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It’s hard to avoid some mistakes, especially when you’re facing a situation for the first time. In fact, many of the following mistakes are hard to avoid, even if you’re a seasoned veteran. Of course, these aren’t the only mistakes CEOs make, but they’re pretty common. Do the following self-assessment: Give yourself ten points for each of these entrepreneurial blunders you are committing. Deduct five points for those you narrowly avoided. Your score, of course, will remain confidential, but ask for help. Fast!
1. Fat customer syndrome
If more than 50% of your revenue comes from a single client, you may find yourself in a crisis. While it’s both easier and more profitable to deal with a small number of large customers, you become quite vulnerable when one of them contributes the lion’s share of your cash flow. You tend to make silly concessions to keep their business. You make special investments to meet their particular needs. And you’re so busy serving that big account that you’re failing to develop additional customers and revenue streams. Then suddenly, for some reason, that client leaves and your business is on the verge of collapse.
Use this booming count as both cause for celebration and a signal of danger. Always look for new business. And always seek to diversify your sources of income.
2. Create products in a vacuum.
You and your team have a great idea. A brilliant idea. You spend months, even years, implementing this idea. When you finally bring it to market, no one is interested. Unfortunately, you were so in love with your idea that you never took the time to find out if anyone else cared enough to pay for it. You have built the best classic mousetrap.
Don’t be a product in search of a market. Do the “market research” from the start. Test the idea. Talk to potential customers, at least a dozen of them. Find out if anyone wants to buy it. Do this before anything else. If enough people say “yes”, go ahead and build it. Better yet, sell the product at pre-launch prices. Fund it in advance. If you don’t get a good answer, move on to the next idea.
3. Equal partnerships
Suppose you are the biggest salesperson in the world, but you need an operations manager to handle things in the office. Or you’re a technical genius, but you need someone to find the customers. Or maybe you and a friend are starting the business together. In each case, you and your new partner split the business 50/50. That seems right and right right now, but since your personal and professional interests diverge, it’s a sure recipe for disaster. The veto power of either party can hamper the growth and development of your business, and neither party has enough of a vote to change the situation. Almost as bad is ownership divided equally among more partners, or worse, friends. Everyone has an equal vote and decisions are made by consensus. Or, even worse, unanimously. Ouch! Nobody has the last word, every little decision becomes a debate and things quickly get bogged down.
To paraphrase Harry Truman, the buck stops somewhere. Someone has to be responsible. Make that person the CEO and give them the biggest stake, even if only a little more. 51/49 works much better than 50/50. If you and your partner should have a full tie, give a one percent share to an outside advisor who becomes your tiebreaker.
4. Low price
Some entrepreneurs think they can be the low cost player in their market and make huge profits on volume. Would you work for low wages? Why do you want to sell at a low price? Remember, gross margins pay for things like marketing and product development (and great vacation travel). Remember that low margins = no profits = no future. So the coarser the better.
Set your prices as high as your market will bear. Even if you can sell more units and generate more dollar volume at a lower price (which isn’t always the case), you may not be better off. Be sure to do all the math before deciding on a low price strategy. Calculate all your additional costs. Figure in the extra stress as well. For service companies, a low price is almost never a good idea. How do you decide how high? Raise prices. Then raise them. When customers or clients stop buying, you’ve gone too far.
5. Not enough capital
Check your business assumptions. The norm is optimistic sales projections, too-short product development timelines, and unrealistic expense forecasts. And don’t forget the weak competitors. Whatever the cause, many companies are simply undercapitalized. Even mature businesses often don’t have the cash reserves to weather a downturn.
Be careful in all your projections. Make sure you have at least as much capital as you need to get through the sales cycle or until the next scheduled funding round. Or lower your burn rate so you do.
6. Out of Focus
If yours is like most businesses, you don’t have the time or resources to pursue every good opportunity. But many entrepreneurs – hungry for money and thinking that more is always better – feel the need to seize every deal that comes their way, instead of focusing on their main product, service, market, distribution channel. Spreading yourself too thin results in below average performance.
Focusing your attention on a limited area leads to above-average results, almost always exceeding the benefits generated by diversification. Al Reis of Positioning fame has written a book that covers just this topic. It’s called Focus.
There are so many great ideas in the world that your job is to choose only those that offer superior returns in your focus area. Do not scatter. Get known in your niche for what you do best, and do it extremely well.
7. First class and crazy infrastructure
Many startups die prematurely from excessive overhead. Keep your digs humble and your furniture cheap. Your management team should earn the bulk of their compensation when earnings roll in, not before. The best entrepreneurs know how to stretch their money and use it for key business development processes like product development, sales, and marketing. Skip that fancy phone system unless it really saves time and helps make more sales. Spend all the money really necessary to achieve your goals. Ask the question, will there be a sufficient return on this expense? Everything else is above.
This disease is often found in engineers who do not release products until they are absolutely perfect. Do you remember the 80/20 rule? Following this rule to its logical conclusion, completing the last 20% of the last 20% could cost you more than what you spent on the rest of the project. When it comes to product development, the Zeno paradox reigns. Perfection is unattainable and very expensive. Plus, while you’re doing it right, the market is changing under your feet. On top of that, your customers are delaying buying your existing products while waiting for the next new thing to hit your doorstep.
The antidote ? Focus on creating a product that beats the market within the given time frame. Set a deadline and develop a corresponding product development plan. Know when you need to stop development to schedule a release date. When your time is up, it’s up. Free your product.
9. No Clear ROI
Can you articulate the return that comes from purchasing your product or service? How much additional business will this generate for your client? How much money will they save? What? You say it’s too difficult to quantify? Are there too many intangibles? If this is too difficult for you to understand, what do you expect from your prospect? Do the analysis. Talk to your customers, create case studies. Find ways to quantify the benefits. If you can’t justify the purchase, don’t expect your customer to. If you can demonstrate the excellent ROI of your product, sales are a slam dunk.
10. Not admitting mistakes.
Of all the mistakes, this might be the most important. At some point, you realize the terrible truth: you made a mistake. Admit it quickly. Fix the situation. Otherwise, this mistake will get bigger and bigger, and… Sometimes it’s hard, but believe me, bankruptcy is harder.
Suppose your costs are sunk. Your money is lost. There is good news: your base is zero. From this point of view, would you invest new money in this idea? If the answer is no, walk away. Change course. At any rate. But don’t throw away good money after bad.
OK, everyone makes mistakes. Just try to catch them quickly, before they kill your business.
To avoid some mistakes in the future, it sometimes helps to ask good questions in advance. Click the link if you would like a copy of my Fractal Strategic Planning Quiz.
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