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Thursday, November 22, 2012

Eleven Easiest Ways to Screw Up Your Startup

It is the dark season of the year again and I've had perhaps a bit too much exposure from startups lately. As a result I've composed a list of my favorite ways to screw up your startup. I'm not saying making a few of these mistakes is fatal. These are just my own observations.

This post was partly inspired by Paul Graham's great article "How to Get Startups Ideas". Some were inspired by the recent startup event, Slush, which I followed through their web stream.

Use Clichés at Your Pitches

As you might well know, startup people have to pitch a lot. Pitching is one of those skills you really must have. Even if you had the greatest idea and implementation in the world it doesn't help that much if you fail at presenting it.

There are a few basic clichés or basic mistakes I've noticed. Here are a few:

  • Start with a question
  • Do not describe what the product actually does
  • Try to get your listeners "imagine" something
  • Mention that your team or advisory board members have N years of collective experience
  • Blab around for too long. Nobody, including me, likes long pitches. Keep it short and straight to the point. My ears thank you.
I'm sure there are many more. These are just a few from the top of my mind.

Do Not Demo Your Product While Pitching or Presenting

Nobody really cares what your product might look like in five years or how you are going to change the world. One of the most important things you can do is actually to show your product and how it works. It doesn't have to be perfect! If you can do this, you have managed to achieve more than the most.

Ignore Financials

Not all great ideas are ideas that make sense financially. In fact you can start out with a boring idea and make some money out of that. There are lots of proven business models out there, why not to use one? Finding a new, novel one is way more difficult.

One of the basic mistakes you can make is to forget all about things like financial projects and profit and loss statements. You have to understand how the money flows when the business works. This gives you concrete goals you will need to reach in order to make it work. Or perhaps it will open up your eyes and make it possible for you to try something else instead before you are too committed to the idea.

Forget Customers, Focus on Users

You cannot expect to develop a great product with a big user base and then somehow figure out how to make money out of that. Sorry, it just doesn't work that way. Instead you are better off making money straight from the start.

This proves your product provides some tangible value to someone. Now that you have proved it is useful on some very specific vertical, you can scale it. Remember, you cannot scale a zero. It will still remain as such.

Do Not Talk with Customers

Ignore customer development at your peril. There are ideas and then there are proven ideas. Can you convert the person you are talking with into an actual customer? Remember, customers pay with money.

Unless you are building something for yourself, all you have in your head are guesses. You need to convert these guesses into a series of facts upon which to build your business model upon. It does not hurt to know well how your customers operates in normal life. You have to be intimately familiar with his pains. You, as an entrepreneur, are the one that can help to alleviate those.

Do Not Build an Awesome Team

Sure, one man can do a lot. But a team definitely helps! There are only so many hours in a day. Can you expect to handle all aspects of the business yourself? If so, ignore this point.

Build a Facebook for Cats

Wouldn't it be cool if there was like this service a bit like Facebook but for... wait for it... cats! There are like this many cat owners out there that would surely use this service to share meowy status updates.

It simply does not work this way. You can try to be yet another "me too" if you want. Or better yet, be an amalgam of a several services at once. Nothing better than that, right?

As Paul Graham states in his article, this is a fallacy. Even though it might feel like a good idea at first, in reality people, or their cats, can be active at only so many services at once. They might say that they could be potentially interested in that sort of thing but in reality they'll likely pass as they have better things to do than to use your service with two users (you and that creepy aunt of yours).

Do Not Know Your Numbers

I actually did this mistake in the previous point. It really helps to know your numbers. Numbers are real, they are valuable. They allow you to do calculations. I guess you don't have to be a genius to know that.

Numbers are the fodder you can use to make your estimates better. They allow you to get a better grasp of the market and figure out its size. This is highly useful information for building up those financials.

Treat It Casually

If you really want to make your startup a success, you have to work hard for it. Sure, there might be exceptions to this rule. I'm just saying it doesn't come easy to us normal people. You have to be prepared to do the legwork and speak with the people. Numbers have to be crunched even though that isn't particularly fun always. There are an endless list of things to do.

This is why you have to work smart and be lean. Your primary goal should be to minimize risks involved in your business model. Do your best at that to have a chance.

There is another side to this, though. If you treat it too seriously, you might end up inflicting some serious damage on yourself. Remember to rest and exercise enough to avoid fatigue. Sometimes taking a week or two off, even though it might feel like a tough thing to do, is the best thing you can do to rejuvenate yourself.

Be Always Late

In case you want to piss off your associates, be late, always. To make this more powerful, come up with lame excuses. This might feel like a small thing, especially in academic circles. In real life this is one of those things that separates losers from winners.

Promise But Don't Deliver

This is another favorite pet peeve of mine. Make promises to your associates and fail to keep them. Nothing eats your credibility better than this. And it is hard to regain it once you have lost it. If you make a commitment, stick to it. That's what commitments are for.


I'm sure there are many more ways to screw up your startup. In a way some of these apply beyond startups. In case I managed to miss some important one, let me know in the comments section.