If you have an idea for a startup, no one needs to tell you it’s tough. From finding the right co-founders to getting funding, there is no shortage of barriers to launching a company.
For early stage entrepreneurs, it is good to know when your idea itself faces a major hurdle. While some challenges can be overcome with hard work, others are built right into the foundation of your idea. Money, experience, networks and hustle aren’t enough to fix them. Some of these are addressable, where others are daunting enough that your startup will never get out of the garage.
I give you the 7 deadly startup sins:
Solving problem no one cares about
There are millions of problems that are not worth solving. If your startup is saving people time or money, you are probably in good shape.
The best way of knowing you’re solving something people care about is that they are willing to pay you for it.
The other way of knowing people care about the problem is that they are trying to solve it already. Let’s say you went to a gym 10 years ago and noticed people walking around with notebooks, writing down their reps. You might safely assume that an app would be a better way for people to capture this information.
If you have any doubts about whether you are solving a problem people care about, the best solution is to ask them if they are willing to pay for it, and how they are trying to solve it already.
Solving too many problems
This is when your startup kind of solves a lot of things, but it doesn’t nail one problem. If you watch a great startup pitch, you’ll notice that their problem slide isn’t a batch of bullet points. It’s one line, in a large, bold font. Even if there are other problems floating around, they’re only focused on the big one.
Below you will find some example slides of a fictional startup that solves the parking problem. The first is tackling one big problem. It’s clean and concise.
The second example has seven bulleted problems. Is this team solving the parking shortage? Urban sprawl? Parking tickets? Weather? Theft?
Remember, when it comes to problem solving, your startup doesn’t earn points for quantity. Find your customer’s biggest problem and tear it down.
Suffering from infrequent-use case
This sin occurs when users or customers won’t need you for long stretches of time.
If your startup only intersects with customers during big, infrequent life events, such as birth of children, buying a car or house, or backpacking through Europe, how do you retain them?
If your idea suffers from infrequent use, you must solve a massive problem. If you are in the real-estate industry for example, and you can promise home buyers will find the right home at a better price, you can overcome this problem.
Having zero knowledge of product and software development
Why does this matter? It matters because this lack of understanding can alienate and frustrate technical co-founders. I have had CS students approach me during 3 Day Startup because the kid with the idea is asking them to do something that would take a group of senior devs 18 months to complete. Those frustrated coders often jump ship within 24 hours and join a different team.
Different startups require varying degrees of tech talent. Some can be handled by opening an ecommerce store on Wix (no coding required). Others can be executed by a self-taught high schooler. But many tech startups require a senior dev with years of experience, and those devs are in massively high demand.
How do you overcome this sin? My advice is to learn some coding yourself. Maybe you never write a single line of code for your startup, but at least you understand methods, variables and loops. That will earn you some cred with coders, and hopefully grease the skids to landing a talented technical co-founder.
Needing a critical mass
The critical mass problem is when you are entering a marketplace in which your startup has no value unless there is a large base of active users on launch day.
A classic example is an app that coordinates people who want to play pickup basketball games. If this startup only has 60 active users on launch day, the chance that 2 of them will want to play at the same time (and are within geographic proximity) is very low. This app would need thousands of active users in a small region to be useful.
While critical mass is a daunting challenge, it is not insurmountable. The critical mass problem is most commonly solved by focusing on a limited region during your initial launch. Rideshare/transportation startups will go a step further by limiting their service to a single route.
Meeting needs of user or customer, but not both
In the late 90s there was a device called Cue-cat. As you can see in the photo below, it looks like a mouse, but it’s shaped like a cat (clever!). This device connected to your computer, and basically allowed you to scan a product and go directly to the vendor’s website.
Cue-Cat’s customers were large corporations and newspapers, and they loved the device (to the tune of investing $183 million in it), because it gave them data and insights into their customers, as well as driving more customers to their websites.
The fatal flaw in Cue-cat was the fact that it didn’t solve a problem for users. If you want to go to Pepsi’s website, you can either purchase a Cue-cat, or you can type P-e-p-s-i into your search bar.
If your startup serves customers and users (remember, a customer pays you, a user does not), make sure the concept is valuable to them both. If it is only valuable to one, you will resort to incentivizing the other. This gets weighty, cumbersome and expensive.
Requiring too much user input
This is when your users or customers (or both) will need to constantly input personal data. A great example is a health app that requires users to manually track and input their calories. There might be a few people out there who will enter personal data, but most will simply delete your app.
Fit devices and wearables have done well because they passively track data. This would seem to imply that customers are willing to sacrifice a certain amount of precision to be relieved of tedious data entry. If your startup suffers from the data-entry sin, you might consider sacrificing some precision for ease-of-use.
Remember, your app is competing with countless thousands of others. Because of this saturation, a user’s patience for an app that demands data entry is somewhere between zero and ten seconds.
In conclusion, students who complete 3 Day Startup tend to think their biggest challenge is finding an amazing angel investor to bring their startup to life. In reality, the biggest challenge is making sure that their startup solves a big problem. Before you start asking for money, make sure your startup isn’t committing one of the 7 deadly sins.