The value of startup anti-patterns

The TechStars Boston spring startups are looking very promising. At the mentors dinner tonight I had conversations with several of the companies and a common question came up: “What makes startups succeed?” My usual answer to this question is along the lines of “strong teams, hussle, luck & timing.” While in my experience these are the things that actually, casually make startups successful, it’s not a very satisfying answer to the question because luck and timing are not in a startup’s control.

Driving home, I was thinking about this and about a better way to share what I’ve learned about startups over the years as an entrepreneur, angel investor and venture capitalist. I’ve been lucky to have had access to the inner workings of dozens of startups through their lifecycles, often from founding until exit (good or bad). Still, beyond “strong teams, hussle, luck & timing” I don’t know what makes startups succeed. Maybe I’m not as smart as the people who confidently talk about the patterns of behavior that make startups successful. Maybe I’m in too much agreement with Guy Kawasaki about why good strategies fail. Who knows?

I do, however, have a pretty good idea about what makes startups fail. There is much more data about startup failure, especially if, you could see not just the external spin and the post-rationalizations but real, unadulterated startup stories unfolding over time. So, while the Law of Large Numbers cannot help identify strategies for startup success, it can definitely help identify strategies for startup failure that are repeated over and over again.

An anti-pattern “is a pattern … that may be commonly used but is ineffective and/or counterproductive in practice.” Commonly observable strategies of startup failure are startup anti-patterns. This is the startup community’s form of collective insanity, using the definition that “insanity is repeating the same mistakes and expecting different results.” I think this has a lot to do with the bias of talking about what makes startups successful as opposed to what prevents startups from failing. For better or worse, it is only the startups that repeatedly don’t fail that have the chance to take advantage of luck & timing.

I don’t mean failing in the lean startup sense of always making new mistakes quickly & cheaply. The process of learning through small failures is similar to the process of walking through controlled falling or to getting a few bruises and bumps on the playground. It’s good stuff and there is plenty to laugh about at the end. No, when I say failing I am referring to a startup wasting significant time & resources, to walking becoming tripping, the controlled fall becoming uncontrolled, the trip to the playground ending up in the emergency room.

Over the next few months I will document some of the key startup anti-patterns I see frequently. I’d love to learn about your experience with them. Subscribing is the easiest way to ensure you get the updates.

About Simeon Simeonov

I'm an entrepreneur, hacker, angel investor and reformed VC. I am currently Founder & CTO of Swoop, a search advertising platform. Through FastIgnite I invest in and work with a few great startups to get more done with less. Learn more, follow @simeons on Twitter and connect with me on LinkedIn.
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7 Responses to The value of startup anti-patterns

  1. Riftstalker says:

    Subscribed 4 years ago (I think). Staying tuned for the anti-patterns.

  2. I can’t remember the source but someone once said “Humans are creatures of habit; try to have good ones”. The same goes for organizations, which are groups of people. The “anti-pattern” is like a bad habit on a larger scale. Take for example the issue of changing one’s product roadmap to get a particular deal. The sales rep says they can close the deal if a certain feature is added/changed. That feature is not on the roadmap and there is no widespread support for adding it as it is really a “one-off” for that particular deal. Going ahead with this once is a mistake. The real problem is that once you do it to get one deal, it is difficult to say no to the next deal that another rep brings next quarter. Soon there is no real roadmap, just sales reps chasing deals with an engineering job shop to build what they sell… A tough pattern to break…

  3. Pingback: Top startup anti-patterns | HighContrast

  4. JasonD says:

    My personal un-favorite, from experience: ‘Missing your exit’

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