9 Deadly Startup Diseases and How to Cure Them

Building a startup is hard. There are many problems that can hurt a startup – perhaps even kill it. This article examines some of the more common diseases that plague startups, and proposes some cures. All of these issues can be remedied if detected early enough, so it’s really worth being aware of them. That way, you can operate before they become fatal.

Startup Disease 1: The Imaginary User Syndrome

A product that’s not geared towards a specific user is unlikely to benefit anyone in particular; hence, there’s no such thing as a generic user. No matter how great your initial vision might seem, if you don’t have a target audience in mind, your startup will lack direction and flounder. In addition, it’s difficult to market to everyone, so not only will your product suffer, it’ll be hard to sell too.

Symptoms:

  • Your product is targeted at all or most small businesses online.
  • You don’t know any of your likely users personally, but you’re sure they’ll find your product very useful.
  • Your product seems so versatile that it will be useful to practically anyone.

Cure:

Stop developing until you’ve established a small, defined set of users who could benefit from your product. Then contact these users and convince them to test-drive your site. Tailor the product so that it benefits them, and chances are it will appeal to other like-minded users.

Startup Disease 2: The Frenetic Distraction Pox

A startup’s primary resource is the time and intelligence of its founders. That resource can easily be squandered on non-essential tasks that don’t bring the business closer to break-even (and then to profit). Until you have paying users, every activity in your startup should be aimed squarely at achieving that objective.

Symptoms:

  • You’ve had a productive day, but didn’t actually do any product development.
  • You’ve just spent a week preparing stationery and business cards for your startup.
  • You haven’t released a new version of your product to your users in the last month.

Cure:

Refocus. For a startup, there are only two activities that matter: building the product and attracting users. Although there is a constellation of other nuisances such as business administration and accounting, these should be avoided, or at least delegated to those who have the appropriate expertise.

Startup Disease 3: The Wrong Hire Infection

The caliber of the people who work on a startup is directly related to the quality of the product that they deliver. The raw material of startups is people. Bring on board the wrong person, and it could cost you your startup. Bringing in friends and family who lack the required skills is a common cause of a startup’s early demise.

Symptoms:

  • You find yourself micromanaging one of your cofounders or employees.
  • You have to establish a policy of how many hours people will work each day.
  • Someone isn’t pulling their weight.

Cure:

Startups have no room for people who need to be micromanaged. The time you waste and unnecessary distraction could kill your startup. The smart, brave solution in those cases is amputation. Let them go gently if you want, but let them go.

Startup Disease 4: The Implicit Promise Fever

Assumptions are dangerous, particularly if they occur between cofounders who are close friends. Sometimes close friends assume that they know what the other’s thinking. Unless your friend has telepathic power, that’s not the case.

Symptoms:

  • There are a number of issues that bother you, but, although they haven’t been discussed, you’re sure they won’t be a problem later.
  • You’ve not discussed share percentages, or voting rights, or what to do if there is a major disagreement.
  • Everything is always done face-to-face (or on Skype); nothing is written down.

Cure:

To cure this disease, make the implicit explicit. Have those discussions. Write the results down. You will find much more disagreement than you expected, but that’s good. Work it through, come up with compromises, and agree on a way forward. You’ve come this far already. Together, with a distinct understanding, you can solve whatever problems you dig up. In your discussions, don’t avoid the question: “What if it all goes wrong?”

Startup Disease 5: The Stealth Product Delusion

In my experience, most product developers have a natural inclination to wait as long as possible before showing off their creation to others. After all, until you receive external feedback, you can continue to nurture the illusion that your product will soon be flawless, and you can work hard to make sure it will be, right? Right?

Symptoms:

  • You want your product to be just perfect before you let real users near it.
  • You’ve been working on your startup for several months now, but no one outside the founding team has seen it.
  • You haven’t shown your application to your significant other or your best friend, because “it’s not ready yet.”

Cure:

All of your friends (or at least those who own a computer) should know about, and have provided feedback on, your startup. Even more importantly, find some real users and ask them to have a look. Yes, they’ll tell you that it’s far from perfect. With any luck, they’ll give you enough feedback so that you can fix the problems and have a shot at building a good product.

Startup Disease 6: The Wrong Platform Fracture

Picking the right platform (language, framework, technology) for a startup is complicated. The platform needs to be robust but flexible, allow for rapid development, and, of course, it must be a platform you are able to work with; at the very least you or one of your cofounders should be familiar enough with it to be able to create your product.

