Starting a company, any kind of company is the hardest thing to do in business. Sez me.
It’s also one of the most rewarding and fun, if you’re built for the startup experience–though not everyone is. Technology startups have their own unique challenges. There are many different ways to drive off the road, some of which I list below. Keep in mind that no startup is perfect, and mistakes will be made. The future can not be forecast, and in a software or tech startup you’re often flying nearly blind without a map, because you are trying to do something new and different.
In the end, if you are able to make it through, overcoming your mistakes may be the most satisfying part of the whole startup experience. So keep in mind that it’s almost impossible to play a perfect game. On the other hand, it’s crucial to steer clear of the mistakes which are often avoidable–because you only get some many chances to recover from errors.
Here are some of the common, often avoidable missteps to be aware of:
Too little capital
Sometimes this is unavoidable–but if you really don’t have enough capital maybe you shouldn’t start up in the first place. Activities such as software product development are notorious for going way past schedule and over budget. Most products don’t move like a knife through butter with the first modest promotional campaign. So build a decent amount of backup money into your plan, because things rarely go as planned. If they do, great, you can use the money to accelerate growth. But when things don’t go well, you’ll at least give yourself a fighting chance, if you’ve set aside a bit of money for a rainy day.
Don’t try to be a “Big Company” right off the bat
Many startup management teams are jealous of the resources available to their established competitors. These folks can become “Big Company Wannabes”, a classic formula for going out of business early. Don’t spend your precious time and resources on activities that don’t efficiently bring the product out, or market it. Period. Lavish trade show booths, company parties, expensive or large offices, administrative assistants for all the execs, etc., etc. Don’t hire a lot of big company people who don’t have early stage experience–they are prone to the types of costly waste listed above.
No backup plan
It is a startup and you have to expect little margin for error in reaching success. But that’s no excuse for a lack of strategic planning–within the constraints of your resources. A backup plan might be something simple: software companies going to open source if your high-priced commercial strategy meets resistance, a service-oriented revenue strategy with a cheap or free product, using a channel rather than building a full sales force, licensing your technology instead of marketing a full product to end users. It depends on your circumstances, but do try to have some type of a contingency plan going in.
The “Techies know everything” syndrome
This is a common malady in tech startups, because many new software and tech companies are led by management heavy in experience from the engineering or software development side of the business. Usually these folks are very smart, but in some cases also a bit full of themselves, unable to know their own blind spots. Those blind spots often appear in marketing and sales (which every engineer and software developer knows are easy, non-complex activities). The really smart guys quickly figure out those other parts of the business besides the tech stuff is hard as well, and make adjustments through education and bringing in outside expertise.
The “Technology is everything” syndrome
This is a corollary to the bullet point above. The technology and product is crucial in a tech startup, since it is usually the basis for your competitive advantage. But it’s not everything, and many a startup has failed despite great technology and an exciting new product.
No marketing budget or in-house expertise
Believe it or not, I see a lot of companies with little or no promotional budget. Its insanity, but they only have enough money to get the product built, apparently thinking “if you build it they will come”. This is nearly always a failure mode. If there is someone with marketing expertise among the founders, they usually won’t allow this to happen. So secure a marketer on your founding management team, or at least find a close advisor you will listen to, early on.
Under-estimating time to market
This is a very common mistake. By definition, you are trying to do something new, which isn’t forecast-able. So don’t believe your own pretty Gantt charts–garbage-in equals garbage-out when it comes to schedules. Don’t count on making it to the big trade show, commit to costly promotional activities with no recourse, or let the developers all plan to leave for that well-deserved month in Hawaii. Get the product done first. I tell you this with many painful experiences as a teacher, both personally in software and tech companies and through my clients.
Even if you are able to get the product out on time, that doesn’t mean version one will hit the ground running. They often crawl, stumble and fall at first. After all, this is your first opportunity at really accurate market research. Even if the product is right on target, finding the marketing mix that works is generally trial and error. Many products don’t find success until their second version is released, so have some money in the bank, and some emotional bandwidth available for this possibility.
Introducing a “buggy” product
This is one of my biggest pet peeves, especially for software products. Most products aren’t fully stable when the developers think it is ready. They work on it so long and hard, that human nature wants it to be finished near the end–and dangerous shortcuts can be the result. Dedicate as many resources as you can spell to ensure a credible, third party view that the product is as stable as it can be, before the market gets the opportunity to “debug it” for you. You only get one chance to make a first impression. If the situation is bad enough, it can cost you your business.
There are my thoughts on what critical mistakes to avoid in a technology startup. I’m sure many of you have your own lessons and ideas to share. Post a comment to start the discussion! Follow Phil Morettini and Morettini on Management via Twitter, Facebook, RSS, or the PJM Consulting Quarterly Newsletter.