Ramblings of a Coder's Mind

Got Tech? Will Hack.

Signs of a troubled startup

India has been developing the startup culture quite seriously over the past half a decade. In this time I’ve seen dozens of ventures pop up and quite a few of them fizzle out. If you’ve gone through a startup bootcamp or an equivalent program, you’ve probably heard the stats. Failure rate of startups is pretty high. I admit, I am concerned. Not about the high failure rate. It’s about why quite a few Indian startups are failing these days.

I am concerned because they seem to not be getting their basics right. Most startup schools and accelerators tell you things that usually go wrong. Repeatedly. Yet there are other things they don’t tell you. Things they’d think are common sense.

Sometimes it is hard to spot these from the outside but if you do see these signs, you better have taken your ERT training seriously because the building is on fire and you better be prepared to evacuate people.

Acting as the ‘next big thing’

Everyone wants to be the “next big thing”. Everyone thinks they are the next Microsoft, Google, Facebook or Flipkart. Once in a while they are right. Usually they are wrong. Wanting to be great isn’t a problem. Walking around thinking you are is. If you’re Tony Stark and can pull it off, that’s good for you. Most can’t.

Wanting to be too big too quickly

Some people want to do good work every day. It makes them happy. Success, for them, is a by product of doing great work.

Others want to be successful. The journey, to them, is meaningless and the destination is all that counts. Such people do not want to take the time to hone their craft. Usually such folks are impatient and won’t give the time it takes for the business to grow.

Not shipping your product till “it’s perfect”

Take it from everyone who’s ever built anything. It’s not perfect. It’s never going to be. Unless you’re quite loose with your definition of the word, perfection is near impossible to attain. Delaying your launch is going to be your company’s death sentence.

Expecting to build your product on your client’s cost

This is the exact opposite of the previous point.

If you have a Minimum Viable Product and your client want’s to pay you for it, it’s great! You can use the money to support the cost of additional features. This is the recommended way to go to market.

Some entrepreneurs however would like to build the product entirely on the client’s cost. Believe it or not, this happens more often than one would think. How is this possible you ask?

Ethics or lack there of

Ethics are important. It is important how organisations treat_ _people.

When it comes to their clients, I believe they deserve to know what they are actually buying. This means being truthful about what features your product has. Claiming your product does things which you’ve not even started developing is a clear no-no.

When it comes to their own people, clear communication is important. Respecting them is key.

Early hires are ‘employees’ not stakeholders

Hiring is key. You can have the greatest product the world has ever seen but if you hire incorrectly, you’ll have problems. This is a well known fact.

What most people don’t think of is that if you hire people and treat them as employees and not as stakeholders, they are going to treat work as a “job” and not as “their baby”. If I were you, I’d like my team to have that sense of ownership. It’s not easy but it’s not impossible either. Responsibility is to be given (stop trying to control everything; stop being a control freak) and responsibility is to be accepted. It’s a two way street. But it starts with your show of faith. It starts with you wanting to let people into the bubble you’ve built around yourself.

Not taking (internal) feedback

Not taking client feedback is almost always a silly move to play. Most people don’t do that.

What a few small organizations will miss out on is not listening to feedback from people they’ve hired build their product. First off, your team needs to be convinced about the product they are building. If they have feedback about the way things are being done, you should take it seriously. You’ve brought them in because you trust them and what they can do. So when they have things to say you better listen to do even if it doesn’t agree with your view of the world.

Surrounding yourself with Yes Men

If the team always agree with one another, I’d consider it a orange flag. If they ostracise anyone who disagrees with them, that’s a definite red flag. Any team who discourages healthy discussions instead of understanding different view points and coming to a consensus is one to stay away from.

If you’re in discussion with such a team (as an insider or an outsider) and your points are something they disagree with but aren’t able to refute, you might see them not conceding and admitting you’re correct. Which brings us to the next point.

Drinking your own Kool Aid

If you’re building something, you keep bottles of Kool Aid handy to give out to your users/clients. You must not dip into your own stash and take a sip or worse, gulp down entire bottles daily. Keeping your horizon indicator in check is key and large quantities of Kool Aid don’t help. They provide a self affirming view of the world which could be your startup’s death sentence. When it comes down to it, you should be ready to pivot for which you shouldn’t have blinders on.

Never learning from your failures or admitting them

Fail Fast. Learn. Move on. If you can’t do that, you’re doing it wrong.

I realise it sounds cliche but people like showing their world their perfectness. If you haven’t already, I recommend watching The Myth of the Genius Programmer from Google I/O 2009. It’s a real eye opener. Especially the part where they mention why failed spike branches shouldn’t be deleted (from 35:51 to 36:35).

Never considering they might not make it big but be good and that’s enough

For most people these days making it big is important. This could either be in terms of huge revenues or a 100+M dollar buy out. For most, having a steady NOI is just not good enough. It’s not good enough because it’s not what they had dreamt of. That Ferrari in the drive way and early retirement at 28.

Sounds outlandish but the Hollywood romanticisation of how businesses become worth billions has lead to people wanting to live the dream. Well son, this is reality. It’s hard work.

What’s my way out?

These are just some of the things which I believe everyone should think about. They seem obvious but heck, hindsight is always 20/20. It is quite easy to make some of these mistakes. Chances are you’ve seen someone around you exhibit these traits.

I highly recommend regular retrospectives with your team. More importantly, I recommend regular self retrospectives. Glass houses and all.

Created: 31st January 2015
Category: Thoughts
Tags: advice, startups