Rick Spence | April 30, 2014 8:00 AM ET
More from Rick Spence | @rickspence
Lucky are those entrepreneurs who get through the startup stage and live to tell about it. Luckier still are those who can learn from the mistakes of other founders.
Kathryn Minshew, co-founder and chief executive of The Muse, a New York-based career-planning and job-site service, survived Y Combinator bootcamp and raised US$1.2-million in capital. She now delivers compelling presentations on “The 7 Classic Startup Founder Mistakes (And How to Avoid Them).” You can watch her 18-minute presentation here, on 99u.com. But first, here’s a quick summary of Minshew’s take on those seven classic slip-ups.
1. Idea vs. product-market fit: Minshew says many founders set out to commercialize a product just because their family members or former college roommates say the product will be a big hit. “Test and refine a product before you launch it,” she says. Talk to people who don’t know you and don’t care about your success. “Once you do that, go out and collect data like it’s your job. Because it is.”
2. Any co-founders with skill will do: You can’t just team up with anyone, Minshew warns. “Think very carefully about the people you will partner with.” Consider what your roles will be if the company is a success, and whether these are the people you will march through hell with if the company has trouble. Fully document your roles, duties and exit strategies. Minshew says that in a previous business, the founders’ roles were loosely sketched out on two sheets of notebook paper: “It ended very, very badly.”
3. Perfect vs. done: Many startups want to disrupt their market with the best product they can produce. When the three Muse partners first entered the Y Combinator program, they told founder Paul Graham about the many industry-leading features they wanted to build into the site. Stop, Graham said: By the time you build that product, “your company will be dead.” Assemble a minimum viable product built around one core feature, he advised, and “Just launch already.” The Muse team launched their first product 12 days later.
4. Being productive vs. impactful: Beware, Minshew says, of days spent working through your email and setting up meetings. It may feel productive, “but if you haven’t accomplished things that moved you toward your most important metrics, then you haven’t accomplished anything. Figure out what tasks or metrics are most important for your business’s success today, and make sure you clear enough time for those.”
5. Create velocity: It’s not enough to build a great product or Web service, says Minshew — you have to get people to notice it. “Unless you figure out a way for people to learn about your product, it’s really hard to start the engine of customer acquisition.” One of Muse’s best attention-getting tactics was to create great articles about careers and job-hunting, and distribute it not just through Muse, but through content distributors such as Forbes, Mashable and Yahoo!
6. Team building: Most startups’ new hires hail from the immediate networks of the owners and staff. But look farther out for great people, Minshew says. Look through your online communities to find “people whose work you admire, or whose voice you find interesting, or people who work in a company that has recently suffered a financial difficulty.” She has seen people accept 50% salary cuts to work on opportunities they find personally meaningful.
7. Don’t believe the hype: While you’re struggling to get your business off the ground, it’s tempting to envy other companies that seem to be gaining traction faster. But don’t fall for illusions, Minshew says: “A lot of startups in their early days are train wrecks.” Focus on doing the right things in your business and don’t worry about the successes other companies may or may not be enjoying.
Watch Minshew’s presentation at http://99u.com/videos/24569/kathryn-minshew-7-classic-startup-founder-mistakes-and-how-to-avoid-them