7 Cardinal Sins Every Startup Should Avoid

July 29, 2017

5:00 pm

It is said that failure is an inevitable precursor to ultimate success, and with hindsight being 20/20—many of my best insights have stemmed from past experiences. Of course, it can be hard to see that when you’re in the moment and at your lowest point. Throughout the course of my career, I have made mistakes by not following the basic rules of business—and have been lucky that each one led to wisdom gained and lessons learned. The 7 Cardinal sins discussed in this article pushed me to adopt a growth mindset and transform failures into stepping stones to success.

The Startup

I started a consulting business where I help organizations with their content marketing efforts. Basically, I show clients how they can repurpose their existing content for other channels i.e. turn a blog post into a Slideshare deck. In less than 24 months, I’ve sold over $250,000 in deals to 21 clients and honored to have led a virtual team of up to 14 people at one time. It’s been an incredibly successful venture in just a short period.

The Model to Start

The model for my business was meant to be simple from the get-go. We were going to be a strategic marketing firm for people that wanted to leverage their personal brands to grow their businesses. We would serve clients at $1k-5K per month for a full strategic content marketing roadmap and execution. We would even measure ROI. Most PR firms or agencies (usually who we we’re compared to) won’t touch real ROI with a 10-foot pole. The best I’ve seen either measure traffic or some type of email open rates. So, we were providing ridiculous value.

The future of work is that personal branding is going to be every bit as important as the brands you work with or buy from. The writing’s on the wall. If you need further proof, I highly recommend you read Taylor Pearson’s The End of Jobs.

The Payoff

My business should be $2MM+ business in less than 3 years with a goal of $10MM in 7 years. That is, if we can make it. I made several Cardinal sins that are causing the company and myself a lot of pain.

My Cardinal Sins

Cardinal Sin #1 – Aim Small. Miss Small.

Every cardinal sin below this is a distant second because it’s the beginning of all the problems. It’s really simple. You’re going to miss. No one is 100%. If you’re going to aim for something to shoot at, then aim for a button on a shirt rather than a head on a body. If you miss the button, then you’re going to hit something on your target. If you miss the head, you may not hit anything at all. The point is to focus on your target as narrowly as you possible .

Lesson – Take the time to find your target market. Don’t assume anything. Do your research to find your buyer persona. Your buyer persona not only wants your product, but is also willing to pay for it.

Moral Victory – We found enough buyer personas to generate over $250K of revenue.

Read more about user personas that can be used for sales and marketing.

Cardinal Sin #2 – Moderation Is For Cowards…Not Raising Any Capital At All

I believe that had I funded us correctly, that we’d be at $20k MRR. I had no desire to raise a large sum of capital, like what you see constantly covered in the tech startup press. I’ve been in those rooms. I’ve been a part of those discussions. I know the pressures that come with raising millions of dollars. I know what failure and success look like. In the majority of cases, the payoff, or lack thereof, for people in the company isn’t worth it. I let my desire to not raise a large sexy sum of money relinquish me to raising no capital at all. Many of the problems that followed were due to poor decisions I made that were based purely on money, without balancing what was what was good for the company.

Lesson – Just because it looks good on paper or in a spreadsheet, doesn’t mean that’s how it’ll play out in real life.

Moral Victory – I already knew that. Yay! Maybe next time I’ll trust myself, rather than making emotional decisions. Don’t be so cocky. Trust what you know.

Read more about determining if raising capital is right for your business.

Cardinal Sin #3 – We couldn’t define our MVP (minimum viable product) fast enough.

This sounds basic on the surface but the real issue is that “fools gold” comes in many different forms for a startup. One of those forms is clients giving you money for anything and you taking it, because it’s “kind of what you were offering.” The trap here is that now you start letting the market dictate your offering instead of you. Next thing you know, your product offering is 100 yards away from where you started.

Lesson – The trap here is that now I started to let the market dictate my offering instead. Next thing I know my product offering is 100 yards away from where I started. I didn’t know it at the time because I thought that I just getting closer to PMF (product market fit). This, coupled with the fact that I needed to generate revenue — I was basically blinded by money.

