March 16, 2017
Categories: Organizational Management

Have you ever had a great idea for a program at your shelter or rescue, spent valuable time and resources to implement it, only to find out a short time later that consumers didn’t respond to it? What went wrong? And more importantly, how can you prevent it from happening next time? In this guest post, David Meyer, CEO and co-founder of, shares how you can apply “Lean Startup” methodology used in Silicon Valley to create successful lifesaving programs in your shelter or rescue group.

When we think of the latest advances in ending pet homelessness, we might think of Silicon Valley as a source of technologies that help animals. But it’s more than just the software coming out of Silicon Valley that can help the cause of animal welfare; it’s also learning the lessons of the “Lean Startup.”

Consider this true example: A public shelter and several local rescue groups decided to launch a surrender prevention/intervention program. They put a lot of effort into offering a wide range of services they believed would prevent surrenders. Unfortunately, none of the people coming up with these ideas had any true understanding of the people who were surrendering or why they surrender. They made lots of assumptions based on anecdotal information given by shelter staff, but didn’t rely on real data. They offered so many services at launch it was impossible to know what worked and what didn’t — a recipe for failure and a waste of time, money and the lives of animals they could have helped.

This situation could have been avoided if the Lean Startup approach had been used.

Goal of “The Lean Startup”

The idea of Lean Startup came from Japan. It focused products in smaller batches, which would allow the producer to adapt more quickly to changes in consumers’ tastes and behavior. That makes sense when you consider that a company might spend years developing and then building and shipping thousands of cars, only to discover many months later that consumers didn’t like something about the car.

For Silicon Valley startups, the problem was spending lots of time and money to research, plan, build and then launch a new product according to predefined specifications, only to discover that the intended users were not interested, or the company got something wrong.

The Lean Startup principles are:

  • Start with what you think is a good idea
  • Test its core assumptions as quickly as possible
  • Implement it in a way that its intended audience can start giving feedback as soon as possible during an iterative creation process
  • Accurately measure the things that count, and refine your product/program as you go

Following these principles will help make sure that an animal welfare organization is creating a program that will actually have the expected effect, and not spending time and money on something that will not be as effective as they had expected.

The Basics of Lean Startup

These are the steps of Lean Startup that are relevant to animal welfare programs.

  1. Any good idea should start with a hypothesis that makes predictions. It could be, “If we invest in a spay/neuter van, it will lead to more pets in our community being altered and fewer pets entering the shelter.”
  2. Look for your “Leap-of-Faith Assumptions” that, if not true, will make all your efforts a waste of time. This could be, “The people who have pets that are likely to reproduce and cause more pets to end up in the shelter will make use of a spay/neuter van if we bought one.” If this is not true, then perhaps you should not be buying a spay/neuter van.
  3. Create an “MVP” and use the “Build/Measure/Learn” loop. Build the easiest thing possible that can quickly validate your hypothesis. This called a “Minimum Viable Product,” or MVP.  Then measure and learn as quickly as you can and make some improvements to your MVP program and build the next version so you can measure and learn again.  This is the Build/Measure/Learn loop.

Questions to help you determine your leap-of-faith assumptions are:

  • Do people recognize that they have the “problem” we are trying to solve?
  • If there was a solution to the problem, would our intended audience actually use it? So if your van would be available and is easy to use, could you get people to actually make use of it?
  • Do we have the ability to build/maintain the solution? In other words can you even afford to purchase or operate a spay/neuter van?

If you’ve answered those questions to your satisfaction, it’s time to test your hypothesis with as little time and money as possible. This is the “Build/Measure/Learn” loop, and the MVP is the smallest possible version of the program that enables you to complete a Build/Measure/Learn loop.

The goal of the MVP is to as quickly as possible learn things that are not guesses or assumptions, but that you have validated in the real world. To stick with the spay/neuter van example, you could create a flyer about a not yet existent spay/neuter van and if you get a flood of people responding, you might know you are onto something.

Then you could borrow a van from another organization for one weekend, and see how many people make use of it in your community. This is a relatively easy way to test your assumption that people will in fact make use of your van if you bought one (although you have yet to validate the assumption that this will actually lower intake at the local animal shelter).

You keep building your program in the smallest steps possible, using the Build/Measure/Learn loop to ensure that you are creating an effective program that does what you want it to do.

Back to the surrender prevention/intervention example at the beginning: If they had started with only one/two services using the Build/Measure/Learn loop, they would know whether or not to continue to offer that service or offer a different service completely. It would have been much more cost efficient.

One final reason to take the lean approach? Funding. If you can show that you are making an impact at the lowest cost possible, funders/donors will be willing to give you more money if needed to expand. If you can’t really say what is working in your program or why you are adding a service, it can be a much more difficult sell.