The Number 1 Mistake Most Founders Make

You better be right if you are so confident your idea is perfect that you don't ask intended customers what they think.
The Number 1 Mistake Most Founders Make
Image credit: Sam Edwards | Getty Images
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I’ve met hundreds of entrepreneurs. Through a historied background in business, and most recently at Science, I’ve worked with dozens of brilliant minds like Mike Dubin at Dollar Shave Club and Kyla Brennan at HelloSociety. In my 20 year-career, whether over casual coffee or formal business meetings, I’ve noticed one nearly universal mistake new founders most often make; they often believe their idea is perfect, and don’t take the time to really speak with customers to understand individual needs.

Starting a business is hard, and I’ve made my fair share of missteps, but I’ve also learned a tremendous amount along the way. After seeing many startups both succeed and fail, my steadfast prescription is to spend time “sharpening your axe” by talking with your customers and validating your thesis prior to substantial time and capital investment into your product. Work to prove yourself right, not prove yourself wrong.

Related: 4 Things Every Entrepreneur Should Focus on That Crucial First Year

Review the data.

Science Inc. is thesis and information driven, and our main goal is to build and invest in technology businesses with founders we believe in. We follow the data we need to see what customers like and what products are resonating with their intended audience. We’ve had three exits this year, and each brand exemplified a structure that created authentic customer relationships and communications in ecommerce and media. We’re an incubator that thinks brand-customer conversations are crucial, because we’ve followed the data and seen great success with it. All brands should follow information first in order to ultimately conceive the right vision.  

Dollar Shave Club appealed to customers with a tongue-in-cheek vernacular that made sense to its audience. They’ve maintained that vision and expanded because they listened to their millennial demographic and collected data on how to approach them. HelloSociety did the same; the team was able to find a gap in the influencer space that brought online personalities and brands together by listening to the wants and needs of customers and the services they requested. Famebit is another example of a disruptive company that grew out of a need that founders David Kierzkowski and Agnes Kozera identified -- finding the right people to work with and scale influencer marketing programs. Identify these gaps, look at the numbers and start from there.

Related: 7 Traits of Exceptional Leaders In the Age of Customer Feedback

Learn focus  

When I ask new entrepreneurs if they feel like what they’ve done in the last two weeks was enough, the resounding answer is always “no.” Founders are ambitious people by nature -- their drive is what made them founders in the first place -- but it’s how you allocate time that makes all the difference.

The trick here is to learn focus -- think of a compelling book you recently picked up. More often than not, you might find a handful of great ideas covered in just a few paragraphs. It's time consuming for the reader and a waste of paper for the author. Founders should find the core parts of their mission that matter and weave out the things that don't Figure out precisely what you’re going to do for two weeks to be productive and change behaviors.  By identifying existing strengths and targeting these pillars, founders can make a bigger impact in the appropriate areas.

Albert Einstein said it best when he defined insanity as doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results. If you keep doing the same thing,  don’t expect a different outcome. Focus on things that can add substantial growth opportunities to the business. The CEO should be focused on opportunities that can double the trajectory of the business while the core team drives more standard growth methods.

Related: Finding Your Focus Through 'Deep Work'

Learn to say 'no.'

We say "yes" because we want opportunity, and that three letter word begets a world of possibility. The trick here is to do one thing exceptionally instead of many things well. To do this, we need to step away and evaluate the opportunity presented and, in some cases, politely decline.

This is what author Gary Keller meant in his book The One Thing. The entrepreneur-turned-author identifies that behind every successful person is one thing that influences the choices he or she makes and the generated result. Understanding this helps entrepreneurs move forward with unwavering purpose for increased productivity. It’s the 80/20 rule at play; multi-tasking isn’t impossible for humans, but it doesn’t help us much.

No matter how much time you have we’re only human; our bandwidth is limited. I recommend practicing saying the word, because like everything, it becomes easier the more we do it. By saying no we can focus on what’s necessary to achieve greatness in one area, and we’ll find the freedom to behave in our brand’s best interest. Once you find what works for you, follow it relentlessly to own the opportunity until it shows declining yield.

Influential leaders are effective because they understand where to aim their attention, and the more we focus on excelling at a specific focal point of business, the better we get at it. Founders aren’t born, but by cultivating skill sets, it’s possible to make great things happen. 

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