Posted by: Jenn Deering Davis | September 21, 2010

Why startups fail (hint: it’s about communication)

Last week Paul Biggar, co-founder of NewsTilt, wrote a pretty extensive blog post about why their company failed. While it sucks to shut your company down (especially only two months after launch), I’m impressed with Paul’s candor and reflexivity in his post. And I’m amazed at the courage it took to say these things publicly. For many of us, failure is a scary and very private matter.

Paul cited four main reasons the company failed:

  1. [My co-founder] and I had major communication problems,
  2. we weren’t intrinsically motivated by news and journalism,
  3. making a new product required changes we could not make,
  4. our motivation to make a successful company got destroyed by all of the above.

As a fellow startup founder, I can sympathize with these. And as a communication scholar, I can see how incredibly detrimental these could be to a young company’s success.

A startup requires long hours, commitment to an idea others might not understand, endless energy and optimism, thick skin, supportive friends and family, and passion. I strongly believe that if you don’t love the idea you’re working on, then you’re not going to be successful in the end. This is why #2 is so dangerous – it’s easy to become less and less involved in your idea when it’s not your passion. Customer service and acquisition will suffer, too; if you don’t care about your idea, then it’s hard to convince customers to care about it. Killing yourself to work on an idea you don’t believe in will lead to emotional exhaustion and burnout. (If you don’t believe me, ask anyone who’s ever written a dissertation.)

I also think that to have a successful startup, you need a kickass co-founder (which also assumes you need at least one co-founder, though not everyone agrees with that). It’s a heavy weight to bear on your own. And no one is good at everything you need to do in a new company (nor does she/he have the time to do it all). Having a co-founder or two who’s going through this with you is helpful, maybe even necessary. More than that, though, co-founders need to communicate clearly and often. This is why I think #1 on Paul’s list should be #1 on all startups’ lists.

This is something I’ll preach to anyone who will listen – communication is the key to all relationships – but it’s particularly relevant in this case. In many startup situations, you spend more time with your co-founder than you do with your family. If you can’t communicate effectively with that person, then things will deteriorate to a point where you just can’t fix them and either a founder will quit or the company will fail.

So, here are a few important communication tips for a startup.

  • Be honest. Speak your mind, share what’s going on. In fact, just say something. Talking is good.
  • Be patient. You will be grumpy sometimes. Your co-founder will be grumpy sometimes. You might not be on the same page about a new feature or issue. Stop for a minute and take a breath. You’re both tired and stressed; try to be nice.
  • Take breaks. From work, from each other. See other people sometimes. You both need space.
  • Ask questions. If you don’t know something, ask. If your co-founder seems upset about something or stuck on a problem, ask her/him how’s it going.
  • Listen. Just be quiet and pay attention to the other person for a few minutes. Try not to think about what’s on your own mind. It’s always easier to solve someone else’s problems than your own.
  • Remember that you respect each other for a reason. Occasionally, think about the reasons why you’re working together in the first place. This is the smartest person you know. Sometimes you might need to remind yourself of that fact.
  • Have fun. Every day, stop working and do something fun for ten minutes. Have an office dance party, eat some cookies, go for a walk, play ping-pong, whatever. Just don’t talk about anything work-related for ten minutes. And once a week, take an entire afternoon or evening off. You can still work the other 6.5 days in the week.
  • Talk about what’s going well. In a startup, it’s easy to focus on the negative – traffic’s down, money’s not coming in fast enough, the competition was just featured on TechCrunch. It’s helpful to remind yourselves of the positive. Celebrate your successes.
  • Focus on solving problems. Instead of getting bogged down by what’s going wrong, try to reframe things as problems to be solved. Everything can be fixed. So figure out what you can do to make a bad situation better.

Now that I’ve written these out, I realize how similar a co-founder relationship is to a marriage. In the early stages, it really might be just the two (or few) of you. Because of this, communicating clearly, openly, and frequently is just as important as building a great product and finding customers. The way that you communicate early in your company’s existence will shape the culture of the future company you’re trying to build.

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