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Four Deadly Distractions Early-stage Founders Should Avoid

Startups are hard. You can tell how hard it is to make a startup work simply by looking at the average failure rate. Success in startups depends on many things: the right problem and team, market timing, resources, execution, and so on.

Similarly, startups fail for many different reasons, think the opposite of the reasons mentioned above (you can find quite credible studies on this.)

However, in my opinion, one common startup killer is distractions. Since startups are often resource-constrained organizations, success depends on a founder's ability to stay focused and efficiently use limited resources.

Unfortunately, the world is full of noise and the path to building a business is fraught with many distractions that can derail even the most promising companies.

In this article, we explore four particularly dangerous distractions that early-stage founders frequently encounter.

These distractions are especially insidious because they often masquerade as productive activities. The defining nature of all these distractions is that they give you a false sense of progress, creating the illusion of moving forward while actually impeding real growth. 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 and it is important to understand these distractions.

By understanding and avoiding these pitfalls, you can meaningfully increase their chances of success.

Let's delve into these four deadly distractions and explore why they're so harmful to early-stage startups.

I. Seeking Attention

Many founders spend a disproportionate amount of time pursuing attention in the form of speaking engagements, fame, and social media celebrity status, which, in most instances, turn into liabilities rather than advantages for the founders and their businesses.

Early-stage businesses need attention, but rarely from the wider community or generic media. Instead, they need attention from customers and industry-focused media outlets. The best approach to getting attention from customers is through building a winning product and reaching out to customers.

In most instances, these two tasks, getting fame and attention, and attracting customers are two different things and require 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 can see some visible results. For most founders, waiting this long is hard. Hence they look for easier goals and quicker results.

These distractions may take many forms, such as seeking media coverage, building a personal brand, designing a great website, or endlessly tweaking the product. 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, which is often fatal.

III. Chasing the next big opportunity or premature expansion

This is one of the classic distractions many founders face, and it 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 often comes from a subconscious bias that the other verticals might offer easier and quicker gains. 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 unnecessary fear. Instead, founders 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 in the early days is simple. 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 wastes 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.

As a founder, you should always be vigilant and wary of distractions. The price for getting distracted always comes, and it is 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 July 2024.

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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