What is a Lean Canvas?

The Lean Canvas is a rapid idea capture tool that can be used to deconstruct any idea into a set of key assumptions.

When taking on a complex project, like say building a house, you wouldn’t start by putting up walls. You’d probably start with some kind of an architectural plan or blueprint — even if it’s just a sketch.

Building and launching an idea is no different.

Traditionally, we have used business plans for this purpose. The problem with traditional business plans is that they take too long to write, are seldom updated, but most important, the people who make you write these plans (typically investors or stakeholders in a company) don’t take the requisite time to read them — opting instead for the 1-page executive summary, the 10-page slide deck, or the 30-second elevator pitch.

Lean Canvas versus Business Plan

If you’re going to have to distill down your idea anyway, why not start with something smaller? Something that actually gets read?

This is where the 1-page Lean Canvas comes in.

Meet the Lean Canvas

The Lean Canvas is a rapid idea capture tool that can be used to deconstruct any idea into a set of key assumptions.

Once you have deconstructed an idea, not only can you visualize it more easily, but sharing and pitching the idea gets easier.

In just the last few years, the Lean Canvas has grown to become a viable and popular alternative to the traditional business plan. It’s used by thousands of companies ranging from startups to large enterprises. And it’s also taught at many of the leading universities and colleges around the world.

Here’s what a Lean Canvas looks like:

Lean Canvas

If you’ve ever written a business plan before, you should immediately recognize most of the boxes on the Lean Canvas. You can use these boxes to tell the story of your idea:

  • who are your customers,

  • what problems are you tackling,

  • how you solve these problems,

  • how you’ll go to market, make money, and defend against competitors.

I liken the boxes in the Lean Canvas to building blocks like lego pieces. As with lego pieces, you can use basic building blocks to construct models that range from simple models to models with much more complexity.

Because the Lean Canvas is designed to fit on a single page, with a little practice, you can sketch one of these Lean Canvas in about 20 minutes instead of taking days or weeks to write a business plan.

More important, once you share a 1-page Lean Canvas with someone, they can’t help but read it and have an opinion. That starts a conversation and such feedback is key to success.

Finally, like lego blocks, the Lean Canvas invites a level of play and creativity into the business planning process which is also key to achieving breakthrough innovation.

Where did the Lean Canvas come from?

The Lean Canvas was derived from the original Business Model Canvas (BMC) in 2010. While I found the 1-page format appealing, I felt the BMC was better suited for describing existing businesses versus helping create new ones. Since the BMC is licensed under a Creative Commons License, I started tinkering and the result was the Lean Canvas.

I’ve highlighted the differences below:

Lean Canvas versus Business Model Canvas

My goal with the Lean Canvas was not trying to create something better, but different. Coming from a strong product background, my approach to making the canvas actionable was capturing that which was most uncertain, or more accurately, that which was most risky in order to maximize the impact of the canvas.

Entrepreneurs are in the business of creating something out of nothing.

Another design goal was creating a canvas that would appeal to makers and not just business folks.

Good ideas can come from anywhere and sourcing a diversity of ideas is key for continuous innovation.

The power of the Lean Canvas lies in its simplicity.

When creating the Lean Canvas, we tested it in hundreds of workshops and across thousands of teams to ensure that all the boxes on the canvas were intuitive and easy to understand and that you didn’t need a business degree or a PhD to fill one out.

That testing paid off…

Today you see the Lean Canvas used, not just by business folks, but also engineers and designers and product managers at thousands of startups, accelerators, and large companies.

It is even taught in many of the top business and engineering schools around the world, and I learned recently, even at the high school level, which is great to see.

Additional Resources

If you’d like to learn more about the origin story of #the Lean Canvas or understand how it compares to the Business Model Canvas, #check out the links below:

  1. The Lean Canvas origin story
  2. 6 Reasons for picking the Lean Canvas over the Business Model Canvas

What’s next

The best way to learn the Lean Canvas is by creating one yourself. That’s what we’ll cover in the next lesson.