Mistakes First-Time Founders Make
There are a set of things that most of us almost consistently get wrong, or don't do enough of
Startups are difficult because they require hard work, perseverance, originality and innovation over very long periods of time. It’s one thing to do these over a month or two, but it’s entirely another challenge when you need to work hard, deal with very frequent failures and lack of resources, and continue to do great things consistently over years.
Another characteristic of startups is the almost perennial lack of resources, be it money in the bank, time to get to the next milestone, or the right team. Being under-resourced means having to make very frequent trade-offs, and those can be really hard.
In my years running Hiver and talking to dozens of other first time founders, I’ve realized that there are a set of things that most of us almost consistently get wrong, or don’t do enough of. It is really easy to miss these things, given the rigor and hard work required to build a company from scratch, but what I have learnt is that it can be perilous to not pay attention to them.
Not talking to customers enough
A good number of founders start their companies to solve a problem they themselves have, and that is a great thing. There’s another category of founders who start with discovery of the problem from others who have faced it.
What is important and common in both of the above is that the founder almost always starts with a very direct experience of the problem. But as companies progress and bring a good number of customers on-board, this starts to change. Both the problem and the solution expand in scope.
In many cases, founders increasingly rely on analytics dashboards to learn about customer behavior. In this entire process, many of them lose the direct connect with their customers.
While the product, support and sales team would have extensive conversations with customers, and founders can learn a lot from those, they aren’t a replacement for a founder talking directly to a customer. A founder would look for learnings and patterns that would skip someone approaching the conversation from the perspective of a specific function like sales or customer success.
Founders not talking to customers directly can lead to missed opportunities to improve the product, better tune sales and marketing to address the market, or possibilities to enter new markets and problem spaces.
Being too tactical
Great founders roll up their sleeves and get their hands dirty. They live in the trenches and work with their teams. But then a founder also needs to think years ahead.
Balancing these can be extremely difficult. With most founders having a strong bias for action, I have seen a lot of them lean towards the tactical. In terms of sheer numbers, there’s always a lot more to do in the day-to-day functioning of a company, as against its long-term vision. There is always the next quarter to be made, the next person to be hired, and the next feature to be released.
In all of this, it is very easy to miss things that are extremely important to the company in the medium to long term. One example of this that I have seen with many founders is being too tactical with their approach to product development. When you have the next quarter to close, it is very tempting to give in the requirements of a handful of customers and build them exactly what they want, jettisoning the long term direction of the product. This very frequently leads not just to confusing products, but also to ineffective marketing and bad sales pitches.
Drowning in advice
There’s tonnes of well-meaning advice available to founders —from investors, advisors, friends, employees or customers. It’s available through in-person meetings, on Medium, on LinkedIn, through podcasts, and more. And all of it is very well meaning advice.
So why is that a problem? That is because most advice lacks context. And by context, I don’t mean just fit with the product the company is building or the market it's going after. I also mean a match with the motivations of the founder and with what they want to do with their companies.
What compounds this issue is that a lot of startup advice comes from people who hold a lot of authority, and deliver the advice with a lot of effectiveness. That might not sound like a problem, but when you factor in the amount of such advice available and the repetitiveness of it, what’s clear is that it can completely overwhelm first-time founders.
Not telling your story
As corny as it might sound, every startup is like a snowflake. It is unique in so many different ways. Starting from founders, their backgrounds and histories, to market insights that led to starting a company and how they raised their first couple of rounds, everything makes for very interesting stories.
Even as a company progresses from being a tiny entity with a few customers to something larger and more significant, every step of the journey presents unique challenges on every front - from landing that difficult customer to that near death experience when there was no cash in the bank. From edge of the seat thrillers to tales about self discovery, startups are the stuff of stories.
Such stories can elevate a company from just being a business, to almost a living entity that people connect and identify with. But, given the daily affairs of running a company that keep founders busy, this is something very easy to ignore. Another reason behind this getting ignored is founders not being good storytellers, or them not appreciating the fact that they have great stories to tell.
Whatever the reason, it's extremely valuable for founders to make sure they find a way to tell these stories.
Avoiding these mistakes as a first-time founder helps ease the stress and challenges that come with building and scaling a startup. When you are aware of these pitfalls and are able to circumvent them, you can identify more opportunities for growth, build strong momentum along the way, and drastically improve your chances of building a successful company.
Niraj Ranjan Rout is Co-founder & CEO of Hiver, a Gmail-centric customer service solution. Hiver has over 1,500 customers across 30 countries, including the likes of Hubspot, Harvard University, Vacasa, Airbnb, Pinterest and Shutterstock among others. An alumnus of IIT Kharagpur, Niraj completed his B. Tech in Electronics and Communications and went on to work with the Electronic Design Automation firm Mentor Graphics for five years. He took his first entrepreneurial plunge along with Nitesh Nandy when they started Mobicules, an app and web development company.