9 Deadly Sins Startup Founders Commit Most

small business pitfalls

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7. Sales and Marketing Execute to a Plan

Hiring VPs and execs with the right titles but the wrong skills leads to further startup trouble as high-powered sales and marketing people arrive on the payroll to execute the “plan.” Here’s how it typically unfolds:

Following the business plan and the traditional product introduction model, the board and founders agree to a launch date, a burn rate, a revenue plan and a set of milestones.

The sales VP begins to hire the core sales team, design sales pitches, and make appointments and attempts to acquire early “lighthouse” customers (prominent customers who will attract others). At the same time, the sales team uses revenue goals specified in the business plan to track its progress in understanding customers.

Meanwhile, the marketing VP is busy designing websites, logos, presentations, data sheets and collateral, and hiring PR agencies to create buzz.

These tactics become marketing objectives, even though they’re merely tactics. Marketing discovers whether its positioning, messaging, pricing and demand- creation activities will work only after first customer ship.

Executives and board members accustomed to measurable signs of progress against “the plan” will focus on these execution activities because this is what they know how to do (and what they believe they were hired to do).

Of course, in established companies with known customers and markets, this focus makes sense. And even in some startups in “existing markets,” where customers and markets are known, it might work.

But in a majority of startups, measuring progress against a product launch or revenue plan is simply false progress, since it transpires in a vacuum absent real customer feedback, instead of searching for an understanding of customers and their problems and replacing assumptions with facts.

8. Presumption of Success Leads to Premature Scaling

The business plan, its revenue forecast, and the product introduction model assume that every step a startup takes proceeds flawlessly and smoothly to the next.

The model leaves little room for error, learning, iteration or customer feedback. Nothing says, “Stop or slow down hiring until you understand customers,” or, “pause to process customer feedback.”

Even the most experienced executives are pressured to hire and staff per the plan regardless of progress. This leads to the next startup disaster: premature scaling.

Hiring and spending should accelerate only after sales and marketing have become predictable, repeatable, scalable processes—not when the plan says they’re scheduled to begin (or when the “lighthouse” account is signed or a few sales are made).

In large companies, the mistakes just have additional zeros in them. Microsoft and Google, powerhouses though may they be, launch product after product— Google’s Orkut and Wave, Deskbar, Dodgeball, Talk and Finance; Microsoft’s “Kin,” Vista, Zune, “Bob,” WebTV, MSNTV, PocketPC—on rigid schedules driven by “the model” and the presumption of success.

Shortly thereafter, a lack of customer response delivers a fast, quiet funeral for product and management alike.

9. Management by Crisis Leads to a Death Spiral

Consequences of all the mistakes began to show by the time of first customer ship.

The story usually unfolds like this: 

Sales starts to miss its numbers and the board becomes concerned. The sales VP arrives at a board meeting, still optimistic, and provides a set of reasonable explanations.

The board raises a collective eyebrow. The VP returns to the field to exhort the troops to work harder. Sales asks Engineering to build custom versions of the product for special customers, since this is the only way that the increasingly desperate sales force can close the sale.

Board meetings become increasingly tense. Shortly thereafter, the sales VP is probably terminated as part of the “solution.”

A new sales VP hired and quickly concludes that the company just didn’t understand its customers or how to sell them. She decides that the company’s positioning and marketing strategy were incorrect and that the product was missing critical features.

Since the new sales VP was hired to “fix” sales, the marketing department must now respond to a sales manager who believes that whatever was created earlier in the company was wrong (After all, it got the old VP fired, right?). A new sales plan buys the new sales VP a few months’ honeymoon.

Sometimes all it takes is one or two iterations to find the right sales roadmap and positioning to attract exuberant customers. In tougher times, when dollars are tighter, the next round of funding may never come.

The problem is that no business plan survives first contact with customers. 

Related articles:

Top 10 Marketing Pitfalls

7 Business Pitfalls to Keep Top of Mind

The 9 Key Pitfalls of Hiring

10 Don'ts for Small Business Owners and Entrepreneurs

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About the author

Bob Dorf

Bob Dorf is among the world’s leading Lean Startup and Customer Development experts, who trains and coaches startups throughout the world, with a particular focus on Latin America.  Bob co-authored the Startup Owner’s Manual, a global bestseller, with startup legend Steve Blank. Now in 18 languages, the Manual details every step in transforming an idea into a repeatable, scalable, profitable business. Bob focuses particularly on training programs for the startup educators, coaches, and investors, and has done so repeatedly in Mexico, Colombia, Brazil and many more. Hes also an Entrepreneur-in-Residence at Columbia Business School. Earlier, Bob founded seven startups--“two homeruns, two base hits, and three tax losses.” His 30+ angel investments delivered 7 IPO’s and six disasters. Learn more at www.bobdorf.nyc or contact bob via bobdorf@gmail.com

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