Startups die for lots of reasons. Of course the end game usually involves running out of money – until that point in time, you can still fight on (although it might not be worth it.) But at the root of many startup deaths is indecision, especially for first-time entrepreneurs and CEOs.
First-time entrepreneurs don’t have the benefit of past experience, and too often lack active investors, board members or mentors to help guide them. And there are a lot of decisions to be made when running a company. So many in fact that it can be easily overwhelming – for first-time entrepreneurs and repeat entrepreneurs as well.
Indecision Creeps in Slowly
It’s fair to say that most startup founders aren’t the ultra-indecisive types; after all, they did start a company right? But indecision has an insidious way of creeping in, slowly at first, and especially when things aren’t “going as planned.” Of course, things never go completely as planned, and when tough times hit, suddenly bold, confident people become hesitant, wishy-washy and a touch scared.
Decisiveness is Different than Recklessness
Bad decisions can kill startups too. But indecision is worse. Fred Wilson points out that he looks for action-oriented founders as an investment criteria. Mark Suster has a similar view in his post, 10 skills I look for before writing a check (and check out how he’s elaborating on his points individually on his blog.)
It’s reasonable for startup founders to take more risks and be more aggressive, but one should never confuse decisiveness with recklessness. Being reckless can lead to all sorts of disasters. This is especially true when dealing with money. If you don’t have a tight, structured approach to budgeting and financial control you’re in for a lot of trouble. Being reckless with your money is stupid. Being decisive is not.
Decisiveness Sometimes Means Taking No Action At All
Sometimes the best decision you can make is to maintain the status quo. Henrik Werdelin makes this point when examining the rise of Twitter. Twitter had years of fairly stagnant growth, but didn’t go about plowing more features into their product or radically changing what they were doing. Of course the same people that stayed the course with Twitter did pivot very drastically when they shelved Odeo completely, recognizing that there was not a sizable enough market in podcasting.
Don’t confuse indecisiveness with staying the course. But recognize when staying the course isn’t you being decisive, it’s you being stuck.
Indecision Paralyzes Startups
If a startup isn’t moving forward, there’s a good chance it’s heading in the opposite direction, and fast. Startups aren’t designed to tread water. And indecision paralyzes startups. It might be something you think is relatively small that “suddenly” balloons into a huge, crippling issue. A delay in letting go an employee that’s not fitting in is the kind of issue that you might feel can be delayed; but it can’t.
Don’t Confuse Small Companies with Startups
Just because you run (or work for) a company with a handful of employees doesn’t make that company a startup. It very well could be a small company. And the two are different. Not all small companies have a decisive, aggressive startup mentality, so be careful about falling into the “small company” trap as a startup founder. And employees have to be equally cautious about joining small companies when what they really want is to work at a startup.
How to Avoid Indecisiveness
Indecision kills startups. It needs to be avoided at all costs. Here are some ways to avoid and actively protect against indecisiveness:
- Get kick ass mentors and advisors. Leverage them actively. If they’re just there as A-listers on your website that’s not helpful in these moments. You need fast, honest input.
- Co-founders need to work as a team and not over-split decision making. If one founder is technical and one is non-technical, it doesn’t mean each founder goes into a separate silo; that can lead to a lot of trouble.
- But have a final decision-maker. Committees don’t help the decision making process. Committees should be banned from startups. Someone has to be responsible for making decisions, and doing so in a decisive way. People have the right to provide input, and input is sought from key people, but then make sure you know who pulls the triggers.
- Recognize the warning signs of indecision. Is there an email sitting in your inbox that you know you have to respond to? Are there unresolved issues piling up? Are you feeling burnt out? Those are clear signs of indecision. You have to power through them. Don’t be a deer in headlights.
- Don’t wait until you’re just about to hit the brick wall running full-steam to make key decisions. This is too often what happens with startups. They stay the course, or make small changes, but leave the big, scary, audacious changes to the last minute, when there are pennies left in the bank account and the investors aren’t returning calls. That’s a fairly good sign that you’re about to smash your nose to pieces on the brick wall of failure. Failure is a part of startups, but failing as a result of being indecisive is inexcusable. You’ll kick yourself after.
- Pivot faster and be open to massive, fast change. This goes back to the difference between startups and small companies. Startups have to be designed for big shifts, quick moves and a bit of craziness. Don’t cling to old dreams, old ideas and old tactics, if you know in your heart of hearts that things aren’t working.
It’s better to have tried and failed than to never have tried at all. Cheesy? Sure. But absolutely true.
Sit back for a moment and look at your own startup and your work. Where can you pull the trigger on key decisions just a little bit faster, or finally make a decision that’s been sitting there like a monkey on your back? Whether you end up making the right decision or not, you will feel liberated by your decisiveness, and that goes a long way to improving your motivation, spirit and chances of success. And if you happen to make a wrong move, you may still have time to course correct – but not if you’ve waited too long and have nowhere else to go.
Indecisiveness kills startups. Don’t kill your startup because you’re stuck. Get unstuck.
photo courtesy of shutterstock