LinkedIn founder Reid Hoffman was talking about startups when he said that “You jump off a cliff and you assemble an airplane on the way down.” There always seems to be too little time, people, money or something else for doing all the things that seem necessary. Even though that may be the fact of life for any startup entrepreneur, some of the hardship may be self-inflicted and unnecessary.
It’s probably true that you learn the most when you make mistakes. Also, startups shouldn’t fear making mistakes when trying new things and approaches. Having said that, I think it makes sense to try to avoid some of the most typical mistakes that provide very little value and concentrate on some new ones that create new learnings.
Below are some thoughts in no particular order on startup mistakes that startups should avoid. Some I’ve learned first-hand the hard way and some I’ve seen to happen in the tens of startups that I’ve worked with.
Don’t start with an organizational chart.
If you don’t have customers and revenue, but you have an organizational chart with VP’s or similar, you are most likely spending your time on the wrong things. There are some official roles that need to be there, such as a CEO, but even that should not be the same as a CEO in a big company (you know, mahogany chairs, corner office, secretary, etc.). Certainly, startups need to agree on roles (“Tom has the main responsibility for marketing, Pekka for tech” etc.) in order to get things done. Still, the founders need to spend their time learning together what the actual business will be about, not worrying about organizational boundaries and the chain of command.
Don’t make a 12-month roadmap and stick with it.
A lot of times success in big companies is measured in part by being on time and on budget and delivering the project roadmap. If you are in an established business and you can predict, for example, demand with high certainty, this makes a lot of sense. Eric Ries has a great definition for a startup: “human institution designed to deliver a new product or service under conditions of extreme uncertainty”. In other words, it’s good to make snapshots of what you think will happen, but always expect change and be prepared for it. Preparation for the unexpected is the best way to avoid huge startup mistakes.
Don’t do too much before you really know what your customers want.
Startup founders need to have a great deal of passion and confidence in their idea. Sometimes they may get carried away in this and believe that success is just around the corner only if they just add a few more features. More often than not, you can’t make a bad product into a good one by adding more features or optimizations. For example, if you cannot attract customers for your iPhone mobile app, you are not likely to be any better off by adding the Android app. Or if customers are not interested in your product, adding new payment methods will not increase your sales. Make sure your customers love your core product and use the new features to accelerate the growth.
Don’t try to build several businesses simultaneously.
Entrepreneurs see ideas and opportunities everywhere and that’s a good thing. The hard part is usually when you have to decide what to do right now and what to leave behind – at least for the time being. It’s easy to see, for example, your technology as a potential solution to many different problems and target segments. Usually, the reasoning is that it makes sense to leverage the investment for different use cases. Again, possibly a good idea, but not at the same time. Startups need to spend all time and effort to learn what is the problem and build a unique solution as fast as possible. Also, even if the underlying technology is almost the same, the business logic and the way you’d run the company may be very different. Just consider how different, for example, sales, marketing, or customer support functions are for a B2C and B2B companies and you’ll avoid making most common startup mistakes.