by Pratik Dholakiya
Startup life is exciting, frustrating, risky, and bold, and we wouldn’t have it any other way. We’re often rushing to accomplish things that may never have been done before. As a result, the road ahead is always changing. It would be impossible to put together a step by step guide that would work for every startup.
Instead, startups tend to be highly experimental, testing what works and what doesn’t, and learning from their mistakes. In fact, it’s these mistakes that are especially informative. Unfortunately, some of those mistakes can prove fatal, or can waste the precious resources that startups have so little of. That’s why we’ve put together this list of mistakes every startup should avoid in order to achieve success this year.
1. A redundant product or service
In order to determine whether your concept is genuinely unique, you need to ask what problem it solves. If the problem is already being solved effectively by another business, there is a good chance your concept isn’t unique enough. Your concept must meet a set of needs that no other product already meets in order to maximize your chance of success.
2. Launching without a roadmap
A good roadmap has a niche market, a goal, a budget, some idea of what your conversion rate will be, brainstorming sessions, some sense of exclusivity, a plan for going viral, a network of influencers, and a way to prototype and test the concept with minimal risk.
3. Overzealous budgeting and projections
Expect your projects to go over budget. Expect everything to cost more than you think it will. Expect sales to be worse than you think they will. You only have to be wrong once to fall into a debt spiral. Give yourself at least a 30 percent buffer in your budget.
4. Poor market research
While startups don’t have the resources for advanced market research, the current tools available make it impossible to justify launching a startup without some market research. Consider SurveyMonkey, which offers a ten question survey with 100 responses for free, or unlimited questions and responses for $17 per month. Market research can give you feedback on what problems people have with existing products, so that you can develop your unique selling proposition.
5. Ignorance of target audience
This is closely related to market research, but it isn’t always identical. You need to identify what kinds of people have the problem that your product or service solves, what their interests are, what their culture looks like, and where their attention is centered, as well as who is most influential to them.
6. Ignoring or not seeking customer and consumer feedback
Nobody knows what they want more than your target customers. Ask your customers for feedback and advice, and pay attention when they choose to do so, even if you don’t like what they have to say.
7. Getting overwhelmed by feedback
As much as you should pay attention to feedback, and be open minded, you shouldn’t take it as gospel or allow it to become a distraction. Always tie your feedback into your business goals. If feedback doesn’t tie in with your goals, it is a distraction. You can worry about these minds of minutia when you’re no longer a startup.
8. Choosing a brand name based on a keyword
Brand names should rarely be too descriptive. Instead, the ideal brand name is easy to remember, often because it is unique, symbolic, and simple yet unusual. Twitter isn’t called SayStuffToStrangers. Nike isn’t called AthleticShoes. The same goes for your online domain name. You want people to remember your name and pass it along.
9. Choosing a logo for a single medium
When you develop a logo for your startup it should be transferable between all the media you use. Will it look just as good on a t-shirt as on a website? Will it work in a magazine as well as on the television? How about on a business card?
10. No tagline
Online startups are especially guilty of this. Many companies use what should be their tagline as their brand name, and then have no tagline. A tagline is the short and sweet “elevator pitch” that lets people know what your company is about. Don’t be generic with your tagline. Focus on your unique selling proposition, what sets you apart.
11. Bad UI and UX
Your website, your products, and everything you produce should be easy to understand and use, as well as be enjoyable to use. Test your users and see if they intuitively know how to use your site and your products. Tests and prototypes are important, because they tell you how users want to use you product, not how you want them to use it. Aim for an intuitive and enjoyable experience.
12. Mismatched branding
The design and color of your website should be consistent with the design of your product and the message of your brand. Advertisements and content should send consistent messages while keeping your target audience in mind. Don’t try to be everything to everybody. Focus on a consistent image for each encounter consumers have with your brand.
13. Ignoring mobile
According to Nielson, the number of people who used the mobile web grew 82 percent between July of 2011 and July of 2012. During the same time, the number of people who accessed it on PCs dropped by 4 percent. The number of people who accessed the mobile web was nearly half the number of people who accessed it from a PC or laptop. Startups need to design for readability and ease of use on mobile devices. If some features aren’t supported on mobile, it’s better to create a separate site for mobile.
14. Not taking advantage of apps
According to the same report, the number of people who used mobile apps was actually larger than the number of people who accessed the mobile web, with a growth of 85 percent and a total audience size of 101,802,000 in the US. This is over 6 million more than the number who accessed the mobile web. This is a tremendous opportunity for exposure.
