What Not to Do

Mistakes 15 through 17

  • Mistake 15: Lacking clarity of your long-term aim and business purpose. "You should have an idea of what your long-term aim is. It doesn't mean that won't change, but when you aim an arrow, you have to be aiming at a target. This [concept will] often come up when people ask 'How do I pick a product?' The answer depends on what you're trying to do. If you're trying to [create] a billion-dollar company with this product, it may not have a chance. But if you're trying to make a $5 million company, it can work. Or if you're trying to create a company [in which] family members can be employed, it can work. Clarity of your business purpose is very important [but] is often not really part of the thought process."
  • Mistake 16: Lacking focus and identity. "This was written from the viewpoint of building the company as a valuable entity. The company itself is also a product. Too many companies try to go after too many targets at once and end up with a potpourri rather than a focused business entity with an identity. When you try to make a business, it's very important to maintain a focus and an identity. Don't let it become a potpourri, or it loses its power. For instance, you say, 'We're already selling to Kmart, so we might as well make a toy because Kmart buys toys.' If you do that, the company becomes weaker. A company needs to be focused on what it is. Then its power builds from that."
  • Mistake 17: Lacking an exit strategy. "Have an exit plan, and create your business to satisfy that plan. For instance, I am thinking I might run my new business for two years and then get out of it. I think it's an opportunity to make a tremendous amount of money for two years, but I'm not sure [whether] it's proprietary enough to stop the competition from getting in. So I'm in with an exit strategy of doing it for two years and then winding down. I won't commit to long-term leases, and after the first year, we'll start watching the marketplace very closely and start watching inventories.

Simultaneously, I will keep the option open to sell it in case I can't get something more proprietary. That means I won't sign international agreements that would kill any opportunity to sell it to a multinational. I will make sure that the patent work is done properly. And I'll try to make sure manufacturing is up to the standards of any multinational company that I might try to sell it to.

Another exit strategy can be to hand the company to [your] kids someday. The most important thing to do is to build a company with value and profits so you have all the options: Keep the company, sell the company, go public, raise private money [and so on]. A business can be a product, too."

5 Tips to Get You on the Right Track
Is there any difference between doing nothing wrong and doing everything right? Peter Russo, director of Boston University's Entrepreneurial Management Institute, says that while you're avoiding John Osher's 17 mistakes, you should also try to do five key things right. "If you do those five things, you're probably not going to make those other mistakes," he says. Here are Russo's five things start-ups should do:

1. Know your goals for the venture. "A lot of people see an opportunity without ever asking themselves what they're doing it for," says Russo. "Are they trying to make a quick buck? Create a legacy? Have a lifestyle? There are a lot of reasons. It's critical that you know from the beginning what your goals are, because everything else is going to revolve around that."

2. Recruit and hire the best people. "It sounds almost cliché now to say I'd rather have an A team with a B idea than a B team with an A idea. The right team can fix a lot of problems. If you don't have the right team, you don't have much of a chance," Russo says. "Get the best people available at the time."

3. Develop a forgiving strategy. "Things are going to go wrong," he says. "They're going to be harder, take longer and cost more money than you think. You have to have a strategy to survive. A lot of people put together a plan that will work only if everything goes right. It's not going to."

4. Be honest with yourself. "Recognize shortcomings, weaknesses and problems immediately. Do not ignore them or try to talk yourself out of them," Russo says. "Address them head-on."

5. Commit to the business. "You can't really do anything significant without fully committing yourself to it. A lot of people try to dabble," he explains. "They think they'll do it part time [and] see how it works out. If you plan to be successful, you have to commit."


Mark Henricks writes on business and technology for leading publications and is author of Not Just a Living.

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This article was originally published in the February 2004 print edition of Entrepreneur with the headline: What Not to Do.

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