In the early days, startups are all about focus. You need to focus on who your customers are, their problems, your technology problems, your marketing problems, and your hiring problems.
Your job as a startup, and particularly a founder, is to build shit people want. It will be very hard, because if it was easy, everyone would do it. You will probably fail. You will have a lot of people tell you that you’re an idiot / your startup will never survive / your strategy is all wrong. They may be right, but you need to prove that with data: will customers buy the stuff you are making1The discussion of when you should or shouldn’t listen to advice is a much bigger problem for another blog post.?
I’ve noticed an increasing trend toward people getting waylaid by huge distractions. I’m going to call a distraction here “anything that gets in the way of you discovering how and what to build so that customers want to buy it, and do buy it”.
Distractions are everywhere, but there are suddenly a ton more that are ‘targeted at’ startups. I’d say that the cause of that explosion is just because startups are so hot right now, which means people come in to ‘fix it’ or make a buck.
Common distractions I’ve seen include:
Pitching is something you do all the time. The best way to practice your pitch is to go and sell product to customers. You’ll talk about what you can do, and how you solve their problems.
Pitch competitions usually involve minimal at most capital to ‘win’, involve a lot of preparation, not to mention losing a day or more of time going to the competition. Judges’ feedback is limited in utility given that you usually only have 5 minutes to present, and they often aren’t someone who has any clue about your industry anyway.
The benefits includes ‘exposure’ which may (?) net you a few customers or perhaps investors. Be weary of anything that has the ultimate benefit of ‘exposure’, because it’s far from a sure thing. At the very least, the audience may well not be the right type of customer (you need to focus on the right kind of customer2This is no certain thing, and the worst thing anyone can ever say in a pitch is something like “We’re targeting every <nationality> aged <wide age range>”. Nobody ever built a business with a target market like that at the start.). At the most, they’ll churn you into other distractions.
Pitch competitions are almost always a waste of time. Unless your target market is other startups3If so, you have other problems than distractions., you’re not going to move the needle.
Speaking at conferences
Conferences are fun. I have spent all too much of my time at conferences that are mostly irrelevant to actual work, and rarely if ever produced any leads. Most of the exceptions to that rule were conferences/events that we ran internally and thus could carefully curate the attendee list.
It’s nice to be invited to conferences. But then you have to actually get there (transit time can be significant), prepare, do your presentation, stick around to do a little ‘networking’, then get back again. That whole time, you aren’t working on your business.
There are some exceptions – for example, if you narrowly target an industry and there is a conference that CEOs (your target buyer) in that industry specifically go to and you are invited to speak, that sounds like a great idea. But those conferences are not the ones you usually get invited to.
PR is a lever people sometimes push thinking it’ll get them more customers. It usually won’t4Some exceptions here for freemium consumer oriented products etc..
The benefit of press coverage is trust. Trust is sometimes important from a sales point of view – if you’re in the press, surely your company will be around for some time and can be trusted with their business. Trust can be useful for investors, although good investors usually won’t be driven by PR, although they may discover that you exist through it.
PR is not a success in and of itself. Having some clippings doesn’t mean you have “made it” any more than raising a venture capital round means that you have. They might be waypoints on the journey to success, but a successful business is one that produces value for its users and customers, not one that is often seen in the news.
Raising money when you don’t need to
The best rule about fundraising is that you are either raising money, or you are not. You are never ‘maybe raising money’. Don’t extend it longer than you need to, because raising money involves a lot of coffee meetings, a lot of timewasting with people who would never invest anyway but you go anyway on the off chance that they might, and generally is a bit soul destroying.
Most sophisticated investors (I mean that as “with experience” not “section 708 certificate holders”) will totally understand if you say to them “thanks for the offer, we’re currently focussed on building the business, but give me your card and I’ll get in touch when we raise.” Bonus points if you add them to some kind of basic updates email you send once every few months or something. You shouldn’t lose those business cards of course, and you should absolutely follow up with them when you are raising capital.
“Partnerships” conversations with corporates
It is extremely rare that a ‘partnership’ with a corporate will go anywhere. You will get distracted with endless meetings (corporates are very good at this) and a lot of promises of something happening, but it seems to always be around the corner or waiting for legal to find the right irrelevant contract template to send you.
It is uncommon5But not unheard of – many enterprise software companies are successful thanks to channel partner based marketing. for partnerships to be a massive revenue driver. It might give you access to markets you don’t have access to, but why can’t you access them yourself?
What to do about distractions
While they can sometimes be useful6You meet cool people, have fun, manage to actually sign some customers, etc, you need to be careful if you’re spending more time on distractions than you are on the business. As your company gets older and closer to product/market fit, you will have more time to go and do fun distractions, as you’ll have a team of people who will be able to pick up the slack. The amount of time you can spend on distractions goes from 0 when you first start a company through to “not zero” later on7You still don’t see many seasoned CEOs spending their life on the conference circuit though, and that’s for a good reason.
A lot of people (myself included!) get sucked into these distractions because they see them as a measure of success for a startup.
We got press coverage! That must mean we are going to be successful.
I spoke at 10 conferences last year! The company is very popular.
No. That is not a measure of success.
You should know what success looks like at your company (hint: 99.99% of the time it is “revenue” followed by “number/engagement of customers”, maybe “profit”). Focus on that as a measure of success, and don’t lose focus.
Finally, don’t forget that your startup’s success shouldn’t be your only measure of personal success – that is a bad bad place to be, and will not end well.
Notes [ + ]
|1.||↑||The discussion of when you should or shouldn’t listen to advice is a much bigger problem for another blog post.|
|2.||↑||This is no certain thing, and the worst thing anyone can ever say in a pitch is something like “We’re targeting every <nationality> aged <wide age range>”. Nobody ever built a business with a target market like that at the start.|
|3.||↑||If so, you have other problems than distractions.|
|4.||↑||Some exceptions here for freemium consumer oriented products etc.|
|5.||↑||But not unheard of – many enterprise software companies are successful thanks to channel partner based marketing.|
|6.||↑||You meet cool people, have fun, manage to actually sign some customers, etc|
|7.||↑||You still don’t see many seasoned CEOs spending their life on the conference circuit though, and that’s for a good reason|