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It’s hard to avoid certain mistakes, especially when you’re facing a situation for the first time. In fact, many of the following mistakes are difficult to avoid even if you are an old man. Of course, these aren’t the only mistakes CEOs make, but they sure are common enough. Take the following self-assessment: Give yourself ten points for each of these entrepreneurial mistakes you’re making. Deduct five points for those you narrowly avoided. Your score will, of course, be kept confidential, but please reach out for help. Quick!
1. Big customer syndrome
If more than 50 percent of your revenue comes from any one customer, you may be headed for a crisis. While it’s easier and more profitable to deal with a small number of large customers, you become very vulnerable when one of them brings in the majority of your cash flow. You tend to make dumb concessions to keep their business. Make special investments to meet their special requirements. And you’re so busy servicing that big account that you can’t develop clients or additional sources of income. Then suddenly, for one reason or another, that customer leaves and your business is on the verge of collapse.
Use this growing account as both a cause for celebration and a danger signal. Always looking for new business. And always look to diversify your sources of income.
2. Creation of vacuum products.
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 money for it. You have built the classic best mousetrap.
Don’t be a product in search of a market. Do your “market research” beforehand. Test the idea. Talk to potential customers, at least a dozen of them. Find out if anyone wants to buy it. Do this first. If enough people say yes, go ahead and build it. Better yet, sell the product at pre-launch prices. Fund it up front. If you don’t get a good answer, go to the next idea.
3. Associations under equal conditions
Let’s say you’re the biggest salesperson in the world, but you need an operations agent to run things in the office. Or you’re a technical genius, but you need someone to find the customers. Or maybe you and a friend start the business together. In each case, you and your new partner split the business 50/50. That seems fine and fair right now, but as your personal and professional interests diverge, it’s a sure recipe for disaster. The veto power of either party can slow down the growth and development of your company, and neither has enough votes to change the situation. Almost as bad is property divided equally between a larger number of partners, or worse, friends. Everyone has an equal vote and decisions are made by consensus. Or, even worse, unanimously. Wow! No one has the last word, every little decision becomes a debate, and things quickly get messy.
To paraphrase Harry Truman, the buck has to stop somewhere. Someone has to be responsible. Make that person CEO and give them the biggest stake, even if it’s just a little bit more. 51/49 works much better than 50/50. If you and your partner must have total equality, give a one percent fee to an outside advisor who becomes your tie breaker.
4. Low prices
Some entrepreneurs think they can be the low-price player in their market and make big profits on volume. Would you work for low pay? Why do you want to sell at low prices? Remember, gross margins pay for things like marketing and product development (and big vacation trips). Remember, low margins = no profit = no future. So the dirtier the better.
Set your prices as high as your market will bear. Even if you can sell more units and generate a higher volume of dollars at the lower price (which is not 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 incremental costs. It also figures in the additional stress. For service companies, low price is almost never a good idea. How do you decide to what extent? Raise prices. Then upload them again. When customers or clients stop buying, you’ve gone too far.
5. Not enough capital
Test your business assumptions. Optimistic sales projections, overly short product development timelines, and unrealistic expense forecasts are the norm. And don’t forget the weak competitors. Regardless of the cause, many companies are simply undercapitalized. Even mature companies often lack the cash reserves to weather a recession.
Be conservative in all your projections. Make sure you have at least as much capital as you need to make it through the sales cycle or until the next planned funding round. Or lower your burn rate so it does.
6. Out of focus
If yours is like most businesses, you don’t have the time or the people to hunt down every interesting opportunity. But many entrepreneurs – cash-starved and thinking bigger is always better – feel the need to seize every business that dangles in front of them, instead of focusing on their product, service, market and distribution channel basic. Spreading yourself too thin results in sub-par performance.
Focusing on a limited area leads to better-than-average results, almost always exceeding the benefits generated by diversification. Al Reis, of Positioning fame, wrote a book that deals with just this topic. It’s called Focus.
There are so many good ideas in the world, it’s your job to choose only the ones that provide superior returns in your area of focus. Don’t spread yourself thin. Get known in your niche for what you do best, and do it well.
7. Crazy first and infrastructure
Many startups die an early death from excessive overhead. Keep your digs humble and your furniture cheap. Your management team should earn most of their compensation when profits come in, not before. The best entrepreneurs know how to stretch their cash and use it for key business-building processes like product development, sales and marketing. Skip this fancy phone system unless it really saves time and helps you make more sales. Invest all the money you really need to achieve your goals. Ask yourself, will there be a sufficient return on this expenditure? Everything else is above.
This disease is often found in engineers who will not release products until they are absolutely perfect. Remember the 80/20 rule? Following this rule to its logical conclusion, finishing the last 20 percent of the last 20 percent could end up costing you more than you spent on the rest of the project. When it comes to product development, Zeno’s paradox rules. Perfection is unattainable and very expensive. Plus, while you’re doing it right, the market is changing right out from under you. In addition to this, your customers are postponing the purchase of your existing products while waiting for the next new product to arrive at your door.
The antidote? Focus on creating a product that outperforms the market within the allotted time. Set a deadline and create a product development plan to match. Know when you have to stop development to make a delivery date. When the time is up, it’s over. Release your product.
9. There is no clear return on investment
Can you articulate the return that occurs for the purchase of your product or service? How much additional business will it generate for your client? How much money will they save? What? Are you saying it’s too hard to quantify? Are there too many intangibles? If it’s too hard for you to imagine, what do you expect your prospect to do? 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 great return on investment your product provides, sales are a success.
10. Not admitting your mistakes.
Of all the mistakes, this might be the biggest. At some point you realize the terrible truth: you were wrong. Admit it quick. Repair the situation. If not, this mistake will get bigger, and bigger, and… Sometimes this is hard, but believe me, bankruptcy is harder.
Let’s say your costs are sunk. Your money is lost. There’s good news: your basis is zero. From this perspective, would you invest new money in this idea? If the answer is no, walk away. Change direction. Whatever. But don’t throw more good money after bad.
Okay, everyone makes mistakes. Try to catch them fast, before they kill your company.
To avoid some mistakes in the future, it sometimes helps to ask good questions ahead of time. Click the link if you would like a copy of my Fractal Strategic Planning Quiz.
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