3 similarities and differences between Design Thinking and Lean Startup

patrick bosteels
4 min readJan 30, 2020

Many books have been written on entrepreneurs. Who are they? Why do they do it? Guy Kawasaki said, “The best reason to start an organization is to make meaning — to create a product or service to make the world a better place.”. I met Guy at SXSW years ago. Very nice person, writing books like crazy and building in a very smart way his personal brand after being mainly related to corporates with Apple as his center reference. But I do not see much entrepreneurship in his career and honestly, making the world a better place was never my reason to start a company. It is nice if it results in that aim but first of all, it is about making money to be able to pay your bills and secondly in the hope to be as successful (money or/and esteem) as the entrepreneurs you look up at. There is way too much romanticism around entrepreneurship and it is only great when you succeed.

End of the ’50s the first descriptions of Design Thinking were made and product management, the origin of Lean Startup, started in 1931 with a memo written by Neil H. McElroy at Procter & Gamble. Steve Blank brought us Customer Development and his student, Eric Ries wrote the book around Lean Startup while Alex Osterwalder designed the Business Model Canvas. Today these methods in the startup world and the hype around intrapreneurship are actually rooted in the industrial revolution and becoming popular building stones thanks to the democratisation of technology and the overall increased knowledge level. The internet made it all faster and we have now millions of people worldwide who can create their own future.

There is a lot of talk about Design Thinking and Lean Startup and do not forget Agile. And or Or is a lot on the table, as well for startups as for corporates who struggle with innovation, or better their future. The basis of both is innovation. Following 3 similarities and differences that I see as important:

1. Goal:

Design Thinking is user-centric but Lean Startup is rather customer-centric. For Design Thinking we see most of the time 5 stages while the 6th one, implementation, is mostly forgotten. That is also the reason that Design Thinking, especially in corporates, is more like a day off where collaboration looks more important than an actual result that can lead to new products or services. Design here means being creative, and that can be rare in corporates. Lean Startup starts from the point of view of creating a successful company based on the build-measure-learn loop. The aim for both is innovation but using a different path resulting in new products or services.

2. Idea

In Design Thinking, the idea creation comes after the research, ideation (as a verb) is part of the process. In Lean Startup, the solution is the starting point defined by the founders. Using the build-measure-learn loop there is a constant pivoting at all stages, even for just a detail like the design of a button in the user interface. The Customer Development method of Steve Blank clearly states you focus on the product-market fit. Before ideation in Design Thinking many research models are used to understand the wicked problems (a problem that is difficult or impossible to solve because of incomplete, contradictory, and changing requirements that are often difficult to recognize). So image that in corporates. You start but you have no idea where it will go, not really the sort of KPI that is rewarded. Ethnography is the most popular qualitative research method used in Design Thinking together with other human-centred design disciplines. Ethnography takes three forms: observation, immersion and engagement. A 1 day together in one room might not really give the best results.

3. Business Model

As the focus of Design Thinking is the user, and implementation after prototype and test are mostly skipped, business models are not a focus at all. Contrary to Lean Startup the business model is key. Lean Startup Canvas or Business Model Canvas are used to validate the assumptions that the idea has a market that needs/wants the solution and wants to pay for it. This is an essential difference and also the reason why many in the sector like to use both methods starting with Design Thinking towards Lean Startup with Agile as the 3rd pillar. Some academics even think of a hybrid model.

I have been giving workshops in both methods, always very basic, and I can see that for some attendees it really sparks a light, but for most, it is more of a confirmation that this is not what aligns with their talents or desires. When I started my first business, leaving the Art school, I could have used Lean Startup in order to understand that it was NOT a good idea to start a photo studio in a small town in Flanders, Belgium. It would have saved me a lot of money and frustration. I know that failure is a part of learning but there are limits to that.

Never thought I would mention Ariana Grande in my newsletter but here we go. I am definitely not her target market but I started to appreciate what she is doing after seeing her in the Tonight Show. She sang Almost is Never Enough with Nathan Sykes who just came out of a throat surgery. I was very impressed by the performance and it shows that we need to support young people, always. Although a romantic ballad song, Almost is Never Enough is surely true for any startup that wants to conquer the world.

Kolay Gelsin,

Patrick Bosteels




patrick bosteels

Stage-Co, Urla Coworking, Now Sprint! Accelerator and Creative Academie co-founder, Facilitator, Accelerator Program Manager and Mentor