Thinking Differently, Part I: CAN-ICE Tackles Lean Canvas

(Welcome to Part I of the Thinking Differently series, a collection of real-world experiences that illustrate Albert Einstein’s belief that “We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them.”)


While selecting four companies to invest in, we interviewed over 400 founders. Not one of them brought us a Lean Canvas.

If you really want someone to understand your business or brand, my suggestion is to forget the business plan and pitch deck for a while, and focus your energy on developing the best possible Lean Canvas. In a nutshell, it's a straightforward exercise that helps the founder identify, with a great deal of clarity, the WHY of his or her pursuit. Divided into 9 sections, this one-page document that we go through and continually revisit with each brand we work with can be thought of as a business plan that’s been stripped down to the essentials. See a blank template below:

Lean Canvas in Action

Instead of describing each section theoretically, I think it’s more helpful to describe the Lean Canvas exercise that CAN-ICE, the latest company to join Black Lab Sports, recently underwent. Founder Mike McGraw, a former football and ice hockey player at Columbia University with over 35 years of experience in the sports surfacing industry, readily admits his initial skepticism about Lean Canvas; unfamiliar with the process and uncomfortable with the idea of paring down a volume-sized business plan to a single page, he nevertheless went into our meeting open-minded and eager to learn.

Our conversation began with Mike touting the merits of the CAN-ICE materials: the special polymers, interlocking panels, seamless surface, and so on. It sounded like he was selling me on plastic, but a year’s worth of conversations suggested there was much more to it than that. I pressed Mike to think beyond the physical and to consider the unstated whys: Why is there a need for synthetic ice? Why should people care? Why is he investing so much of his life into this product?

The answers that followed accomplished what his sales pitch could not: it got at the heart of CAN-ICE, and the meaning behind it. As Mike talked me through his earliest memories of skating—the frozen pond his childhood hub for dates and gatherings and ferocious pick-up games—his passion and nostalgia were palpable. His discourse on the origins of skating, a popular social activity among Scandinavians 4,000 years ago, confirmed what his experiences were getting at: Skating is unique, and CAN-ICE helps to capture that.

Using that redefined message, we turned to the Lean Canvas template. This process should be done for each distinct consumer base, which in the CAN-ICE case includes (#1) Institutional/Rink Market and (#2) Direct to Consumer Market. Both groups share the why (skating is unique), but are different enough that each requires its own brainstorming session. Here are some of the sections that we filled out for the CAN-ICE Institutional Lean Canvas, keeping in mind the crucial whys when considering each one:

Notice that the content in each cell is direct, concise, and vital. This practice is all about removing the fluff and the unknowns from a traditional business plan, and revealing only the most essential components of a brand. It drives important conversations about the branding, product, and company, and can be used afterwards as a guidepost for future decisions. In fact, the CAN-ICE Lean Canvas exercise brought about Mike’s realization that, with two very different consumer bases, he ultimately needs two separate products with price points and materials tailored precisely to each consumer. Had we not taken the time to strip CAN-ICE to its core—an exercise we’ll continue to do regularly as the brand evolves—we’d still be trying to sell the physical attributes of a brand that’s really about emotion and tradition.

Final Thought

Periodically, we ask each of our brands to take a step back and consider the WHY. As a team, we spend an hour or two building a Lean Canvas (one for each consumer) at the beginning of our collaboration and again whenever a major change warrants a revision. We use the single-paged document that results as a guide for future decisions, knowing that it’s a living document that needs room to grow alongside the business. The more clarity and cohesion we have about our message, the better equipped we are to convince others of its value too.