Why my mistakes in the start-up world can help you

Photo via  unsplash.com

Photo via unsplash.com

“Why should I pay attention to you?” you may be thinking. That’s not a bad starting point and, perhaps, you shouldn’t! Let’s see…

The people I am speaking to are running businesses where technology is a key component of what they do and, typically, they are making (or contemplating) significant investments in building software, where failure has serious consequences for their business.

If this isn’t you - that’s okay. Please do read on, as even though much of what I say isn’t written directly *for* you, it will still be of good use. 

It was in 1986 that I began to write software. In 1992 I turned professional. 2000 was the year that I joined my first startup and I continued working in the startup world until 2012. This means I have around 30 years of experience of building software commercially. At the risk of sounding like an old fogey - I’ve been around.

My startup experience is perhaps of most relevance and interest to you. Because every one of those software startups - including two of my own - failed.

In my early work as an advisor and mentor I’ve seen even more startups go on to fail in some sense: either going out of business or struggling to get anywhere near their objectives.

In short, I’ve seen a LOT of things go wrong.

I wish I could say that I learned the lessons immediately, but it actually took me more than 10 years of failing (over and over) and then another 2 years trying to help other companies before the penny dropped and I began to learn the lesson of my experiences. 

In almost every case, there was one or more of the following 5 critical failures at work:

  • An inability to articulate a vision in a way that lead to a concrete plan of action which could either be followed or invalidated

  • A team that were not able to align themselves to work properly together, either through miscommunication or subtly working at cross-purposes, if not outright sabotage!

  • A value proposition that was as unclear to them as it was to their customers, nobody could perceive the value

  • A product that didn’t meet the needs of customers enough to sell in sufficient quantity or at a price that made the business viable

  • An inability to stick to a plan and to learn which tactics work and which do not, so that effort is wasted pursuing the wrong tactics

The end result of these kind of problems is usually that things begin to slow down, targets are not met, tension and unhappiness rises, money becomes a problem and the company either dies or becomes a zombie that will never achieve its lofty ambitions.

But it doesn’t have to be this way. We can learn from the mistakes of others (including mine). If we value turning vision into something concrete and measurable, use appropriate tools to keep the team aligned, test our assumptions and strengthen our value proposition, create strategy, and measure our tactics - we can do better.

Better yet, if we adopt a system - a programme of work designed to address the issues we are likely to face, we can do better and get luck on our side. Louis Pasteur is quoted as saying, “Chance favours only the prepared mind.” This is the kind of approach that I preach.

So, my reason for thinking you might want to listen to what I say is that I have experienced many of the ways that companies, startups and SME’s, can go astray. And I’m trying to translate my experience, the lessons I’ve learned the along the way, into a systematic approach to success in the software business. Trying to turn beautiful mistakes into hard-won learnings via The Art of Navigation. 

I still have a lot to learn, for sure. My approach is still being developed along the way but I hope that, like me, you will make it your ambition to try and make only new mistakes!!

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Matt MowerComment