May 5, 2020

6 Mistakes Derailing Your Startup Growth

Michel Gagnon
Michel Gagnon
CEO of Stun&Awe

We put so much toil, sweat, and tears into our business. Day in, day out. It can be discouraging to feel stuck. You got the ideas and a relatively good team, but it doesn’t seem to click.

You start wondering...

Am I good enough to bring the company to the next level? Do I have what it takes? Is there a silver bullet that I’m not seeing that could get me out of that plateau? Or is there some esoteric dark force whose only purpose is to see me fail?

Sorry to break it to you, but it might be none of the above.

We have made or seen others make typical mistakes when trying to build a meaningful business. Instead of visiting your shaman and invoke the spirits (no disrespect here), review our list of mistakes to see if you make one of them.

#1 You manage a to-do list instead of a business

One of the most non-scalable ways of running a successful startup is to manage a long to-do list instead of using a structured system.

There are three evil forces (to stick to my earlier spirit reference) that come with a to-do list.

  1. First it gives you a false sense of progress, of getting things done. Our tendency to do the easier, faster, or more pleasant tasks first often means that we postpone what really matters. You decide to send unimportant emails instead of firing someone who’s not doing the job. You review a presentation instead of developing your go-to-market strategy for your new product. Unless you’re a master prioritizer you’re human nature will most likely fail you.
  2. Second running a tech startup is a pretty tough job that involves so many different activities: hiring, product development, strategy, process improvement, communication, fund raising, etc. If you put everything you have to do on a list, you’ll go nuts! I got a pretty easy trick to help you figure out if something is good for you or not. If you look at it and it makes you feel like throwing up, it’s bad. Since your to-do list will never shrink (there’s always another task to add to it), you’ll feel constantly overwhelmed.
  3. Third, to-do lists may give you the “do-whatever-but-do-something syndrome” (I made that term up, nothing scientific about it). That’s basically a state that makes you feel good when you’re doing something, even if it’s just shuffling papers. A friend of mine works in a company where they’re constantly on Google Chat. Some people used to manage by emails, now people are managing by Chat or Slack. Instead of prioritizing and organizing themselves, they just shoot messages, asks, orders at all hours of the day. Chatting gives them a sense of movement, a sense of accomplishing something.

#2 You and your team are not clear on the destination

If you and your team are not clear about the end goal, the strategy, your purpose or True North, it’s very difficult to expect people to take initiatives.

Employees come to you to know what to do next or how to deal with a specific problem. If you have to get involved in all tasks and decisions, here’s your red light.

For example, if you want to focus this year on improving your profitability, but haven’t communicated that priority across the company, you’ll have to deal with salespeople who may be too aggressive on pricing to hit their revenue targets.

If your positioning and product strategy are not clear to the team, you’ll have employees come up with new product ideas that don’t fit with the vision. That wastes everyone’s time.

That’s not scalable.

#3 There’s a gap between strategy and the day-to-day

Having a nice strategic plan on some slides hidden on a drive somewhere is not ideal, but at least it’s a start. Without a set of objectives, key results, and clear initiatives, you will end up with a big gap between your high-level strategy and daily operations.

You cannot hope to have proactive and strategic employees if they get sucked in the daily firefighting and paper shuffling. They won’t deliver if a significant amount of their daily tasks are not directly attached to the strategy and the big goals you’re after.

As Peter Bregman wrote a while back:

“ The reason strategy execution is often glossed over by even the most astute strategy consultants is because primarily it’s not a strategy challenge. It’s a human behavior one. To deliver stellar results, people need to be hyperaligned and laser-focused on the highest-impact actions that will drive the organization’s most important outcomes.”

You need a system to balance the day-to-day workload and monitor progress on strategic projects.

#4 You got wrong players on the team

If you’re a decent person who generally wants your employees to grow and succeed, having to fire or address someone’s performance is probably not your favorite task.

Failing to act is pretty much like shooting yourself in the foot though.

Working with great people makes your life so much easier. They’re often ahead of you. You don’t have to explain to them every single task or project. They know what is needed, how they can contribute, and just get the job done.

Hiring and firing costs time and energy. In some countries, like Germany where we live, labour laws are quite strict and relatively favorable to employees. You need to be smart and do the right thing both for the person and your company.

There are many reasons that can explain why someone is under performing. Your employee may have personal issues, lack the experience or training for the role, or simply not be happy in that role.

People are complex creatures. I know I am. To get your tech startup where you want it to be, you need an approach that will simplify how you assess, coach, promote your people.

Postponing difficult conversations with your employees is rarely the right move.

#5 You’re driving blind without leading indicators

Another typical mistake that’s holding startups back from success is reactive operations. That’s usually what happens when you don’t monitor leading indicators.

Many startups track monthly or quarterly data like revenues, margins, operating expenses. These numbers reviewed on a monthly or quarterly basis show what happened in the past. But it’s usually too late to change anything and improve performance.

Others review daily vanity metrics like social media followers, page views, subscribers. None of them really help you be proactive.

If your company counts more than 75 employees, implementing anything starts to take a while. You cannot wait a month or a quarter to see if you’re on the right track.

Leading indicators act a bit like your own mini crystal ball. They can include marketing, sales, operations, and customer success data. Your indicator list will pretty much depend on the type of startup that you have and which metrics are key to success.

Leading indicators show you on a daily or weekly basis how your month or quarter will end if you don’t change course. If the trend is not going in the right direction, you can be proactive and act.

Without that, you are basically driving blind. And that’s a very scary place to be.

#6 You forgot to build a sustainable and meaningful business

It’s easy to get caught up in the glamour around entrepreneurship. They dream of massive funding rounds, fancy offices in trendy neighborhoods, successful IPOs, designer clothes.

They get obsessed with new user growth, push their team to the max, and listen more to investors than to their customers.

It’s easy to get lost along the way. I’ve worked for publicly listed companies. The pressure to get the numbers right and meet the market’s expectations can be extremely stressful and overwhelming.

But in the end, what pays off is to build a startup on solid foundations. That means putting sustainability and meaningfulness at the center of the business.

How are you creating a positive impact in your community? How are you encouraging diversity? How can you improve your environmental footprint? Is your company bringing value to the world or is it just creating noise?

How can you fix those mistakes?

If you’re guilty of any of the above, the good news is that there are simple ways to fix those mistakes. Our online course may be the help you’re looking for.