15. No Unique Selling Proposition (USP)
Many businesses fail because they focus on convincing their target audience that they are better than the competition, instead of trying to find out what makes them different and thus more appealing to a specific target audience. Audiences are desensitized to “it’s better” or “it’s cheaper,” no longer believing that such messages are true. Give consumers specific reasons why your product will solve their unique problem.
16. No pre-launch marketing
It’s generally advantageous to build some buzz before a product goes live, but to do so in a way that doesn’t give your competitors the chance to beat you to market. You can accomplish this by building relationships with influencers and talking about the problem without getting too specific about the solution. See RocketWatcher‘s take on the subject.
17. Not being transparent with your team
It’s better to share things to the point of discomfort than to keep secrets. Startups are small enough that everybody should be in on the roadmap. Secrecy obscures goals, leading to wasted resources. Encourage transparency from your team as well. Let them share their ideas, concerns, and opinions about the future in order to harness as many of your resources as possible.
18. Ignorance of social media
According to the Nielson report mentioned earlier, Facebook’s US audience on the PC is 152 million. Seventy-eight million accessed Facebook from mobile apps and 74 million on the mobile web. Twitter, WordPress, Blogger, LinkedIn, Pinterest, Google+, and Tumblr all have tens of millions of visitors. Pinterest use exploded 1,000 percent on PCs, and 4,000 percent on the mobile web. Startups can’t ignore social media as a way of building ongoing relationships with influencers and consumers.
19. Expecting ROI from marketing efforts too quickly
It is important for startups to get to profit as quickly as possible, so it’s understandable that they want to see marketing efforts pay off immediately. However, many strategies, such as SEO, social media, and branding, take months or years to succeed. Most successful businesses don’t go viral “Gangnam Style” and it takes a lot of effort and time to see results. Demanding results too quickly, especially from SEO and social media, often backfires with search engine penalties and social backlash.
20. Failing to take advantage of tools
Any time you find yourself spending too much time on routine processes, especially those that aren’t related to the core of your business, you must find a way to automate the process to keep the hours down. If a process isn’t directly related to product development or branding, it should be as hands-off as possible. Investing money in tools can feel scary, but it is actually a way to conserve resources. Especially important are tools for:
- Project management
- Time management
21. No contact with initial customers
A startup needs to learn everything it can from its very first customers and treat them like royalty. Initial customers should typically be thought of more like investments than as sources of profit. They represent the first impression you are making on the public. Your first contact with customers should be focused on retention, not one-off sales.
22. Choosing the wrong technology and marketing partnerships
Startups rarely have all the resources they need to take their product or service to market. They will typically need to outsource or work with partners in order to get things off the ground. It’s important for your partners to have a compatible culture, and to make it clear they understand your business goals. Get everything in writing. See what PowerRetail has said on the subject.
23. “Hiring” entrepreneurs
Do not hire an entrepreneur. Partner with an entrepreneur. An entrepreneur simply cannot work for somebody else. It’s not in their blood, no matter what they might tell themselves.
24. Launching at the wrong time
Startups will do this for many reasons. They may launch before they’ve built sufficient hype and relationships, before they have tested the product adequately, after the buzz has already died down, or after a similar product has already hit market. Timing is crucial.
25. Paying for bargain bin “talent”
This is almost always a huge mistake. Whether it’s mass production, web development, marketing, copy writing, or anything else, talent doesn’t come cheap. If your resources are too limited to hire talent in certain areas (say: mass production), than you must be willing to hire exceptional talent in other areas (say: customer service). We know from personal experience that, as a startup, every penny counts. But that’s exactly why you can’t waste money on cheap labor.
26. Not setting goals and targets
It is important to set project goals and deadlines in order to keep things moving. However, goals should often be strategic, not just financial, which is one place where many startups fail. Measurement should be used not just to determine whether you met the goal, but to understand and refine your own business processes to better achieve the goal.
27. Hiring the wrong people
For some great advice on this, see what one startup CEO told Forbes about hiring. They recommend you “always be recruiting,” in the sense that you shouldn’t wait until you need somebody to start hiring. Instead, you should be building a network of people who can get you in touch with a trustworthy employee at a moment’s notice. Focus more emphasis on people with a strong desire to get things done, and a belief that they can be, rather than on specific credentials. Make sure they make sense for the culture of your business.
28. Hiring too fast
Don’t misinterpret the meaning of “always be recruiting.” The point is to be ready to make a hire as soon as you need it, not to hire as many people as quickly as possible. Focus on getting your existing staff running smoothly, rather than growing.
29. Failing to see people’s core strengths
Startups don’t have time to build a bureaucracy that forces people into job titles that don’t fit them perfectly. To get the most out of your employees, let them hone and develop their strengths to reach their fullest potential, rather than trying to fit them into a preconceived mold. If certain job requirements aren’t being fulfilled, it means you hired somebody with the wrong core strength, or you need to bring somebody else into the fold.
