Indecision Kills Startups

Fist crashing through brick wallStartups 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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.
  6. 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

December 16, 2009 Posted in Startups by

  • http://www.hidrocilsp.com.br/descupinizacao/descupinizacao.html Descupinização

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  • http://michaelbungartz.wordpress.com/ Michael B.

    Great post that hits home… There is no room for indecisiveness in a startup. It's the big gorilla in the corner that we fail to acknowledge and deal with. And in this business, that will end you. ~ Thanks.

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  • davidsakamoto

    So true. I've experienced startups that mixup their ability with pivot quickly with a clear definition of who's accountable for the decision. The clear structure support crisp, fast and clear decision making at all levels. Core to any business though (as you point out) especially important for startups. Thanks for sharing.

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  • http://www.instigatorblog.com Benjamin Yoskovitz

    And thank you for stopping by and taking the time to comment, always appreciated.

  • http://www.instigatorblog.com Benjamin Yoskovitz

    Michael – I appreciate the comment. I see it more like a nagging, blood-sucking imp on the shoulder that drains you over time of your energy, and before you realize it, you're unable to function. Whatever the analogy, indecision sucks.

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  • sikatangpinoy

    very interesting post. keep up the good work

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    Very well said Ben, thanks for sharing. Decision-making in a start-up business is one of the most important aspects of making that business succeed. No matter how many people are making the decisions, they must be confident in there decisions and make sure they are well thought out. However, you can not vacillate and drag out important decisions because that will also slow down the effectiveness of your business.

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    I think hasty decisions are far worse than indecision or delayed decisions. Atleast most of the times.

  • http://www.scottsdaledentists.com/ Scott G.

    Very nice post… and so true! I have had several good ideas that fail due to analysis paralysis in the past. I have learned to forge ahead now. The mentors and coaching aspect is the next phase that I have been working on and others can really learn from.

  • http://www.instigatorblog.com Benjamin Yoskovitz

    No one is suggesting you make hasty decisions, but indecision is worse. No decision at all is worse than the wrong decision in most cases.

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    Indecisiveness is surely THE barrier in the start up companies and this is normally due to lack of knowledge of once job responsibility.

  • http://www.spartanmoving.com/ beth and jim

    I think indecisiveness comes from people who are really scared to make a move knowing one move can be their ultimate demise. But as a business owner, you have to be a leader and lead your pact and no room for indecisiveness.

  • http://www.spartanmoving.com/ beth and jim

    I think this problem comes from people who are scared to make a move knowing one move can be their total demise. But as a business owner, you have to be a leader, to lead a pact, and thus, have no room for indecisiveness.

  • barsandnightclubsaustralia

    I think that no matter what decision you make in business, the longer you take to respond, the poorer the outcome will be irrespective…

    IE: If you have to find the quickest route to a meeting, if you take 1/2 an hour to choose your going to be late no matter what.

  • http://re-markablemarketing.com/ Jeff Bernheisel

    Great tips for someone getting started with little to no direction.
    I've had a few instances where I've missed opportunities because I had been postponing things. Part of my goal in 2010 is to work on this!

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    I read your profile today and it was so good to me.i feel you are the only one missing in my entire life so i decided to stop on and let you know that i am interested to be a friend first.When the fight begins within himself, a man's worth something

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    Yes, postponing decisions kill new ideas. SUMT reluctant at first and it can stop even the great plans

  • http://clayfranklin.com Clay Franklin

    Decision by committee is the worst. You make a great point about have one person responsible for the final decision. For shared final decisions, I have found that decisions take too long to make trying to round the troops to get together and decide.

  • valpotim

    That's what I'm talking about…better to try and fail than to fail to try.

    2010 is here now and I'm getting my butt in gear to make my businesses into powerhoouses in their industries.

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    I think this problem comes from people who are scared to make a move knowing one move can be their total demise. But as a business owner, you have to be a leader, to lead a pact, and thus, have no room for indecisiveness

  • http://www.profitableonlinesecrets.com/ imran

    Thats what i have trying to tell small local startup for months!

    They all think that just because they have an indecisive moment for marketing, they can sit back and rue their problem.

    Much talk has been generated recently of helping small businesses garner an online presence, to reach out to more customers. I have had a tough time trying to convince owners that internet can do wonders for their business, especially when i try to pitch one to one.

    I found the following works best (i am in singapore, by the way)

    I send out mass fax, or postcard marketing, with the bold title- “CAn the internet triple your business?”

    Followed by a $5 seminar, it cannot be free because you have to disqualify prospects.

    I will wait until there are 30 respondents before i actually launch the free seminar.

    Once you have all the owners in one venue, its easier to show them on the screen, how thier business compares to the competion.

    Its tough work, but it sure does pay well!

    http://www.ProfitableOnlineSecrets.com

  • http://www.profitableonlinesecrets.com/ imran

    Thats what i have trying to tell small local startup for months!

    They all think that just because they have an indecisive moment for marketing, they can sit back and rue their problem.

    Much talk has been generated recently of helping small businesses garner an online presence, to reach out to more customers. I have had a tough time trying to convince owners that internet can do wonders for their business, especially when i try to pitch one to one.

    I found the following works best (i am in singapore, by the way)

    I send out mass fax, or postcard marketing, with the bold title- “CAn the internet triple your business?”

    Followed by a $5 seminar, it cannot be free because you have to disqualify prospects.

    I will wait until there are 30 respondents before i actually launch the free seminar.

    Once you have all the owners in one venue, its easier to show them on the screen, how thier business compares to the competion.

    Its tough work, but it sure does pay well!

    http://www.ProfitableOnlineSecrets.com

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Ben Yoskovitz
I'm VP Product at Codified (makers of VarageSale).

I'm also a Founding Partner at Year One Labs, an early stage accelerator in Montreal. Previously I founded Standout Jobs (and sold it).

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