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5 Critical Mistakes That Can Kill Any Startup

Just believing in your product or service isn't enough. Is your startup scalable? Is it marketable? If no, you're probably making some of these mistakes.

You’re an entrepreneur. You believe in the product or service that you’ve built. But then sales stall. What went wrong?

The truth is that over half of all small businesses are gone within five years, and only 30 percent ever make it to ten years. That’s because most entrepreneurs have great ideas for products and services, but they don’t know how to market them. Here are the five most common marketing mistakes to avoid:

1. Not asking your customers what they think of your product and not listening to their feedback.

Not having a product or service that the market really wants is one of the biggest mistakes startups make and one of the leading reasons that fewer than 5 percent ever achieve their growth targets. Some people can divine what prospects want, but most mortal entrepreneurs need to talk to their market.

The problem arises because many entrepreneurs set out with a very strong belief in what they’re doing, and resist being told otherwise. Show your customers what you’re doing and get their input. If you’re following the Lean Startup approach this can mean creating an approximate version of your final product and getting one or two "pilot" sales that you can learn from. You’d be surprised at how many companies are willing to invest in "pilot" projects.

2. Not building a "converting website."

Most startup websites aren’t built to sell. They’re built to drown potential customers in information. Your website has to be the center of your marketing universe.

When someone finds you, they have to be presented with a very compelling path that leads them to a place where they can be converted from "anonymous visitors" to "known customers". One such place can be a "resource center" that offers your prospects a range of content that effectively addresses the burning pain they have at each point in their decision cycle (note: that does not mean brochure-ware).

In exchange for the valued content, they give you their contact information. Your website turns from a self-serve buffet into an effective lead conversion engine.

3. Not letting potential customers find you.

Today, buyers are pretty self-sufficient because they can be. Armed with Google, they can find out everything they need to know about what you sell. So when they’re looking, you have to make sure you’re found. That said, the range and scope of social media and inbound marketing tools is staggering and tends to overwhelm even the heartiest marketer – let alone the average entrepreneur who sees marketing as being a necessary evil.

The secret is to focus. Search Engine Optimization is a must. You have to make sure that your web content does a great job of discussing the themes your prospects are searching on. From there, you need to allocate your resources. A blog, Twitter, and LinkedIn can be serious credibility-builders, but they’re also serious time sinks. Allocate the time you spend on social media carefully. You might consider hiring a social media consultant to help you.

4. Not pursuing prospects.

Many startups convince themselves that they can run a blog, a Twitter feed, and maybe some Facebook for good measure, and their marketing is covered. That is, until someone notices that sales seem a little sluggish.

Marketing that pays back is equal parts being found by best prospects mixed with actively finding best prospects. It isn’t hard to identify 50 prospects who, by all rights, should be buying your product, and then targeting them with an intriguing campaign that starts to build a relationship. As those initial 50 prospects move into various stages of engagement with you, you roll out the next 50 prospects, and so on. If you know who should be buying from you, introduce yourself to them!

5. Not measuring your success and creating obtainable goals.

The fastest path to growth is to double-down on what works. The hard part is often figuring out what worked and what didn’t. There are many marketing measures you can torture yourself with, but the most useful metrics will measure how engaged your prospects are with you (how much content they’re downloading from you and how much time they are spending on your website) and how efficiently these prospects are converting to sales (on a cost per sale basis). You’ll need some technology to help you with this, but it’s worth the small investment.

Success at anything requires that the practitioner uses a proven, repeatable system. The same is true of marketing. By creating such a system based on the five principles above, you’ll be able to achieve a high-level of consistency, scalability, measurement and, finally, success.

Drew Williams is a serial marketing entrepreneur and co-author ofFeed the Startup Beast: A 7 Step Guide to Big, Hairy, Outrageous Sales Growth[i] (McGraw-Hill 2013). Drew shares his beast-building ideas at and @FeedYourBeast.

[Image: Flickr user Kelly Sikkema]

Add New Comment


  • Make Good Social

    It is about a repeatable and scalable process to continually identify and utilize the most effective channels to acquire customers/users. An ad-hoc approach won't work. Only an integrated cross channel approach that is driven by customer preferences will work. Social media is just a channel, a neighborhood where people spend their time. It may or may not be a channel for your startup.

  • JCA914

    I'm a few years into my startup but in the beginning me and my partners really learned a lot from using a business plan software called Liveplan. It helped us all understand certain metrics regarding scalability and showed great examples of how people prove the effectiveness of a business idea whether its internal or prepping for investors.

    I agree with a lot of this article regarding the double edged sword that is social media. Social media feels like something every company has to do, it's obviously very fruitful but it can also be a giant waste of time. I suggest people do some research in how to do it effectively before they get into bad habits of sharing stuff that doesn't grow their business on multiple platforms. One week of reading could save you a year of wasting time.

  • Abdul Basith

    Best way to start a business is to plan yourself. Do complete market survey before realizing your products potential in the market. Then never ever sit in the office/home and wait for the customers to call you. Directly jump in to field and explore more areas where you can tap the market easily.

    A start up Business is always what you do rather than appointing some one for your business. Because you know how valuable your product is than someone who works for some salary paid to him. So, you can always have trust in you.

    "Meet the people" - is always my business slogan !

  • Chris Reich

    Hiring a social media consultant without first establishing whether social will create a measurable return is a mistake. For most businesses, social media is complete waste of time. We have been sold a myth by the consultants.

    I'm not sure I agree with number 1. A new business has no customers to ask. And the worse place to get advice is from anyone close to you---family, friends and customers are the worst sources of feedback.

    When a business presents what a market wants, there is no secret. The demand happens.Consider Apple. The products are closely guarded secrets prior to release.

    Keep in mind the proverb that a camel is a horse designed by a committee.

  • Skaled

    Social media is SUCH a time suck. Its very difficult to find the balance of utilizing it to the fullest potential, and not using it as a way to avoid other, more important tasks. I find that giving myself a specific amount of time each day to be on social media is the best way to do that.