I’m no engineer, but here’s what I do remember from the physics classes that I didn’t manage to skip at school: Current only flows through a closed circuit. In business, always happy to adopt awkward pseudo-scientific analogies, we like to talk about full cycles. Or iterations.
What I’m looking at is a looming statistic on the state of the startup ecosystem in our region, Southeastern Europe: by my accounts, over the past two years, give or take 100 startups have received some form of venture funding, usually at the seed or acceleration stage, from angels and funds alike. And while it’s easy to name 10 or so startups that have performed well, the logical outcome (here’s that damn science again) is that some 90 teams haven’t really progressed anywhere. Oops, broken circuit. Y U no flow, current?
Except for a few exceptions, most of these teams are in the Zombie Zone.
The Zombie Zone
Good guy Paul Singh, founder of Dashboard.io, recently published an account of his talk in Canada, where he got the feeling that too many smart people are working on failing startups for too long, because too much money is available in the early stage.
I’d say we have that problem in (South)Eastern Europe as well. And I don’t think the only cause is too much money. We’re also too proud of our startups, disguising them as businesses, and are getting married to ideas which we fail to validate. All of this is sucking an incredible number of highly talented and motivated people into Zombie Zone. Let’s see how we can best deal with that.
I can already see an army of protesters standing up to say that:
- Startups are hard, long processes, and it very often takes anywhere between a year and three years to really get a startup to take off.
- Letting go of an idea too early means you’re giving up too easily
- You have an obligation to your team to see it through until you’ve tried every possible solution (actually, spent everything till the last penny)
- You know you can do better, and the longer you’re doing it, the more experienced and likely to succeed you become
- Funding and sales cycles often take long-long time, and that big round or order is just around the corner
How to avoid the Zombie Zone?
So, here are a few arguments to not only debunk the above myths and feel-good excuses (cause that’s what they are), but to actually help you avoid Zombie Zone, fantastically lower your alternative cost of foundership, and turn perceived negative outcomes into vastly positive ones:
- First and foremost, stop treating startups as businesses. It’s hard, I know. The company register makes you do it, most investors make you do it, your local national version of Financial Times makes you do it. But in reality, a startup is just an experiment. I’ve always resented the whole CEO thing, complete with business magazine rankings and the unavoidable preying by banks, law firms, and other consultants that newly minted founders are subjected to. A startup is an experiment that mightturn into a business, nothing more, and nothing less. Right now it’s just a bunch of girls/guys building prototypes and seeing how many people like them.
- Don’t focus on investors and big clients until P/M fit. I’m really excited to see a rising number of teams foregoing investor pitches and focusing on delivering a great experience to their users. That’s what it’s about in the end. Try to build something with the resources you have, and when you get caught up with too many demanding users or too complicated clients, that’s when you can start talking to investors. Try not to take money before you actually built something and have initial traction using spare time and resources from your previous gig. Let those investors chase you, instead of the other way around. And never fall in the trap of believing you should go on just because funding is around the corner. There’s nothing as bad as taking money in distress or when you know it’s too late.
- Don’t marry the team to the idea. Ideas are a dime a dozen; the real test for your team is not whether they are the best group to make a specific idea work, but rather how many different ideas that team could realise. If we’re talking about startups as companies after all, it’s the team that’s the company, not the product. If the product idea is failing, there’s no reason the team should. Ditch something that doesn’t take off early enough, and try use the remaining resources to build something else. Like that other idea you really liked but decided to archive for now.
- Set the best-by date for your startup. Even if you don’t marry idea to team, the team still has a limited runway. At some point the resources will run out. Even if you’re sustainable without funding, and have tried a bunch of different MVPs that didn’t get traction, the motivation will drop at some point. And if you took money already, it will run out. Best to deal with that is to decide early on at what milestone you pull the plug, and then handle it gracefully when that milestone is hit.
- Always be aware of your alternative cost. You see, those awkward weeks and months you spend pushing the rock that just doesn’t move an inch are really nasty. You lose inspiration, you start doubting your judgements, your relationship with your co-founders worsens. Everyone’s saying you’re a success, but deep down you know you don’t believe in it anymore. Stop right now. Do you really want to do this, instead of being in the curve of excitement of doing something new and promising, like you did when you started this project?
I believe the real power of startups is that many hundreds of people in this corner of Europe alone, have in the past couple of years gained awesome experience building something exciting and disruptive, an experience that no business school or corporate career could ever give you. It would be a shame to not use it optimally, instead wasting precious time on pursuing something that has outlasted itself, or has been built on the wrong assumptions and false positives.
But it’s hard. It demands of you to step over your ego, to admit failure, to face insecurity, often to rely on friends and family for income support until you reinvent yourself and call to arms for that next amazing adventure.
That’s why I believe the startup community should organize itself to help the Zombie busters. I’m putting myself available to talk with anyone who thinks they’re in Zombie Zone to get over it. Maybe this can even turn into a blog, or a regular Google hangout, or maybe even a podcast. E-mail me with your Zombie Zone story at max[at]1minute[dot]vc, also if you’re just wondering whether you’re anywhere near it. Let’s beat the Zombies together, one by one, and make sure awesome people don’t get dragged in fruitless efforts and frustration anymore than is necessary.