Moral Victory – Money in the bank.

Cardinal Sin #4 – Selling on Value to Small Businesses That Didn’t Understand Business

I spent the majority of my first 10 years in business selling SaaS to Enterprise level clients that would spend a minimum of $150K+ per annum with me. To do that, you have to sell conceptually and on value. Assuming your product is good, you have to demonstrate how your solution increases revenue or decreases costs. It’s easy but time consuming. And that’s where trust and the relationship come into play. Make them look like a rockstar in their jobs, and they’ll let you watch their kids.

Lesson – Small Businesses are small because they don’t think big. Trying to sell them on value was an uphill battle. It becomes such because there are one-trick ponies that sell their services to small businesses, knowing that their work will make little to no impact. I tried to change the world. I should’ve instead focused on what I know.

Jay Samit, Vice Chairman at Deloitte Digital and Bestselling Author, once told me in an email after I interviewed him on my podcast,

“It’s honorable what you’re trying to do, but will it pay the bills?”

I know how to talk to the enterprise, the C-Suite, and ad agencies. I should’ve stayed in my lane.

Moral Victory – I knew to stay away from recently funded startups like angel or Series A companies. Why? Because they are only concerned with fast growth, and it’s a crap shoot. Our company wanted to focus on long-term growth.

Cardinal Sin #5 – Chasing the Money Instead of Focusing on the Process

This one really bothers me because I spent my life in sports, where the world is about staying disciplined to the process, and working alongside your team to accomplish a common goal. Heck, I was fortunate enough to be taught this by the legendary Nick Saban while I was at LSU. I knew that our target persona was the CMO at large companies or CXO at smaller companies below the enterprise level. But too many times I chased the money rather than focusing on the process.

Lesson – Don’t focus on the final result. Focus on the next step in the process that leads towards the result.

Moral Victory – We proved that our systems and processes work.

Cardinal Sin #6 – Two Is One. One Is None…Getting Awesome Cofounders

This creed from the Navy SEALs is simply about having redundancies in place. When I look deeply here, it’s likely due to two factors, 1.) I’d not had the best experiences with co-founders in the past (myself or indirectly seeing others). 2.) Getting a cofounder is essentially a sales job. You have to sell someone on why you’re completely insane to start something from nothing where the odds are 98% against you, and why they should follow you into that proverbial battle. Rather than take the proper time to sell the proper cofounders on helping me, I told myself the lie that all entrepreneurs tell themselves at some point: I can do this myself.

Lesson – If you think you can’t, you’re right, so get help.

Moral Victory – Zero.

Cardinal Sin #7 – I Forgot to Serve The Most Important Client…Our Own Company

I spent so much time leveraging my relationships and serving clients that I forgot to serve our own brand. The problem here is that when the pipeline starts drying up, we had no new revenue to fall back on. It’s super ironic, given that we’re a content marketing company for thought leadership. Had I had a proper co-founder then this likely would have been handled.

Lesson – They tell you in airplane safety demonstrations to put the mask on yourself before anyone else. That’s good advice here too.

Moral Victory – I’ve had several marketing agency owners tell me that this phenomenon is pretty common. We forget to market our own services.

With odds like a 50 percent failure rate of startups within five years of establishment, entrepreneurs need to learn from both their mistakes and the mistakes of others. The path to success is a long one, and remember, the only real mistakes are those from which nothing is learned. Pay it forward.

Read more entrepreneurial advice on TechCo

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Christien Louviere is the Managing Partner and CEO of SellPersonal. He helps service-based businesses increase their revenues by exposing their existing content to new audiences. Christien a sales-first content marketing consultant that spent his the first third of his career selling media and SaaS (software-as-a-service) to Fortune 500 brands. He realized early on that the traditional marketing methods were no longer effective for the modern buyer. Each buyer is unique and expects to have a personalized experience. He repeatedly hit million-dollar quotas by systemizing a selling process that focused on repurposing existing marketing content and distributing it to new audiences. From this system, Christien started the SellPersonal consultancy.

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