Fortune

THE ACCIDENTAL GURU

Eric Ries’s “lean startup” thinking has spawned a consulting and publishing empire and inspired countless executives to become acolytes. Not bad for a guy who says he doesn’t really like business.
FROM WRITER TO RICHES Ries went from blogging about startups to becoming one of Silicon Valley’s most sought-after consultants—a career he says he never anticipated.

THE WARFIELD THEATRE in San Francisco’s gritty Mid-Market neighborhood is a legendary temple of rock, host over the years to the likes of Bob Dylan, the Grateful Dead, and Guns N’ Roses. It’s jarring, then, to walk through its beer-soaked halls, plop down onto a threadbare seat in the cavernous auditorium, and listen to smartly dressed business types evangelizing about entrepreneurialism.

The speakers are an eclectic group, yet they’re singing from the same buzzword-laden hymnal. Jyoti Shukla, vice president of user experience at retailer Nordstrom, enthuses about having a “customer-first mindset” and “an ability to ride with change and embrace discomfort.” Alex Osterwalder of the consultancy Strategyzer, which coaches clients through “innovation sprints,” urges attendees to have a “21st-century org chart.” Even outposts of the federal government have mastered the lingo. Ann Mei Chang, a former chief innovation officer at the U.S. Agency for International Development, warns nonprofits not to measure success with “vanity metrics” and decries the perils of “ramping too quickly.”

The occasion for these sermons is the annual Lean Startup Conference, in November, and the speakers share a common trait: They are disciples of Eric Ries, author of The Lean Startup, the seminal tract that spawned a self-proclaimed movement of which this is a convocation of the faithful. The mantras they repeat—most prominently “minimum viable product,” or MVP, a company’s quickest, cheapest way to test the market, and “pivot,” which is what businesses do when failure demands a new approach—all come from Ries’s 2011 book, which has sold more than a million copies in English and has been published in 30 languages.

The mark Ries has made on the startup landscape cannot be overstated. Entrepreneurs everywhere have adopted his vocabulary as well as his methods, including testing their hypotheses with customers and gauging the success of innovation with relevant accounting measurements beyond revenues and market share. “He unequivocally has been as impactful on the mindset of startups as anyone else in the last decade,” says

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