Your Startup Is Failing — This Question Tells You Why

a small rabbit toy left behind sitting in the centre of the pavement

So you want to start a company. You have done your research. And you know it will be hard work. You probably found the oft-cited statistic that 80 percent of startups fail. You may have even read a few post-mortems — the retrospectives company founders and investors write about their startups’ demise. 

Sure, failure is a possibility. But so is success. Instead of focusing on the 80 percent of startups that are faltering, why not dig into what the other 20 percent are doing right?

Having spent the last 15-plus years in Silicon Valley in emerging companies that made the cut, I have done some good work and had some good fortune. I have also watched many startups flare up and flame out.

If you want to be a successful founder or work for one, you need to ask one question: What problem am I trying to solve? And if your startup is failing, it’s the same grounding question that can help pull you out of your death spiral.

Seems easy, right? But you need to do more than just ask. You need to develop a strong answer and hold it up as your true north. If you lose sight of it, you will lose your path to success. That is because your answer will directly impact how you spend your time and effort.

There will always be more work to do than time available — opportunity cost is a tough reality. Every decision matters. And you cannot make wise ones without that true north to measure against.

There are signs to look for to determine if you need to go back and ask the most fundamental question about what you are trying to do. Here are a few:

Confusion
The team seems to be working on one-off projects that do not converge towards a common goal. You sit in meetings and think, “Why are we working on this?” The work is not tied to strategy because there is none. Or if there is, you failed to communicate it. There are no clear goals in sight. Confusion reigns and it leads to…

Silence
The team has stopped offering ideas. And those early customers who were eager to support you? Their calls and emails have died down. A wall is growing between you and your most valuable resources — your teammates and customers. You are now facing…

Blindness
You are in the dark on how to move forward. Without the insights of your team and customers, you do not know what improvements are needed or if any problem is being solved. These blind-spots are leading to uninformed choices. But your focus is not really on the product anyways. Instead, you are now fighting for…

Survival
You are spending more time with potential investors than you are on actual work. You have an issue and it is your bank account. You are so funding-focused that you have lost sight of your real purpose — creating a valuable product.

Panic
Finally, deep fear and anxiety set in and you are spiraling. You can barely remember why you wanted to start a company in the first place. And it is affecting your decision-making. You are simply desperate to stay afloat another month and your choices reflect that.

Remember — success is the accumulation of wise decisions and the logical application of effort to the tasks that will keep you moving towards your goals. If you lose track of your goals, you are on a fast track to failure.

As a company leader, you will face a host of unpredictable variables, but there is something you can control — where you direct your daily efforts. Once you match those efforts to your core purpose, you will be closer to joining the estimated 20 percent of startups that succeed.  

Do you agree that this is the most fundamental startup question?

About Brian and Aha!

Brian seeks business and wilderness adventure. He is the co-founder and CEO of Aha! — the world’s #1 product roadmap software — and the author of Lovability. His two previous startups were acquired by well-known public companies. Brian writes and speaks about product and company growth and the adventure of living a meaningful life.

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