It’s a common occurrence in the startup world: A critical decision has to be made, one that will affect everything that comes after it, and may determine the fate of the company. It could be a decision whether to let a partner go or invest in a new technology. But the founder won’t consider all the options, even refusing to make what to virtually everyone else seems like the right decision.The startup flounders for a while longer. Then it fails.
During the past 10 years I’ve been a director of product, a product manager and a UX consultant for multiple startups, both successful and unsuccessful. Over time, I began to notice a pattern in myself and in others: When our startups and products failed to achieve their potential, it was often because of our refusal to make hard choices and to look at reality squarely. Our problem was our human failings and not, or at least never purely, the business plan. Certain hard truths made a recurring appearance.
Based on my experience, I apply what I believe are the six most crucial hard truths when advising entrepreneurs:
1. It’s not about you.
Don’t look now, but your ego might be in the way. Starting a new company will not always make you feel smart or important. Sometimes it will make you feel dumb and small. It won’t reinforce your beliefs about people and the world: It will challenge them at every turn. Making the right decision can sometimes be quite deflating. Letting go of a partner, a big client, or a product vision that you have invested so much in can be embarrassing and painful. For your company to succeed and for your people to keep their jobs, you must be able to make those decisions.
2. Your "new" idea may be neither good nor original.
I can’t tell you how many times I’ve spoken to entrepreneurs who presented me with a “revolutionary new idea” that has already been done. Even if there isn’t an equivalent product out there, it’s usually just a matter of time until there is. Unless you are a world-renowned expert in your field, it’s far more likely that others have had the same idea and that several of them are working on it right now. And, so what? A realistic outlook should focus on implementation: design, distribution, the team and keeping the competition in sight. The idea itself? Well, ideas are a dime a dozen.
3. Everyone’s your new boss.
Thought being an entrepreneur would mean being your own boss? Nonsense. As an entrepreneur, you will have countless bosses: Your clients, your investors, even your employees will tell you what to do. And you’ll have to listen, because you’ll need them on board. Your role is to enable, empower and protect your people . . . not to dictate their every action. As for people who don’t want others “telling them what to do”: They are not entrepreneurial, they are anti-social.
4. Your current plan stinks.
General Dwight D. Eisenhower once said that, “In preparing for battle, I have always found that plans are useless, but planning is indispensable.” Just like the battlefield, the world of startups is chaotic and unpredictable. Competitors make surprise moves, government regulations change, technical challenges always pop up. Worst of all, entrepreneurs are building something that has no precedent, so they must proceed based on certain assumptions, assumptions that will be proven true or false only through implementation. Companies that know how to adapt and react quickly to new information are the ones that will have success, not those that perfectly implement an outdated plan.
5. There's no time for that.
Entrepreneurs are visionaries, and as such tend to have detailed, elaborate visions of their product’s future. But, guess what? Your three-month development will take a year to complete. So, why not start focusing on the few essential things you can actually get done, and then test them? Maintaining focus -- and knowing how to say no -- are some of the most essential skills of a successful entrepreneur.
6. You may actually be doomed.
There may be some unknown fact about your product idea, its users, the marketplace or the competition. There may be doubt about your own or your partner’s motivation, which will ensure the failure of your venture. Meanwhile, that unknown fact could be out there right now, waiting for you to discover it. Yet you don’t know it, and to find it, you must proceed with your plan until reality hits you in the face. This is why a good entrepreneur does not shy away from bad news. On the contrary, he or she stares into the abyss and brings insights from beyond, never confusing persistence with blind stubbornness.
Entrepreneurs are people with all the same biases, irrational tendencies and emotional attachments that the rest of us have.
The startup environment, though, with its uncertainty and its reliance on a small number of decision makers, magnifies these tendencies so that the smallest mistake can reverberate for years and even bring a company down. It’s important that new entrepreneurs examine themselves closely, look at their motivation and their ability to handle uncertainty and failure before venturing into the startup adventure. If they do that, their chances for success will crtainly increase.