Friday nights were slain by the Lean Startups?!

“He’s not the Messiah. He’s a very naughty boy.”

If you don’t recognise this line then you haven’t seen Monty Python’s cult film, Life of Brian. Inadvertently, Brian becomes the founder of an insurrectionist religion and lauded as the son of God who will free his people from the oppression of the Romans. I am reminded of this when I find myself in a university lecture hall for the first time in 20 years.

It is a Friday night in central London. And even in those distant, candle-lit days when I was a student I don’t recall ever making it into a lecture hall on TGIF party night. Nevertheless, the vast auditorium at the London School of Economics is packed to its very modern rafters.

“Some people get very angry that I call this a movement,” says the speaker. “But I don’t know what else to call it… I really didn’t mean for this to happen.”

But here he is. And he finds himself thousands of miles from his home turf in Silicon Valley. The halls are similarly packed in cities all around the world. “It’s the same everywhere,” he says.

Eric Ries sought to bring some rigour to the startup process in a book calledThe Lean Startup, which promotes innovation through rapid experimentation and customer interaction. Over the last few years this has become, dare I say it, a bible for entrepreneurs and startup entrepreneurs.

Core concepts you may be familiar with include the ‘minimum viable product’ (MVP) and the ‘pivot’. The MVP is how you test your idea in the real world as efficiently as possible. The pivot is a way of “changing strategy without losing the vision” of your business. You might pivot when several iterations of MVP reveal that some of your assumptions about the world are mistaken.

So here we are on Friday night talking about MVPs. The bars and restaurants of London in early spring echo with emptiness while their erstwhile patrons raise hands like a conifer forest and ask: “I want to be an entrepreneur but where do I get ideas?” and “Do I have to move to Silicon Valley or is it OK to stay in London?”

Three things strike me. The first of these I’ve made clear — Friday nights ain’t what they used to be. The second thing is the staggering number of chat windows that students have open on their laptops while attending a talk. But for the soft clatter of keys, you would never know they were talking.

The third is the Monty Python thing. People are being turned away for want of somewhere to sit. What accounts for such enormous worldwide appetite to be an entrepreneur?

“I don’t think you should aspire to be an entrepreneur,” was the advice to one questioner. From a business point of view, that’s putting the cart before the horse. It’s pretty hard to passionately aspire to be an entrepreneur and then wait for an idea to throw your energy behind. What you can do is hurl yourself into the acquisition of deep knowledge in one domain or another or you can go to work with or for entrepreneurs.

And if and when you have the idea and readiness to build your own business then you will have something to throw yourself wholeheartedly into. Such was the advice and, well, sure. That makes sense. Yet I’m pretty certain that the number of people with the desire to “be” an entrepreneur is greater than the number of people who have a specific, burning business idea. I reckon the numbers don’t add up.

If that is so, then the success of the Lean Startup ‘movement’ must have tapped into something. And yes, the dream of becoming a twentysomething social media gazillionaire accounts for part of it.

But that doesn’t make a movement. I suspect it’s simpler and more profound. I think the reason is found in meaning and self-determination. These LSE students are entering a world where 50 per cent of jobs will be automated out of existence and years of professional training and qualifications can be replaced by an app on their phone. Work for many will be found in the gaps left between robots and algorithms.

People want to maintain (or take) some control of their destiny. And ideally they’d like to believe there are some rules. The allure of startup culture is people trying to grab a part of the steering wheel of the world for themselves. Ries put some rigour around the process and this provided a set of rules.

“Startups are organisations that operate in extreme uncertainty. Everything is an experiment,” he says. And this is how to survive.

Yet they aren’t commandments. “It’s not a religion,” he says again and again. Maybe people wish it was.