You can’t optimize your way out of a strategic error.


The Lean Startup is not gospel.

At one point in your business, you’ve surely faced a tough problem, and in your desperation to solve it, you started to throw stuff at the wall, praying it works.

You tried to fix a strategic error that exists on a high level by tinkering with elements that exist on a lower level.

You changed the copy on your website, changed the copy of your direct response ads and experimented with different subject lines of your cold emails.

You tried to optimize your way out of a strategic error.

It doesn’t always work. Here is why.

I like to think of business factors as being in either of the two domains: MACRO and MICRO.

Macro domain contains the most important business foundations. This is where your strategic decisions stand. An example of a macro business factor might be market demand.

One of the defining characteristics of macro factors is that they are lagging indicators. They take a long time to reap fruits, they take a long time to set up, so you better get them right on the first attempt.

This, by nature, means that trying to “lean startup” your way with them (test-fail-learn until you get it right) is an oxymoron.

It is possible, but it defeats the purpose, since the whole point of experimenting is fast learning.

Micro domain on the other hand, is about the low level tactics and factors.

Things such as your cold email subject lines, colors, or maybe your website copy. Things that you can easily adjust.

Optimization happens at micro level.

Here’s the catch: if you missed the mark with your overarching strategic decisions (MACRO), any optimization you do (MICRO) won’t make a difference.

Optimization will take you from 1 to 1.5, but changing your entire strategy will take you from 1 to 10.

If macro domain is the mountain, then micro domain are the ridges and hills on that mountain.

Startups are notorious for this. They over optimize. They put duct tape over gaping holes.

Here’s an example.

Santiago is a founder of a startup. He sells some kind of an innovative product, product that no one has ever seen before.

The truth is, people reject his product because they simply don’t need it.

There is no market demand.

Santiago, however, is not aware of this. Maybe he is, but he refuses to accept it.

And so Santiago spends 9 more months, losing money, trying to optimize his micro level tactics until people finally start buying his product.

The market still rejects him.

Had Santiago went back to the drawing board and cut his losses, changed one of the macro level bottlenecks (his product), maybe he would have solved the problem.

But he didn’t.

Get the macro right before you even think of optimizing anything.

Being lean has it’s place, but it’s not always the answer.

When all you have is a hammer, every problem is looks like a nail.

Resist that.

This article is inspired by Samuel Brealey’s tweetstorm on a similar topic. Samuel is a marketer whom I admire very much.

I post a lot of digestible content on (brand) strategy on Instagram. If you found this article useful, I invite you to follow Constellate on Instagram!

If you wish to connect with me personally, feel free to send me a connection request on LinkedIn.



Haris Spahic, Brand Consultant / Constellate

I post a lot about (brand) strategy as it relates to your startup’s long term sales growth.