I’ve being doing the ’startup thing’ for close to a year and a half. That might not sound like much, but I feel that I’ve learned a ton and gained much experience. Following a recent startup-oriented weekend adventure I took a part in and some introspection, I thought I’d offer my take on Ye Olde ‘Top 10 Pitfalls’ of starting up in the web environment:
1. Lack of focus
Keep it simple, stupid. This might sound obvious, but a lack of focus is a real killer for a young start up. Define your core business and avoid temptations to branch out in other directions as opportunities come along (Jim Collins calls it the hedgehog mentality). Know what you do best, and stick with it.
2. Lack of discipline
If you don’t have the discipline to pursue your goals with single-minded determination, you will fail. This doesn’t mean that your vision has to be set in stone (far from it, your vision should be constantly adapting), but you have to know what your core ideals are and believe they will take you where you want to get. You will encounter hardships and things will get much worse before they get better, so have the resolve to follow through (or save yourself the time and go work at some software company).
3. Overuse of buzz words
If the first two points were universally true, this one plagues web startups to a much greater degree. People throw around concepts such ‘viral’, ‘SaaS’, ’semantic web’,’web 2.0′, ’social community’ to describe how their brand spanking new start up is going to succeed. If one of those concepts happen to apply to your idea, people will understand it themselves. If you need to keep using them to convince others of your certain future success, you might be experiencing the buzz-word syndrome.
4. No balance amongst founders
This one is critical. Ultimately, its the team that determines the success of the startup and not the idea. A strong team can carry a mediocre idea to great success, while an average team will probably fail even with a very good idea. There are several factors that go into making a strong team besides collecting talented individuals – such as a diverse skill set (most common mistake – only technological founders), having not too many and not too few (three is the lucky number here) and strong team chemistry (you will have disagreement. Is your relationship strong enough to overcome?). Note that investors will look for those qualities as well, more so than an amazing idea or breakthrough technology (which are very rare).
5. Thinking you know anything when you start
You don’t. You will make tons of mistakes. Are you adaptive enough to grow and develop? Can you let go of your ego to admit that what you’ve been putting much effort into was a big mistake? (Some times called facing the brutal facts). Knowing when you are wrong and be willing to admit it is key to survival as a small start up.
6. Making money or making a difference
If you are in it just for the money, you might succeed. However, if you want to make a difference you are in a much better position. A difference maker will not just reach his target audience, he will make them his evangelists. His passion and his belief in the idea will come from a place that will sustain him for much longer and will be apparent in his actions. Go and watch this excellent presentation by Guy Kawasaki. Come back in 40 minutes.
7. Hiring people: Quantity over quality
Start ups start small and always feel they need to expand, sometimes very rapidly. However, it is imperative to hire the only the people you are absolutely sure about. If there is a doubt, there is no doubt. I’m not even talking about skill or experience, but the basic persona. One bad apple can ruin it for everyone and degrade performance across the board.
Also, hire people who are learners and passionate over experienced with a 9-to-5 mentality. I want every person at my start up to pick up many new skills as we move forward and also to be passionate about what he does. No amount of technical wizardry or marketing knowledge can cover up for that.
If you hire the best people, you will soon find out that the best ideas and solutions come from having active discussions with them. In hebrew we call that having a ‘good head’, which means someone has the right mental tools to be constantly successful and a good team player.
8. Avoiding responsibility
Sometimes bottlenecks appears and progress slows to a crawl. When that happens you have to take action, and find out who needs motivating or what needs solving. Don’t assume someone else will take care of it since it’s not your responsibility. If you aren’t doing anything you are a part of the problem and not the solution.
9. Planning too far or not at all
There are two main types of thinkers – pragmatics who focus on the what needs to be done now, and visionaries who focus on the greater picture. Losing track of your objectives and higher level goals and planning for the next step is a sure way to steer off course, and planning too much will get nothing done. You have to balance those two activities constantly, never neglecting either.
10. Suffering for the cause
This is your startup, your idea, your passion. If you aren’t having fun you will run out of motivation and energy, ultimately failing after much anguish and anxiety. Find out why and if it can be fixed or return to the drawing board and start over.