Where Great Start-ups Go Wrong
Think of the most influential band of the last 50 years. U2? Nirvana? Led Zeppelin?
The consensus in our office is, to no one's surprise, The Beatles.
The Beatles' success was obviously not just about the music. Like any disruptive start-up, they counteracted a stodgy culture that was barely ready for them. They captured the hearts of an eager generation hell-bent on revolutionizing culture, politics, and even religion through their music.
Like all successful start-ups, their surge was the result of many things--superb timing, unwavering support, an unrelenting work ethic, and kick-ass talent.
The cause of their demise, and the demise of every potentially great company, is also universal.
Where great start-ups go wrong is almost always due to a slow erosion of once impenetrable relationships.
It goes something like this:
Subtle conflicts begin to arise from creative differences. Deeply held personal values are challenged and begin to morph. One person overvalues himself while, at the same time, devaluing the contributions of others.
Because no one can be honest and actually talk about the growing rift, it's avoided. Someone begins working on a side project. Animosity grows so thick that the thought of reconciliation seems far-fetched and unlikely. Like a marriage about to end, the only next step is a trial separation.
This is (pretty much) how it happened to The Beatles, and how it plays out time and time again in otherwise successful start-ups.
Start-ups don't fail due to bad ideas. Even bad ideas can succeed.
Start-ups don't wither because they lack capital. Badass founders and their teams always have money.
Start-ups don't break down because of an "unfavorable market." That's what a pivot is for. Smart founders do it all the time.
The antidote for this relational demise is so simple, but it's amazing how few of us actually do it.
To avoid this slow erosion, talk to your team. And not just any communication will do--I'm talking about authentic-this-might-come-to-blows-and-end-badly kind of communication.
Be vulnerable. Tell them what you're thinking and when your creative direction changes course. If you've lost your passion, say that. If you want to kill the product, say that. Just speak your truth.
Don't avoid the problem, pretending everything is OK. Kicking the emotional can down the road and hoping that things get better will not make things better. Like everything else in a start-up, you can only achieve anything through herculean effort. And healthy relationships take a lot of effort.
Avoid "mind reading" and the tendency to "awfulize" situations. When things are unraveling, we not only stop talking about what's bothering us, but we also begin to fish for clues by reading other people's minds. And when we can't read their mind, we leap to the worst possible scenarios. These mind reads are rarely accurate, only exacerbating the problem and widening the rift.
Maybe some break-ups are bound to happen. Maybe some teams aren't meant to stay together. They live in harmony for a set amount of time, make something magical, and move on.
If you do move on, do it in an intentional way. Don't let the slow erosion happen to you. Don't be left with regret wondering what went wrong, what more could've been done, and what else could've been created.
Yes, the Beatles broke up. I'm glad for the 10 years that they were together, but I would also love to hear the music made from a few more.
Dr. SHELLEY PREVOST is a mentor and early-stage investor at Lamp Post Group, where she hacks into the psychological and emotional side of starting and running a business. She is a co-founding partner of the JumpFund, an angel fund investing in female-led startups with high-growth potential. Prevost also speaks and consults with companies on finding purpose, humanizing work, and growing leaders from the inside out. She blogs about her work at the Glad Lab.
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