10 ways you’ll probably f**k up your startup

Here I highlight some common early-stage mistakes I come across working closely with startup teams and how you can avoid them

Laurence McCahill
Dec 15, 2013 · 10 min read

1. No clear vision or purpose

This should be the starting point for any startup founder, but it’s often overlooked. Too often people dive straight into their shiny solution ideas without thinking about why they’re doing what they’re doing or considering the change they want to see in the world.

Simon Sinek’s Golden Circle framework

“People don’t buy what you do, they buy why you do it”
Simon Sinek

If your customers believe in your mission, then they’ll warm to you and listen to what you offer and how. By focusing on the ‘why?’ in business we can create much deeper connections with our audience and give our startups a better chance of success.

2. A lack of focus

If there’s one thing that startups are often guilty of, it’s trying to do too much, too soon. Having a clear focus means it’s easier to communicate what your product is and who it’s for. By trying to appeal to everyone and adding features left, right and centre, you will actually dilute your message and could end up with a complex, bloated product. Take lead from success stories such as Dropbox and Instagram by doing one thing really well.

“People who focus exclusively on efforts that matter, succeed. It’s that simple.” Michael Lazerow

It’s not as easy as it sounds. Often there can be pressures from customers, investors or other team members, but learning to say no is something you’ll need to get to grips with if you want a usable product. Get the core right and you’ll make your life a lot easier.

3. Design as an afterthought

Mistakenly, many early-stage startups often don’t see value in investing in design early on, believing it is a luxury which can be bolted on later like some kind of magic stardust. This is a missed opportunity (and demonstrates a misunderstanding of what design is).

“Design is not just what it looks like and feels like, design is how it works.” Steve Jobs

It’s been proven that there’s a direct correlation between a positive user experience and loyalty. Happy customers tend to spend more, more often and tell their friends. I see design as a direct route to free marketing through the positive word of mouth it helps to generate. People are now more savvy than they were even five years ago and won’t put up with a poorly designed product or service if there’s a better alternative. I believe your customers’ experience is the main contact with your brand so it’s key to really work at this. If it creates a negative emotion, they’ll more than likely never come back (or even worse use their network to harm your brand through a bad review).

Quote from John Wilshire, Artefact Cards

4. Building something nobody wants

The right product is simple, compelling, and aligned with the business model. Often though, you’ll come across websites or apps that look nice and appear on the surface to have a good experience, but as you delve deeper and use them more there’s no obvious value to the user. Either the problem they’re trying to solve isn’t actually a big enough problem for many people, or the solution being proposed doesn’t hit the right note to gain significant traction.

“Life’s too short to build something nobody wants.”
Ash Maurya

Most business ideas are based on a set of assumptions made by the founders, and without rigorously testing these you’re significantly reducing your chances of success. Many business disasters could have been avoided simply by talking more to their customers and stakeholders. It’s your responsibility to discover a product that is valuable and desirable. It makes no sense to proceed to building something until you have evidence that you have discovered the right product.

5. Chasing investors, not customers

Just because you have a great idea, this doesn’t mean that you’ll get funding. One of the safest ways to ensure survival for your startup is to have a business model that lets the product pay for itself. I come across so many startups that are way too focused on building a pitch rather than building a business. Forget funding and find a customer that will pay for your product. Then find another, and another. Get some customers and investment will come a lot easier.

“When you take money from investors their business model becomes yours.” Steve Blank

Also, if you are looking for investment, focus more on clarifying your product vision and story and less on the (made up) numbers. If you’re a true entrepreneur you should be worrying about the things that you can control (building a great product and keeping customers happy) than things you can’t (chasing VCs, angel investors, etc).

6. Too much talking, not enough listening

Perhaps it’s because funding is so important to early-stage startups that they soon get good at perfecting their sales pitch. Great if you’re looking for funding, not so good if you’re on the search for product-market fit. Without a proven business model you’re in danger of missing opportunities that arise from just opening your ears and listening to what people have to say.

“We have two ears and one mouth. To be a good leader, you have to be a great listener.” Richard Branson

Whilst sales are the lifeline of any startup, the key is really understanding your customers’ problems before selling.

7. Launching too late (or too early)

Too many startups spend months (or years in some cases) in ‘stealth mode’, hidden away from prying eyes, and end up never releasing at all as uncertainty and competition spoil the show. Equally there are others that launch a poor early version of their product in true lean startup style. However if it’s not ‘minimum lovable’, don’t release it. Make sure there’s a base level of design and usability across all features otherwise you might not get the outcome you’re hoping for. Getting the balance right between launching early and creating the perfect product is no mean feat, but one that could pay dividends.

8. Failing to ask for help

Entrepreneurs can be a stubborn lot. There’s no harm in asking for help early on, but too few do. There are advisors out there that want to help you, and not just to fill their own pockets. Why make your own mistakes when others that have tread before you can help steer you in the right direction?

Ben Chestnut’s reverse marketing funnel

9. No growth plan

Build it and they will come. Or not, as is usually the case. Customer acquisition ultimately makes or breaks any start-up.

10. Hiring badly

Startups that get funding early often make the mistake of hiring people too soon, before they’ve really worked out the sort of person they’re looking for. It’s seems that every other budding entrepreneur out there is searching for a co-founder, but in all the wrong places. Just as you won’t meet your future spouse in a nightclub, you’re unlikely to meet your business soulmate at a co-founders speed dating night.

“Get the right people on the bus, then decide which direction to drive it.”
Jim Collins

This all comes down to pinning down your startup DNA. If you have a strong vision, story and set of values that drive you, then you’ll know the sort of person that will be the right fit. No talented developer, designer or hacker is going to want to work until they sweat unless they have a real bond with you and believe in your startup purpose.

“We are presenting the Culture Canvas in the startup community so they can use this tool to model their culture from the start. Modelling a minimal viable culture and assessing whether there is a product-culture fit is vital even if you are dealing with a two-founder startup. It is also important for proven startups that are looking to scale their business.”

I can see this becoming a more widely used tool as startups realise the business benefits of having a strong culture and engaged employees. All the research points to happy teams making more money, so organisations are switching on to this. Startups are next.

In summary

Follow these 10 tips and you’ll be on the right track to a happy startup:

  1. Keep the main thing, the main thing
  2. Bring design on board from day one
  3. Validate ideas early and test assumptions
  4. Build a business, not a pitch
  5. Stop selling and start listening
  6. Get the balance right between MVP and perfection
  7. Get a mentor and build your support network
  8. 90% of entrepreneurship is sales. It’s time to start hustling.
  9. It’s all about people. Hire the best you can

The Happy Startup School

Build a life and business rich with purpose

Laurence McCahill

Written by

Co-founder The Happy Startup School. Building a global community of heart-shaped entrepreneurs and leaders, one event at a time.

The Happy Startup School

Build a life and business rich with purpose

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