Part manifesto, part educational text, part guidebook, part workshop companion, The Four Steps to the Epiphany by Steven Gary Blank is a book that challenges conventional wisdom about bringing a startup to market. More importantly for entrepreneurs, however, it is an actionable resource. For this reason, it is a book that ought to be kept close to those founding a startup, acting as an intrapreneur in a larger organization, or working to support such efforts in either of these environments.
At the heart of any successful business are customers who buy what the company is selling. Yet, as Blank points out, many startups focus not on developing their customers but on developing their product. In the early stages of a startup, bringing the product to the customers is typically the last stage, and the least amount of time is spent on it. It is a mistake that can become fatal for the business: Priorities become misplaced, and the business starts chasing the wrong objectives.
As a manifesto, the book is convincing. Blank is a serial entrepreneur himself, and he knows how to talk about the motivations, thought processes, struggles, and strategies of founders as they begin to build their businesses. By describing the different components of building a startup, he shines a light on the holes in planning and development that he believes so many startups create for themselves and the permanent weaknesses that emerge because of them. Blank’s fight against the status quo is effective, and part of the reason why is because he doesn’t throw away the traditional model completely. Instead, he is quick to point out that customer development is not meant to replace the product development model but to accompany it. Explaining the relationship between the product development model and the customer development model helps his audience understand what he seems to believe is, or should be, a synergistic relationship.
As an educational resource, the book is brimming with ideas and information. Where some authors often fall short – in failing to explain how to overcome or move past the problems they break down and define – Blank rises to the challenge. Blank creates a sound educational resource not only through the sheer volume of ideas and information he provides but also by showing how to combat the problems he defines so that other entrepreneurs can avoid making the same mistakes. Don’t scale your business too soon, he warns. If you do, you risk tanking your business by running out of cash flow before you have enough customers to support that much expansion. Understand and validate your customers first. Then expand to support that growth.
This leads into the next two roles the book fulfills: guidebook and workshop tool. Blank writes with no frills, and his writing is so dense that it can appear like that of a textbook. But what he lacks in narrative he makes up for in organization, and this is where the book lends itself well to the role of guidebook and workshop tool. Entrepreneurs can flip to the topic or stage of customer development they want to prepare for (guidebook use) or are currently in (workshop tool) and put Blank’s theories to use immediately. For instance, an entrepreneur might be in the customer creation phase of development and look to Blank’s book for guidance on moving on to the next stage: company building. Blank’s book would also be useful as a workshop tool in helping entrepreneurs figure out which direction their business is heading, for, as Blank points out, startup development is usually anything but a linear process. However, where many people would rather shrink back to a model, product development, that is familiar but wrong for what they’re doing rather than try something new, Blank provides grounding. Not a path but a place for entrepreneurs to define where they are and figure out when they need to take several steps back in order to take more steps forward. In the example provided earlier, this could mean returning to customer validation from customer creation instead of jumping ahead to company building, which could destroy the venture entirely if done too soon.
One of the strengths of Blank’s book is that it is packed with information. One of the drawbacks, predictably, is that it is packed with information. Given the boldness of his claims – that most startups go about bringing their enterprise to market in a way that sets them up for failure – packing so much information into one book makes it difficult to digest. The absence of storytelling hurts Blank the most: Some people who could benefit substantially from Blank’s advice might be turned away because the value of what Blank is saying is not communicated in a way that is accessible to them.
What should be noted, then, is that entrepreneurs should approach this book knowing what they would like to get out of it. Do they want to read something that will challenge their ideas on the status quo? If the answer is yes, they should read the first chapter on the pitfalls of the product development model. This chapter defines the problem as Blank sees it and sets up the rest of the book. If readers buy into Blank’s ideas in this section, they can dig deeper by moving on to the customer development model and its four stages. If readers are looking for an educational resource, guidebook, or workshop tool, all they need to do is head to the chapter that applies to them in the given moment.
To achieve the best understanding of what Blank has to say, however, a thorough reading of the entire book is in order. It’s worth it: His book breaks down the different parts of businesses and markets a student might not even have been aware of before reading this while also encouraging entrepreneurs to look at the business as a whole at all times to understand where it is in terms of customer development and overall business outlook.
The Four Steps to the Epiphany is recommended as an office resource and companion for budding and existing entrepreneurs. If you’ve already read it, let us know in the comments what you think. If you haven’t, get on it, and then let us know!