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Four deadly distractions early-stage founders should avoid

These are some of the many distractions that founders face. The defining nature of all these distractions is that they give you a false sense of progress. You feel like you are doing something important and moving forward but in reality, you are not. This is precisely why these distractions are fatal.  

I. Seeking Attention: Many founders spend a disproportionate amount of time pursuing attention in the form of speaking engagement, fame, and social media celebrityhood, which, in most instances, turn into liabilities than advantages for the founders and their businesses. 

Early-stage businesses need attention. But that is rarely from the wider community or the generic media, and most often from the customers and industry-focused media outlets. And the best approach to getting attention from customers is through building a winning product and reaching out to customers. In most instances, these two works, getting fame and attention, and attracting customers are two different things and take different kinds of work. 

There are many downsides to seeking fame and attention. And rarely any upside. One, every fame you seek needs work. Anything you choose to do is often a tradeoff that you have chosen not to do something else. For example, if you are seeking to spend time speaking at events, it means you are not spending enough time building your product or making cold calls to potential customers. It is excellent if the two converge and your speaking gigs bring you customers. But often these two rarely come together. As a result, when you are running after fame, you are not doing enough work to validate your product or collect enough customers. 

In startups, time is of the essence. Every minute you spend in areas other than building your business is a distraction. 

II. Vanity metrics: For early-stage companies, priorities and metrics are straightforward. Find the product-market fit. Acquire early customers. Grow your business and so on. But some of these metrics are hard. They take time to achieve. In most of these areas, progress comes slowly. It takes months of work before you get to a point where you could see some visible results. For most founders, waiting this long is hard. Hence they look for easier goals and quicker results. Media coverage, building a personal brand, designing a great website, and tweaking the product, may take many names. Still, the defining characteristic is the same: finding meaning in chasing metrics that don’t take you forward but offer quick results and momentary satisfaction. This is fatal because while it offers a false sense of progress, in reality, you are not making any progress. And by the time you know you were basically wasting time, it could be too late to correct. It is often fatal. 

III. Next big opportunity or premature expansion: This is one of the classic distractions many founders face and often comes in the form of a necessary evil. It usually comes in the form of a rescue. You started with a product that is growing but not as fast as you expect it to grow. On the other hand, you have pressure from investors and stakeholders to grow faster or you want to/need to raise money and you need numbers and size to attract interest. All of these culminate in you pursuing some other opportunities in related verticals instead of focusing on your existing business and trying to solve your growth problem. Expand to some new product lines or areas of growth. This is often a distraction that comes from a subconscious bias that the other verticals might offer easier and quicker gains. This is often a distraction that leads to waste and unnecessary failures. It is costly as well. In most instances, startups eventually give up on these pursuits and they seldom generate meaningful results other than costing you both money and time. When going gets tough, it is easy to get distracted. But often the solution lies in staying focused and doubling down on doing the right thing. 

IV. Perfectionism: Many founders spend an unnecessary amount of time tweaking a product or service and delay the launch for no good reason. Often they chase some imaginary ideals instead of launching a product early to the market. It kills time and resources and holds you back from getting real feedback from the market and eventually product-market fit. The underlying reason for chasing perfection when building a product is often an outcome of unnecessary fear. Instead what founders should do is they should launch early. Launch as quickly as possible and then collect feedback from the market, iterate, and grow. 

These are some of the many distractions that founders face. The defining nature of all these distractions is that they give you a false sense of progress. You feel like you are doing something important and moving forward but in reality, you are not. This is precisely why these distractions are fatal.  

Your job as a founder is simple in the early days. You work hard to build a great product. Then to find the product-market fit. Then to acquire customers. Then raise money, if you intend to raise money. Apart from these few tasks, most others are distractions and a waste of time. They not only make you waste precious time on trivial and unproductive work but also give you a false sense of progress that can make it hard to stop and get back to real work. 

So as a founder, you should always be vigilant and wary of distractions. The pay for getting distracted always comes and they are costly. Often it is a matter of time. Sometimes you pay the price in the medium to long-term time frame. In other instances, the results take no time to come.  

This article was originally published in September 2020, and updated in June 2023.

Mohammad Ruhul Kader is a Dhaka-based entrepreneur and writer. He founded Future Startup, a digital publication covering the startup and technology scene in Dhaka with an ambition to transform Bangladesh through entrepreneurship and innovation. He writes about internet business, strategy, technology, and society. He is the author of Rethinking Failure. His writings have been published in almost all major national dailies in Bangladesh including DT, FE, etc. Prior to FS, he worked for a local conglomerate where he helped start a social enterprise. Ruhul is a 2022 winner of Emergent Ventures, a fellowship and grant program from the Mercatus Center at George Mason University. He can be reached at ruhul@futurestartup.com

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