It’s worth doing your research to make sure you’ve chosen wisely from the beginning. And you really should switch to the right platform as soon as possible if you discover that you’ve made the wrong choice; choosing an unsuitable platform can be a surefire way to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory. You definitely want to avoid a scenario where, upon launching, you suddenly realize you have to rewrite the application from scratch. It happens more often than you might suspect!

Symptoms:

  • No matter how hard you work, it takes forever to build new features because of your platform’s limitations.
  • You know that you’d be better off using framework X, but you think you’re too far down the line to change.
  • Your gut is telling you your choice of technology is wrong, or the way you’ve applied it is flawed, but you’re almost done so you figure that you may as well press on.

Cure:

No one likes to discover that they’ve been wrong all along. However, if you’re trying to go south and you find yourself walking north, it’s always best to turn around. “We’ve walked this far already” isn’t a good enough reason to continue heading in that direction. Chances are, you’re much, much further from the completion of your product than you think. If you’re convinced that you need to change platform, do so now – don’t wait until you’ve invested even more resources in the wrong direction.

Startup Disease 7: The Other Interest Disorder

The creation of a startup is an all-consuming fire. Few people can successfully pull off that extraordinary feat while simultaneously spending their energy on another proposal (though they do exist). Entrepreneurs, by definition, like to start projects. For them, the distractions are many. After all, there are so many interesting, worthwhile things that one can do in the world.

Symptoms:

  • When you explain what else you’re doing, you feel the need to finish the sentence with “but I’m still working on my startup.”
  • You haven’t found the time to work on your startup in the last week, but you’re definitely going to return to it soon.
  • You’re working on several startups simultaneously.

Cure:

This disease is deadly if left untreated. After all, sometimes there is an enterprise that’s more interesting and rewarding. A new undertaking often looks more exciting than a project you’ve already spent many months on. However, if you’d rather be working on a different venture, and you’re not bothered by wasting all the effort you’ve put into your startup, then perhaps you should jump ship.

If you decide to abandon your startup, you should do so openly. If other people are involved, you also need to ask yourself whether it’s worth letting them down. And if it is, you should pull out cleanly, rather than pretend to still be working on the startup.

Startup Disease 8: The Perfection Hallucination

All good product designers are perfectionists. The right kind of graphic designer feels physically sick when the font is misaligned by one pixel. The right kind of programmer will refactor the code even when it’s working fine, because it’s just not right. However, if you want to deliver a product of which you’re completely satisfied, then perfection must be balanced with a good dose of pragmatism. Otherwise you risk never launching your product at all.

This disease often hits later in the product development cycle, when you’ve already built a startup that people have liked. The expectations have been set, so you feel that every subsequent update must be perfect.

Symptoms:

  • You plan to spend two months on a new feature before showing it to users.
  • Even though the basic functionality is there, you’re afraid that the new feature is going to fail if you release it now.
  • You’ve built a lot of new stuff recently, but none of it has been released to users because it’s not quite ready yet.

Cure:

Users are more forgiving of progress in the wrong direction than of a lack of progress. What you’ve built will never be perfect, but if it’s close enough your users will tell you how to improve it. However, they can only do that once they see the new changes and features. Release early, release often. The only way to learn from your mistakes is to accept that you will make them.

Startup Disease 9: The Marketing Blind Spot

“Build a better mousetrap, and the world will beat a path to your door.” If only! Some startups (in particular, a certain well-known search engine) have succeeded using little or no marketing, relying largely upon word-of-mouth referrals. While this may work for some, it is far from a safe, repeatable marketing philosophy! Simply assuming that users will sign up to your web site just because you’ve built a great product could cost you your business, even if it is a great product.

Symptoms:

  • You’re counting on word-of-mouth marketing alone to spread the news of your product.
  • You have no idea how you might reach your target users via traditional marketing.
  • You think marketing and sales are second-rate activities, and you’d much rather spend all your time developing the product.

Cure:

Spending your time on development is never a mistake, but no magic fairy will deliver your users to you. Balance the two activities. Find out how to reach your target users, and make the effort to do so. Once your startup is worth marketing (for example, when it is capable of turning a profit), market the heck out of it! Marketing doesn’t have to cost much, but if you don’t do enough of it, you’re setting yourself up for failure.

Final Advice from the Doctor

There are many more ways for startups to fall ill, wither, and die. The bad news is that some of them may well afflict your startup. The good news is that almost everything that can go wrong can be fixed – if you figure it out quickly enough. Still, prevention should always be your priority.

By monitoring the wellbeing of your startup and watching out for these deadly diseases, you’ll ensure your business enjoys a healthy and prosperous life.

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