A Web Developer’s Critique of Start-Ups: Two Things Entrepreneurs Do Wrong

Photo atop piece is adapted from “Mistakes” by Chris Brown (Flickr, Creative Commons).

Much of the online writing about start-ups comes from entrepreneurs starting up their own companies. Quite often, the more exciting perspectives tell the tales of either well-funded VC efforts or shoestring-budget miracles that somehow took off. This article will offer a slightly different view that I hope many entrepreneurs will appreciate.

You see, one of the first things a start-up does once it gets going is where my company comes into play. Yep, they need a web site. Usually they have the domain already by the time I talk with them, but the actual web site design and development comes up next. It could be a placeholder site for whenever their new platform is ready, or maybe it’s the platform itself that needs development. It all depends.

Not many of these are VC / angel investor / super-funded efforts. Nor are many of them asking for web site development in exchange for equity or some other barter. Most are just normal business people with an idea — or, I should say, a “vision.”

Now, I’m a self-employed guy myself, so I certainly understand how business works. And yes, I’ve worked in corporate America, too — even put in some time at some serious players like Deloitte and Simon & Schuster, to name drop a few. So, I can appreciate even the most demanding executive perspectives about start-ups.

The Top Entrepreneurial Mistake Made by Mid- to Larger Start-Ups

Here’s where the larger guys go wrong — and, this is something I see time and time again, I warn them about, and they rarely listen: When they’re developing their platform, they’re proactive to a fault. That is to say, they imagine each and every little thing that could be needed or desired— ever! — and they want that incorporated into their web site or platform from day one.

I’ll have to invent an example here, as all of my best anecdotes about such things are protected by NDAs. But, let’s say you’re building out an ecommerce store of some kind, and you’re going to sell widgets. Then one of your investors says, “Hey, what are you gonna do when someone wants to return a widget?”

Okay, fair enough, so you come up with a process for that. But then maybe you hear of some other ecom site that’s integrated with UPS or something. (I’m making this up completely here, so this has no bearing on real-world APIs.) Anyway, that article reports some stunning process for returns that you think is elegant. So, you obsess over it and decide that we now need to change out the shipping to integrate with UPS over whatever we had before.

Later (and, mind you, we’re still in development and you’ve built up zero customers!), you decide that, each week or month, you’d like a report that outlines all returns, as well as reasons for such. So, we build out that additional reporting capability on the back end.

And so on, and so on, and so on. It’s almost as if there’s a psychological avoidance mechanism at play with respect to actually launching the product or service!

What To Do Instead

In my view — and, admittedly, it’s somewhat skewed as I’m a web developer — I’d say get your basic offering up and running. Of course have it well-coded, and extensible if needed. That means good planning and coding up front. I’m certainly not advocating winging it in some shoddy manner. But, once your basic platform is in place: LAUNCH.

There will of course be bugs and issues and minutiae down the line. And you know what? You’ll address them as they come up, only a little more reactively, on an as-needed basis.

I know that “reactive” as opposed to “proactive” is generally thought of as poor advice in the business world. But, trust me, people can overdo it. You can be proactive to a fault, and it’s not as uncommon as you think.

I can’t guarantee success from this approach. After all, your product or service has to be desired and well marketed. But, for many startups, it can mean saving perhaps tens of thousands of dollars during the early stages. That can translate into additional dollars allocated to marketing and sales, or to covering operations expenses for a longer time to allow the business to attain the take-off it needs.

All of this, IMHO, is more mission-critical post-launch as compared with business processes and rarely-needed or low-value functionality that could be added on later.

The Second Biggie, Usually Made by Smaller Ones

Really, the only other huge and common mistake I see web-wise, is lack of tenacity. The small players give up too soon, after too little effort.

Routinely, people expect an “if we build it, they will come” response. They’ll then have us build out a large, fancy site — even amid our insistence to them early on, way before we even sign any contracts, that building traffic and positioning will take time — but won’t stick to a marketing regimen.

I’ve often advised smaller companies that traffic building can take a long, unreasonable, unbearable amount of time — and/or a ton of cash. But, for the ones that want to do it themselves, I rarely see the tenacity required.

But, that’s marketing. It’s not a magic wand to generate customers; rather, it’s just a set of time-honored best practices that in fact take time and patience to get going. I’ve been fortunate to learn from many super-savvy internet marketers. Almost invariably, these people put out solid, decent content for a long, long time before their numbers became enviable.

What to Do Instead

Don’t give up! If you’ve got a vision you believe in, and a passion for your idea, keep at it. Keep marketing it. Market it correctly, of course, but keep at it for a completely unreasonable amount of time. If you build it, and do all that for that long … that’s the guerrilla marketing approach a lot of smaller companies are looking for. (BTW, here’s some further advice for smaller start-ups.)

Jim Dee heads up Array Web Development, LLC in Portland, OR. He’s the editor of “Web Designer | Web Developer” magazine and a contributor to many online publications. You can reach him at: Jim [at] ArrayWebDevelopment.com.