Every entrepreneur I know has his or her favorite excuse for a previous failure — an investor backed out, the economy took a downturn or a supplier delivered bad quality. These things outside your control do happen, but based on my years of experience as a startup advisor and angel investor, I still see too many shortcuts leading to failure that are inside the entrepreneur decision realm.
I certainly agree that starting a business is fraught with risk, and none of us get it right the first time. It is important to learn from your own mistakes, but it is even smarter to learn from someone else’s mistakes, without paying his or her high price in time lost, cost and pain. In that spirit, I offer my perspective on 10 common startup failure sources that rarely get admitted by entrepreneurs:
1. Choose to skip the written business plan. A business plan is for you first, not investors. The discipline of writing down your plan is the best way to make sure you understand how to transform your idea into a business, and how to communicate it.
2. Offer free solutions to bring in more customers. Do not get caught in the myth that you should not worry about monetization until after you have a large customer base. Viral marketing costs real money, and your support staff and hosting systems cost even more. Even non-profits need a profitable business model to offset staff and operating costs.
3. Assume passion level defines business opportunity. There is no substitute for market research to confirm that your passion matches a real need in the market. Not every great idea is a viable business. Social causes are great, but your ability to sustain your value contribution is directly linked to your ability to find paying customers.
4. Practice dreaming more than doing. Dreamers come up with ideas, and do-ers come up with businesses. Building a successful business is all about execution. Do not try to build a business unless you are comfortable with risk, uncertainty, responsibility and hard decisions. Dreams may motivate your team, but customers expect real solutions.
5. Convinced that many existing players means room for ‘me-too.’ Jumping into a crowded space is a great way to get lost quickly. Your chances of success are much greater if you target an under-served niche, or bring a new quantum leap in value over existing competitors. ‘Easier-to-use’ and other fuzzy terms will not get any attention.
6. Bypasses intellectual property as not worth the cost. ‘First-to-market’ is not a sustainable competitive advantage for startups, since sleeping giants do wake up when they see traction, and they can smash newcomers quickly. Patents and trademarks are very valuable in attracting investors for scaling, as well as future premium buyouts.
7. Thinks boundless energy is equal to experience. The real secrets of any business domain are not intuitively obvious, nor available in books. Many entrepreneurs tackle a completely unknown business domain, because the solution looks obvious and they plan to work very hard. Usually it pays to work in an industry for a while, before you try to fix it.
8. Willing to start today and find resources later. Cash is always hard to find, but in many cases it is even harder to find access to needed distribution channels, government contract expertise or the special skills required to deliver your solution. Entrepreneurs need to spend time working on the business, as well as in the business.
9. Finish the product before marketing begins. It is never too early to start marketing, since it usually takes as long to build marketing momentum as it does to build a product. No startup can afford to do these serially. In today’s information age, it takes time and money to make your solution visible. Marketing should start before product development.
10. Just give up and start over when tired and frustrated. In my experience, most startup success back-stories include an entrepreneur that simply would not give up, despite seemingly impossible odds. Most great entrepreneurs, including Steve Jobs and Thomas Edison, overcame multiple setbacks before they built their legacy of success.
None of these issues involve rocket science or MBAs. The best entrepreneurs just temper their passion with reality checks and street smarts, derived from their advisors and learning from their peers. It is good to avoid making the same mistake twice, but it is even more important to avoid making the same mistake as others before you, and expecting a better outcome. Even the best excuses do not lead to success.