30. Making business decisions emotionally
We get it. Your startup is your baby, and it’s very difficult not to get emotionally invested. But in order for your business to succeed you need to distance your emotions from your decisions so that things like loss aversion don’t force you into irrational decisions. Sometimes you need to be willing to walk away from projects you’ve invested a lot of time in and beliefs that you’ve invested a lot of emotion in. Sometimes you’ll have to stop being stubborn and admit that somebody else has a better idea for how to move forward than you do. There is some truth to the helpfulness of your “gut” and “hunches” when you make decisions, but only if the emotional investment isn’t too high.
31. Losing strategic focus
There are a lot of little things to do that will keep you busy while you develop your startup. If you aren’t careful they will distract you from your goals. Remind yourself daily, at the very least, what your goals are. Ask whether what you did each day helped you progress toward the goal, or whether it just made you feel like you were getting things done.
32. Failing to keep branding in mind
In much the same way, every project and chore you take part in should take branding into consideration. Is this something that your company would do if it believed in its branding messages? This matters in the long run, because company culture builds morale and reputation.
33. Taking shortcuts
There’s absolutely nothing wrong with using your talent and resources to find the most efficient path to reach your primary goals. There is something wrong with sacrificing quality or long term success just to meet a short term goal sooner.
34. Getting tied up in legal
Here’s what Inc has to say about lowering legal costs as a startup, and here’s what VentureBeat has to say about keeping your startup out of legal trouble. In short: don’t hire a lawyer when an accountant will suffice, don’t sign things you don’t understand, and put ownership and business relationship in writing.
35. Working 9 to 5
Hate to say it, but as the founder of a startup, you’ll be working long hours.
36. Underestimating your competitors
What are your competitors’ reach? How many resources do they have? How quickly could they emulate your idea and push you out of the market? Can they own your idea in the public’s mind before you do?
37. Thinking in stone
Change is constant, and what was true yesterday isn’t always true today. Just because something was working, that doesn’t mean it will always work. Pay attention to where things area headed and don’t hesitate to change strategy.
38. Not staying updated
Pay attention to trends in your industry and changes in the behavior and interests of your target audience. If you don’t stay informed you will be chasing a trend that doesn’t exist any more and using an outdated strategy.
39. Underestimating relationships
All too often, startup founders will invest everything in their product, failing to understand how important relationships are in order to make sure the product succeeds. They mistakenly believe that sales can be bought or that products will market themselves. There is some truth to these statements, but it almost always takes relationships, often with influential people, in order to make a startup work.
40. Not reading, listening, or taking advice
As the creator of a startup you can’t believe everything you hear or be a pushover, but it’s important to listen to advice and read about what has worked for others with an open mind. You should be willing to play “Devil’s advocate” every once in a while to keep yourself in check and spot your own failures. This will help you discover new opportunities.
41. Working from home
This isn’t clear cut and sometimes it’s the only option, but there are an enormous number of distractions at home that can prevent you from investing all of your attention in your startup. No matter where it is, it’s usually a better idea to do the work elsewhere so that you don’t confuse work and home life.
42. Not taking advantage of meetups, events, and seminars
It is important to meet people in the real world who are involved in startup culture. You will never learn everything on your own and it takes advice from other people in order to figure out how to move forward. These are also great places to meet people and build relationships that you can leverage for talent and marketing down the road.
Nobody likes to hear it, but most startups fail. It takes a nimble approach, a unique idea, solid relationships, and the perfect position in the market for a new business idea to take off and find its place in the economic landscape.
We won’t pretend that this list of mistakes is going to be a perfect guide to the finish line. The reality is that no guide on the internet is going to give you everything you need. It’s going to take some serious brainstorming, dedication, creativity, and charisma to make it work.
Even so, if you can take this advice to heart, it will give you an advantage over the competition. If you execute it, it will improve your chances for success. Stay ahead of the curve, invest in your brand, and solve problems that other businesses haven’t. This is what it takes to give your startup the best chance to achieve success this year.
Pratik Dholakiya is Director of SEO & VP of Marketing at E2M Solutions, a full service internet marketing and SEO consulting company. He’s passionate about improving emerging startup online visibility amongst its target audience and creating hype of the idea it deserves. He is also a serial guest blogger and so far has contributed in Search Engine Journal, SEOmoz, ProBlogger, SearchEnginePeople and many others. He also writes at E2M Solutions blog. You should follow him on Twitter @DholakiyaPratik.