I am often asked, as I was today, what are the biggest mistakes that startups make that cause failure. Among them is a lack of focus that can be characterized by the phrase: “more startups die of indigestion than starvation.” It is hard to raise money. Therefore common wisdom would indicate that “starvation” is the biggest risk. However, years of experience show that this is only a part of the truth. Very often when a startup runs out of cash, the root cause is a lack of execution against its plan that was brought on by trying to do more things than their plan or funding allowed.
Usually this is done for the best of reasons. For example, a large customer will ask for more features than were originally planned. Or, as the product develops, it becomes clear that the product can do lots of things that customers really do want. Or it will be harder to develop the product, so the company will try to do something different. Or the original marketing plan is harder to execute that originally contemplated, so the company will try to build a different products. Or
Bottom line: the company will try to do more than it possibly can, given the funding it raised.
And, understand, these words are easy to say, but hard to live. They always have been. In certain economic cycles, lots of VC funding has helped keep companies alive, but not necessarily better outcomes for investors or entrepreneurs. In the current economic cycle, markets are unforgiving. So, I have the following recommendations:
- Be realistic on you initial plan. See counsel from experienced entrepreneurs or business people.
- Be a great cheerleader externally, but keep a strong sense of realism about what is really happening with the business. A good, strong independent board and advisors help. But you must be willing to listen.
- Stick to the plan. Not blindly, but be careful not to churn plans.
- Don’t stop thinking about new ways your business can meet new customer needs, or ship new innovative products or technologies. But.. rather than trying to alter your plans, keep a notebook with each of the ideas. Review those ideas with your board and advisors and have a process that you agree to before going off plan.
While all of this may seem a little to regimented for a startup, the alternative leads to “indigestion” that can be fatal.