primary concepts:

  • Customer Discovery
  • “Plan, Do, Measure, Learn”
  • Pivoting is Okay

Customer Discovery

Customer Discovery isn’t something that is taught in the defense industry. In fact, the defense industry is an interesting and unique marketplace where the primary defense contractors are literally reactionary in culture. We respond to the needs of the Department of Defense. The DoD pushes out an RFP and we respond. Sure, we’re trained on how to influence those RFPs, and many times those RFPs are based on what they learn about the products and services we create either pro-actively or based on another DoD-funded program. But going out and polling soldiers and program officers isn’t a default modus operandi for the defense industry.

At Envistacom, we’ve embedded a business development / customer relationship expert within our Innovation group. It’s his job to bring us to customers with problems and help us stay focused on solving relevant problems instead of building neat technology.

This has allowed us to build processes and metrics around making sure our investments in R&D are aimed at real problems with real funding.

Plan, Do, Measure, Learn

This philosophy seems straightforward to anyone who has worked in the software or Internet industries. But in the defense industry this is a foreign concept. Rapid prototyping, cyclic development, and projects without detailed specifications or schedules are seen as weak, lazy, and incoherent outlays of capital. I’ve had a challenging time convincing many of the super-smart folks I work with to embrace the lean sprint model.

We did had some early success which has helped to assuage some concerns. We built a revolutionary new hardware prototype design in 37 days – from concept to 3D-printed example hardware. It would have taken 37 days to develop the Gantt chart schedule alone in a standard watefall scheduling effort.


It’s unnatural and uncomfortable for defense contractors to enter into an project not knowing how long it will take, how much it will cost, or even what the final result will be. So when we changed the definition of what we were building halfway through an R&D project, I fully expected the program management and finance folks to lose their minds. Which they did, but only for a moment. When they saw what we were pivoting to, they agreed with the new direction.

It’s easy to deliver what you say you will deliver in the beginning. It’s much harder embarking on a journey that leads to a solution that customers absolutely need.



Lean Defense Contracting?

Contractors are paid to deliver a capability as defined by the customer. In the defense industry, we are trained to receive a requirement specification and build to it on time and on budget. It’s not our place to decide for the customer that the building they want should be wired differently than specified, or the network they need should run faster or slower than they spelled out in the contract.

That being said, there are times when it’s appropriate for our industry to develop a new capability that can change the math on decisions made that influence those specifications. And to do that, we have to use different tools than we use for solution projects.

Lean Startup has its place in every industry – even the defense industry.