Lessons from Startups You Should Learn

During the past year, I’ve spent a lot of time with startups. It’s always an amazing view of the world, to see things through the eyes of a small company or individual who is so focused on their product or service, that everything else is secondary.

These folks are focused. Like a laser!

They have an idea they believe in 100%. Every waking minute is spent in pursuit of achieving their goal. Spent in pursuit of supporting and moving forward the product or service.

Often heard around business incubators is the phrase “fail fast”. It means to fail early in a cycle, so you can learn, apply the knowledge and move forward. So as you look at your own investments, whether it be in SEO, social, paid search, etc., try to fail fast. Draw lines to determine success, set shorter time-lines and change direction as results show the path.

Another common thread with startups? What they end up as is often not what they started out as. www.Fab.com is a great example here. Originally a gay dating website, it transformed itself after the founders took a long hard look at what success meant to them and their business. Today is a shopping destination that is a trend leader.

The point here can be summed up in the phrase “don’t fall in love with your first idea”. If the idea is a winner, by all means, stick with it. But too many times people want to force something to work out because they liked the idea. Take a step back, involve other people and critically examine if every idea is worth continuing to pursue. Set the bar high and be brutal. You can always revisit an idea later, but following a bad idea too far leads to a dead end.

Losing focus is a common affliction with startups as they grow. Doesn’t happen until usually after they launch and see growth, and maybe some investment. They try to expand into new areas, hoping to broaden their base. What often happens is that core focal areas see less resources and the overall business falls behind trying to sort out issues with new products, while competitors chunk away at the original ideas that the company was founded on.

In most online companies today, this manifests itself in spreading resources too thin. One person to cover SEO, PPC, social, conversion optimization, content management, usability, email and more. In some companies they go the other way, hiring many people and given each one area, then walling them off so they don’t work well with each other, stop sharing data.

Sometimes the problem isn’t structural, but cultural. The decision is made to “go all in” on SEO, to the exclusion of other areas. Social suffers, the brand reputation suffers, link building suffers and so on. This is like being a body builder who goes to the gym every day and does curls with only their right arm, with predictable lopsided results in the end.

Being blind, though, is by far the biggest challenge most startups face. And you can face it too. Being so focused on one particular product, service or strategy can blind you to the need to invest in other areas. Great startups come to realize that the product is what people want, but that those people also need other things. Great startups reach a point where they know their own limits and start seeking input in areas they are weak in.

If you don’t have employees with a strong understanding of social media and customer relations, perhaps hiring a consultant to organize your social media program is a better starting point.

For the average startup, their life is like a ride on a rocketship, the only question being whether they’ll have enough gas to reach orbit. The vast majority do not. The good news for businesses beyond the startup stage is you already have enough fuel for your airliner. You’re on a very different journey. And that added time aloft is just what you need to refine approaches that aren’t working at 100% capacity for you.

Duane Forrester
Sr. Product Manager