Building your company is hard. Startups are scary. Maybe you’ll feel like is the first day of kindergarten on repeat. Except you don’t actually know where the classroom is, or even where your school is.
If you are a first-time founder, maybe your startup is grounded on mistakes, or maybe not. If your startup is holding, it’s possible that not all mistakes are big. Some are small, like the time you posted personal stories on the startup page or micromanaged new people on your team, or forgot to change names or template slots in the emails.
Everyone makes mistakes, and that’s part of the experience. But there are some mistakes that can really cost you. I’m not referring to the fact that founders avoid implementing a self-care strategy such as getting enough sleep or switching from water to coffee). Those are important too, yes, but I am talking about mistakes we don’t realize we are doing until it’s too late.
Here are some of the most common mistakes that first-time founders usually make.
Assuming your collaborators have the same passion for your startup
This a nice metaphor about founders and their company: The founder is the parent of the company, and the employees are like cousins. You have the responsibility of all the things in the startup: sweating for the small stuff, worrying about the growth & scalability of the business, and maybe VCs. Meanwhile, your employees are just looking to have a casual playdate.
Much of the founders’ frustration comes from the incorrect expectations created in the company. Not all people in the company have C-level responsibilities, and if you expect that level of commitment, it’s possible that you are comparing your performance with theirs. Here’s a fact: Your company will always be a bigger part of you than it is for your employees.
In this picture, I don’t exclude that the employees need to be engaged in the work and support your mission. But like the fun cousin, they will leave after they did the job and don’t spend the evening worrying about your baby.
Trying to develop a product without a problem or creating a problem to fit your solution
Timing is crucial for early-stage founders. You don’t try to find potential clients because you are afraid that they will start building your product in-house. It’s a risk that you have to take. Why should they be financing a whole new project if they can use your solution – in some cases, the budget allocated is smaller if they use it as a plug-in-play solution.
Start validating what you are doing from the first stages. Don’t write a line of code if you don’t know if you address a pain point or a real problem. Your mantra should be: Talk with my customers!
Sometimes founders fall in love with the product, with their idea, and start creating problems to solve that fit in their use cases. And at the end of the day, they ask why they don’t have customers. So, change your perspective and find the problem, fall in love with the problem, and after that, build your dream product.
Not making data-driven decisions: Where are the customer discovery interviews?
Did you have in mind “trust your gut”? Well, the people who use this expression, didn’t run a startup. Just like wine pairs perfectly with a type of food, your instincts pair well with data.
Each decision you make must be based on data. Yes, it’s easier to run ideas and see what sticks like an email sequence. But when it comes to hard decisions that can affect your company, use data. Choose what is the niche for your business, do something specific, and resolve a problem for your customers. Choose the right direction based on your data collected through customer discovery interviews, surveys, and so on.
Use the data, and put that data to work for you, not against you.
PS. Do you know where comes the word decision? The original Latin word for “decide”, decidere, means “to cut off”, as in slicing away alternatives; it’s a close cousin of words like ‘homicide’ and ‘suicide’.
Not working to develop your leadership & coaching skills
Being good at your job isn’t making you a good leader. You are the face of your business, and leadership is the second job you have in the company. This role requires attention and nurturing more than productive responsibilities.
A leader listens, understands, and empathizes with their people. They give space for feedback, they talk with their people, and challenge them besides all the task management procedures. A leader is all in with their team and should always empower the team members.
What’s more, a leader must have minimum coaching skills in order to observe the people’s progress and ask real questions.
Not leading by example
Actions speak louder than words. The people around you are looking for guidance (remember, coaching skills). You are a role model, and they will mirror you. If you’re working during dinner or lunch, not taking breaks or vacations, chances are your colleagues will do the same. These people can quit when they figure out they burn out. The difference is that you, the founder, can’t quit this easily.
Take the time. Take a vacation. Take a few days off. It’s important to you and to your people too. Taking a break can give you new perspectives. Block it off on your calendar and talk publicly about why you’re doing it. Set the example, and allow your people the same privilege.
Not listening to feedback and collaborators’ perspectives
When was the last time when you asked for feedback? No, not a survey type of feedback, a real conversation with your colleagues or a 1-on-1 conversation. Without monitoring, and having the numbers – the real data, you can not improve your performance.
This kind of conversation can unlock another level of understanding and growth for both you and your team. I really like the deep conversations when we have the chance to explore our feelings, gain clarity and learn with each other what we could do better. The empowerment given by these connections can be the fuel for the next steps.
Make it all people <> Not delegating <> Not asking for help
I can get it: nobody could ever run your business better than you. You built it from scratch. You know what needs to be done and the reasoning behind it, all ins and outs. It’s easier to do it now, instead of delegating the task and waiting to be done poorly.
And you begin to feel overwhelmed by all the small stuff, or paralyzed by the mere idea of handing anything off. Not delegating shows that you do not trust your people. It comes at a time when you have to prioritize. What is most important in my actions? What tasks can be done by one of my colleagues?
Not asking for help can be a sign of emotional immaturity. If I’m not ready to ask and take a helping hand, maybe it’s important to talk about this with someone. It’s about a control issue? Self-esteem? Or do I have the syndrome of I can do all? Is ego involved?
A little food for thought: You Can Do Anything, But Not Everything. Yes, you can do anything, but in some cases, some actions are more important than others. Choose wisely what is really important for your startup and for you.
Being aware of these mistakes might help you identify them early and get you faster in the solution mode. In any case, you shouldn’t beat yourself up as becoming a startup founder is a journey, and it’s ok to make mistakes along the way. Learn from your mistakes and move a step forward!