HR & Management

The 6 key mistakes startups make

7 min read

25 September 2015

There are many hurdles to overcome in creating a successful business but these are the six most common we encounter among the startups we help and how you can avoid making them too.

I’ll start with this chart about how a bad process might look in developing an idea into a product. After highlighting the key mistakes we’ll finish with the same chart but showing what a good process looks like.

1. The wrong value proposition

It’s surprisingly common that startups don’t do enough research to back up the hypothesis around their idea. At times, they completely misunderstand the value proposition on which they build their product. In simple terms, they try to solve a problem which doesn’t exist or can easily be solved with alternative solutions.

So, startups need to focus on clarifying what value their product creates by asking themselves these basic questions which should then be tested, initially, by a survey of the target market audience:

  • What is the problem? 
  • Whose problem is it?
  • How big is the problem?
  • What value are we creating?
  • Who would benefit from this value?
  • Who would pay for this value? 
  • How much would they pay?

2. Trying to be perfect

It’s a big mistake to wait to publicly launch the product once it’s perfect. For example, they spend (or waste) time and money building features which are the least important against the value proposition and delay the Go-To-Market date.

Being passionate about the idea is great but it can blind people into wanting to achieve perfection (everything in one go). Much worse, it can mean building something the startup wants but not what potential customers want.

Those erring here totally miss the meaning of the Minimum Viable Product (MVP), which is – the minimum work you need to achieve maximum value. What goes into a MVP is defined by the Pareto Principle (aka the 80–20 rule) and the Kano Model (a product development theory classifying 5 customer preferences):

  • 80 per cent of the value is created by 20 per cent of the effort
  • And it takes the remaining 80 per cent of the effort to capture the remaining 20 per cent of the user value
  • Hence one should focus on the most important functionalities that will capture the 80 per cent of the user/customer value

So, don’t wait until its perfect, once you’ve got your MVP, get it out there fast!

3. The wrong team

Team is EVERYTHING. Here are the most common mistakes that block creating a motivated team aligned to business growth:

  • Wasting time and focus trying to get all the skills in-house rather than using committed partners like Innovify to deliver the initial requirements, allowing owners to focus on the business side
  • Hiring for short-term/immediate needs. This can lead to both (a) firing them once the job is accomplished, leading to insecurity in other team members and (b) continuing to divert funds to non-essential activities, leading to cash burnouts
  • Not letting team members contribute to the product – this kills team creativity and excludes them as valuable stakeholders
  • Lack of clarification of roles and responsibilities, leading to confusion on the floor
  • Ejecting under-performers from the organisation quickly – laggards can pull an entire co down
  • Judging teams only on their competence and not their beliefs/values that relate to the business. Remember: competencies can be learned but not the values

Continue on the next page for the final three errors early-stage firms need to avoid

4. Thinking you’ll easily acquire millions of users 

Startups can be hugely overconfident in assuming the market is waiting for them and will accept them with open hands. Thus, they fail because they don’t correctly segment their target market.

They don’t consider the underlying needs of this segment and correctly balance the marketing 5Ps (Product, Price, Promotion, Place, People). Startups shouldn’t target the millions that might never use their product/service but rather the smaller handful who will enable them to better their proposition.

An easy thing to do is identify a few user personas for the product/service and understand their needs, beliefs, motivation, etc. This will enable them to better define the product, price it correctly and sell using the right promotion at the right place.

5. It’s not a one man show

Founders often start with a great idea and think they have everything to make it a success. However, there’s only so much one can do and they need different skills to deal with different aspects of the business.

At times, all a founder brings to the table is just the idea and possibly some passion. However, ideas are worthless and passion can wither away on first failure. They don’t bring any leadership or resources; they can’t get anything done and, eventually, always rely on others to get things done. 

Such founders are actually detrimental to their own success and their founding team would eventually move away to work on something better.

6. Giving up too soon

Arguably the most important point but certainly the final nail in the failure coffin.

Failing shouldn’t lead to giving up – instead, to learning a lesson and using that knowledge to move forward. We go into this in more detail in the single lesson from Silicon Valley piece so here we’ll simply cite Thomas Edison’s well-worn quote – “I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.”

As promised, after citing the key mistakes, here’s how our beginning chart should look.

Maulik Sailor and Vikas Agarwal are the co-founders of product management company Innovify