If you take the success of your start up seriously, chances are good that you read and absorb every possible hit of insight and wisdom you can get your hands on in terms of what you need to do to make your business work.
Much of what you soak up will be framed positively, revolving around what you should do. In fact, there’s entire books dedicated to showing you the right way to build your business.
As much as this is obviously vital and useful information, it can be just as valuable to look at what you shouldn’t do.
Learning from others’ mistakes and set-backs can help you avoid pitfalls and oversights that might compromise the potential of your start-up.
Take it from someone who knows what he’s talking about: I had a solid opportunity to grow a successful small business and, there’s just no sugar-coating it, I blew it.
However, I learned quite a few things that I’m able to draw upon for future reference, so I have no regrets about the experience. I’m much better situated for future success due to past failure. I was lucky in the sense that I pulled the plug before sinking in significant resources, but I take no joy in writing these anti-tips, other than I hope others will take close notes and act accordingly (or not act accordingly, as it were).
In no particular order, here are a few things you should absolutely NOT do when you’re in the early phases of launching and cultivating a start-up business (and of course, these variables may not apply perfectly to each and every business).
Not doing your homework
A good idea mixed with a lot of effort and elbow grease can go a long way, but it may not be quite enough to overcome a lack of due diligence. If you think your idea is a can’t-miss proposal, and you’re convinced there’s a hungry base of customers just itching to lap up your service, crack the books and substantiate your perspective with hard facts and data.
There is no shortage of inspired ideas that go absolutely nowhere because there was no market for it, or the market was already saturated, or any other number of external factors.
Not finishing your homework
The number of variables at play that can determine the success or failure of a start-up business is staggering: you’ll have a lot of bases to cover from the inception of your business plan to your phase-two marketing plan. Getting your business registration number from the Canada Revenue Agency is the first baby step up a mountain of your business journey. Depending on the nature of your business, you’re looking at insurance, legalities, scale, demographics, competition, spreading the word, networking, bookkeeping, regulatory compliance, and the list goes on and on.
So when you think you’ve covered all angles, pull out that checklist again and re-consider. I can’t emphasize this enough: be HUNGRY for intel and data, especially competitive stuff. There’s ALWAYS more to examine and you should almost never feel as though you’ve checked every box. Complacency is the enemy of start-up success.
Not working your network
You may not think of yourself as a networking guru or at the centre of a large set of connections, but chances are, your potential is a lot bigger than you think it is. Make full use of it and do so regularly. There’s really no excuse in the modern world to be starting your business in a vacuum, without making use of basic social media applications, blogs, and/or cheap (or free) networking events.
I’ll level with you: I would rather stab myself in the eye with a pen than schmooze with a room-full of strangers. Nevertheless, this is often where the magic happens, when human beings share oxygen and (god I hate this term) face time. Even though you may want to crawl into your loafers, these events can be a goldmine of opportunity, especially if you can present confidently and smartly.
Don’t rely on just one way of networking, either. Spread your wings wide and far and watch the results start to come back to you. Immediate results may not be forthcoming, but I’m a firm believer in eventually reaping what you’ve sown.
Never imitate, only innovate
Innovation is variously defined, yet the simple reality is this: innovation amounts to shaping the environment to serve a human need or want in a better way than before.
I made the mistake of trying to ape the competition. Although my way of providing my service was unique and unusual, I certainly didn’t drum up this feature. In fact, I almost hid behind it for fear of differentiating myself to the point of no return, worried my customers would see my product as too far off the beaten path.
Huge mistake: I can see now that what I was selling was exactly what many customers were looking for.
Not listening to the right naysayers
My partner is the cooling ice to my raging fire. When I’m plotting for world domination, she’s looking at a spreadsheet and noting that I’ve wasted 20 litres of gas using an inefficient route to get to appointments.
She’s usually the first one to shoot my ambitious plans full of holes, mostly because she’s practical and I’m a bit more of a dreamer. Where I see unlimited opportunity, or an endless market of customers who don’t even know that they need my product, she’s digging up every shred of evidence that challenges my assumptions.
This is a tricky one, but it’s rather essential: there will be inevitable naysayers, and you do yourself no favours by stubbornly tuning them out.
Your task is to listen very closely to the naysayers you trust and respect. They will inform your perspective and shatter unfounded assumptions. If the wheels are falling off your bus, a trusted naysayer is your start-up’s best friend.
Not taking incremental risk
Any start-up venture obviously involves an element of risk. Everyone has a different threshold for risk, but make no mistake, at some point in the evolution of your start-up, you’re going to bite off more than what you feel comfortable chewing.
There’s no getting around it: you will need to take the plunge without a lifejacket if your business is going to see the next phase of growth.
This can mean everything from hiring your first FT employee to leasing a commercial space to partnering with liquidity to fulfill increasing orders.
It’s wise indeed to know your risk capacity before you get started. If you have no appetite for risk, or if your personal circumstances don’t warrant much risk, it may be a good idea to back off until you can countenance some risk in your life.
Not striking while the iron is hot
Quite often, the difference between success and failure in the start-up sphere is whether or not you act quickly when opportunity strikes. If you’ve noticed an unmet market need that repeatedly stares you in the face and you haven’t jumped on it, you’re guilty of a start-up sin: procrastination.
This may be the most critical of all possible omissions in a competitive start-up space. If you don’t strike fast at the earliest opportunity, you can bet the house that another entrepreneur is doing just so.
Once-in-a-lifetime opportunities are often exactly that: they aren’t coming around again, and the more you sit on your hands and weigh your options, the more likely that someone else is going to get the glory before you.
It ties into risk, too: you’ll never know if it was the big moment unless you direct attention towards it and make yourself known.
Not saying yes
I now recommend this strategy for anyone and everyone (to a point, at least), start-up or no start-up.
Learn how to say yes way more often than you say no.
This is not to say you should become a pushover sucker. Far from it.
The tendency to see barriers and complications is only human. We all experience it to varying degrees.
Yet sometimes, the universe is giving you exactly what is called for, yet you will never realize it by immediately shutting out possibilities.
When a new order comes in that you think you can’t fulfill, think again. You may have to tap into your ingenuity and do some fancy footwork to make it happen, but that’s part of your entire game, right?
Resourcefulness. Creativity. Diligence.
Just trust me on this one: you’ll surprise yourself and your clients when you say yes and you’ll earn a reputation as a can-do business.
As a final, bonus tip in this list of what not to do at your start-up, take this one to the bank: DO NOT WAIT UNTIL YOUR CIRCUMSTANCES ARE PERFECT TO TAKE THE NEXT STEP IN YOUR GROWTH.
They will NEVER be perfect. What’s more, your thoughts on what you consider “perfect” will not even be the same from year to year, or month to month.
If you wait until your perceived conditions are perfect, you’ll probably miss about a half dozen opportunities in the interim that won’t present themselves because of the inertia of uncertainty.
So, in the final analysis, don’t do as I did and you might just do it right.
Brett Hughes is CFIB’s resident business writer. A professional journalist by trade and a goat farmer by dream, Brett divides his time between his business interests, his small but oh-so-powerful family, and his true calling as the next coming of Frank Sinatra (no for real, the guy has singing chops). You can check out Brett’s LinkedIn profile for a quick digest of his professional specs.