Chengdu-Expat sat down with the global start-up guru and founder of Lean Startup Machine, Trevor Owens, at last week’s Startup Grind to hear his thoughts on why start-ups fail and more…

chengdu-expat startup grind
Trevor with Erik and Roy of Startup Grind Chengdu

The Company: Lean Startup Machine is a company that runs 3-day intensive workshops to help entrepreneurs build their companies. The workshops are based on the methodology that a successful start-up must find a customer base and engage with it, adapting their idea to meet customer demand.

Meet the man behind the Machine

chengdu-expat trevor owens
Trevor speaking at last weeks’ Startup Grind at the Tencent coworking space

Trevor Owens is the creator of the Lean Startup Machine workshops, CEO of Javelin software and author of The Lean Enterprise. Owens tells me that, in just 3 days, he will take your trail-blazing idea for a pioneering company and smash it to the ground, all so that you can start again. Why? In this interview, Owens explains the one thing that most entrepreneurs forget and the simple premise that will make your startup thrive.


Chengdu-Expat: What is Lean Startup Machine and how did it start?

Trevor Owens: Lean Startup Machine started about 7 years ago when I was looking for answers to some of the failures that I had in past businesses. I’d organized Hackathons [collaborative computer programming workshops] in New York and I noticed that people built products that nobody needed. The whole point of Lean is to be a salesathon: to go and find and talk to your customers. The team that wins is the one with the most customers, we don’t care if venture capitalists like it or not.

Behind the scenes at Startup Grind
Behind the scenes at Startup Grind

We saw that over the 3 day workshop every single team came in and changed their idea one or more times. That’s one of the premises of Lean: you have to pivot your idea, and in order to do that you have to change your idea. I hosted the first Startup Machine to bring some of the experts in this new methodology to New York so that I could learn from them. It was meant to be a one off event that I could use to kick-start one of the businesses that I was working on.

After the first event it really exceeded my expectations by a huge amount. I started getting emails from people in Colorado, Chicago, and Boston asking if we could do the workshop in their cities. After every event we got more and more people asking us to do the workshop and each time we changed it so it was a little better. It started to get this pull even internationally; it wasn’t limited to the US.


Trevor giving advice to young entrepreneurs in Chengdu[
Trevor giving advice to young entrepreneurs in Chengdu

Chengdu-Expat: Why China and, more specifically, why Chengdu?

Trevor Owens: I wrote a book in 2014 called the Lean Enterprise which came out last year in China. At the same time, we signed with Microsoft to license our workshop content to all of their innovation centres around the world. There’s a lot of interest from Microsoft in China, and in my background I’ve always had an interest in China. I studied Chinese for 2 years and I studied abroad in China. I knew that China was going to be the next big thing. I felt like it would be a once in a lifetime chance to come here and begin growing grass root networks in Chengdu. Chengdu is one of the most innovative cities in China, so of course we had to come here.


Trevor running a workshop in Rome
Trevor running a workshop in Rome

Chengdu-Expat: What is your biggest failure?

Trevor Owens: There have been several times when we have moved too fast when growing our business. We had very profitable cities for our first batch of workshops. Then, when we started to expand further into smaller cities, we started to see our profits go down. Because we were going so fast and reinvesting all of our advanced capital back into growth, we got into trouble and fell a couple of months behind on payments. I think that really made us take a few steps back.

Start-ups are all about momentum and building things one brick at a time, so once you’ve built your house it’s on a solid foundation and it’s not going to fall down during a storm. But if you don’t know what you’re doing, like I was doing, then it’s likely that you’re going to miss a few bricks. You’re going to have to take two steps forward, then one step back. That can be a really painful process, not only for you but for all your employees as well. That’s something to bare in mind in Chengdu.


From Shenzhen to Chengdu
From Shenzhen to Chengdu

Chengdu-Expat: What other advice would you give to a new entrepreneur here in Chengdu?

Trevor Owens: My advice would be to not get caught up in the sexiness of the start-up world. Start-ups on TV can be very sexy, but the actual work you do is not sexy at all. The key driver should be that you’re passionate about your business and you care about your customer.

You need to have more passion for building a sustainable business than you do for your idea, because your idea is not going to be viable right away. You need to change it, you need to evolve it, the market’s going to change, and your intuition isn’t going to be correct right off the bat. A lot of start-ups fail because people don’t want to let go of an idea without really talking to their customers. But for every hour that you put in, your customers should get 2 hours benefit.