Why Your Startup Will Fail

Most startups fail. Your startup will also most likely fail. Here is why.

Back story: I was recently asked to answer a question on quora “Polish Startups: What are the top five obstacles for IT and tech startups in Poland to be more profitable?“. This was an easy task as I made all of those mistakes myself while running my own startup during the past 5 years. So I wrote the answer. Then I realized that the reasons for startups failing are probably universal, at least for non-Silicon Valley companies. So, I decided to transform the answer into a longer post. And here you are reading it.

  1. You raised too little funding. It’s relatively easy to get small initial funding for an idea. You can raise it from friends, accelerators, local angel investors or seed-level VC firms. But without substantial traction you won’t raise a follow-up funding any time soon. At the same time in Silicon Valley 10 other people most likely raised seed rounds that are 2–3 times bigger than yours for the same idea. If you need to compete with American startups in a global market, you are simply always underfunded and you will run out of cash faster unless you are significantly better in all the following steps.
  2. Your UX is bad. I’ve seen amazing technical teams building the shittiest products you can imagine from the UX perspective. Myself and my team included. This especially concerns Poland. We have thousands of top-notch backend engineers, but not so many experienced designers and product people. Importing them from the UK or Scandinavia or the US costs money (see point 1) so if you don’t have one in your team already, you’re kind of screwed.
  3. You haven’t done market research. You probably believe that you have a great idea that will disrupt an industry, but you know next to nothing about the industry you are trying to change. A common mistake is finding a niche that is not well-served by tech startups, yet, but failing to understand the actual size of the niche. If the total number of customers you might get world-wide is one thousand and it’s not growing fast, while you charge 10 dollars per month for your SaaS service, this is probably not the right opportunity to build a billion dollar business. It’s a few hours of googling and some basic math that can save you spending a year of your life on unimportant crap. Why haven’t you done it, yet??
  4. You haven’t talked to your customers. Of course you’re going to say you did, but how many customers have you really spent a significant time with? 1? 10? 20? It’s too little! You should talk to hundreds of customers before you even start working on your MVP! Also, if you actually talked to those people, did you listen or did you just talk? Did you find out the real issues they struggle with? Have you learned anything or did you decide to pitch your idea and leave when they turned out not as excited as you expected? A good measure of whether or not your customer meeting went well is your next pitch. If you haven’t changed anything, you haven’t learned anything.
  5. You have no advisors or — worse — bad advisors. Finding the right advisors with domain knowledge that can help shape your products and reach your customers. For reasons I can’t imagine, most Polish startups I know have never even considered it. What’s even worse, even if they do get an advisor (because someone, like an accelerator, told them to do so), they often choose a wrong person for the job. There are numbers of “consultants” or “startup advisors” out there who are willing to trick you into thinking they can help you raise funding / introduce you to the right people, but they really are not that important and you should avoid them. Find advisors who have accomplished something substantial in your domain / worked for a leading company in the domain / really know their shit and have a network that can help you succeed.
  6. You can’t hustle. As Marvin Liao once said (watch his talk here: https://vimeo.com/132554356), Polish founders can’t hustle. You probably don’t work enough hours (no, 8h a day is not enough to build a global business) and even if you do, you most likely micro-manage as opposed to working on the three things you should (fundraising, building the team and selling) while letting your (hopefully) competent co-founders and early employees focus on the stuff they are good at, like building the product.

Are you insulted by the above? Do you have a startup and believe you haven’t done the mistakes above? Or maybe just want learn how to best avoid them from someone who made them all? Let’s have a chat. You can book 30 minutes of my time for free. Just e-mail me at borys@reaktorwarsaw.com or send me a Signal message at +48795158581. I’m available every other Friday for 2 hours (1–3PM CET) either via Skype or in person at Reaktor, Warsaw and happy to help.