4 Reasons Your Startup Might Be Stuck

April 2, 2014

1:00 pm

Don’t have time to read? Here’s a quick but comprehensive summary of Barry J. Moltz’s “How to Get Unstuck: 25 Ways to Get Your Business Growing Again,” released on March 17.

Who should read this book: Entrepreneurs who have had some success but can’t seem to grow their business to the next level.

Elevator pitch: Moltz looks at the 25 reasons your business might be stuck, and shows you how to overcome them. Each chapter also includes a case study.

Author: Barry Moltz is a small business consultant, former entrepreneur, and founder of an angel group and fund. Previously, he spent nine years at IBM. How to Get Unstuck is his fifth book, following books about confidence, customer service, and reputation.

The 4 Reasons Your Startup Might Be Stuck

Short-term thinking

Focusing too much on the present and not enough on the future is one of the major ways that your company might get stuck. This happens when you become so focused on making money this month that you don’t invest in the long term, and you’re willing to veer away from your overall goal and vision to keep the lights on. Or, you might be convinced that the very next customer, product launch, or contract will be your company’s “big break.”

Day to day, you let incoming emails, questions, and other “emergencies” dictate what you work on, rather than setting priorities and sticking with a plan for what to accomplish. If you are doing well, you bask in everyone’s praise, spend lavishly, and stop marketing because you think you have all the leads you need.

The solution: Think long-term. Figure out the fundamentals of your business, including your mission, your customers, the pain you solve, and how you make money. Plot out a financial plan for the year. Understand that no big windfall is going to guarantee your success forever. Day to day, figure out your top priorities and don’t let yourself get distracted by all the small tasks you have to do. If you’re doing well, continue marketing and assume that you’ll face setbacks in the future that will require a cash cushion.

Fear of failure 

Another reason you may be stuck is your fear of failure. Fear of failure is paralyzing: it starts influencing all your decisions, so you stop taking risks and can’t admit that something you came up with (a product, a marketing campaign, a feature) isn’t working. You’re afraid to do sales, because you can’t face the rejections. And you keep working with underperforming employees, customers, and vendors for too long because firing them would be admitting failure.

The solution: Be more open-minded. Accept that experiments and failures are all part of the path to success. Stop what’s not working, try out new things, and push through the fear. If you’re still a small company, make sure you’re personally involved in the sales process but don’t take the no’s personally yourself. And fire any employees, vendors, or customers who are holding you back.


The flipside of fear of failure is ego: your business is stuck because you’re too concerned with image and acting like the boss. Maybe you’re constantly checking your device, because you believe you have to be busy and involved in all decisions. You only hire employees who are weaker than you, and instead of giving them responsibility, you boss them around. In turn, you never ask any mentors for help. And you take big risks because you feel that’s what leaders do.

The solution: Cultivate some humility. Hire excellent employees, give them responsibility, and focus on building a collaborative and cooperative work environment. That will allow you to disconnect from your devices sometimes without worrying that everything will grind to a halt. Instead of taking big risks, focus on doing small experiments, iterating, and learning from failure. Find trusted mentors whom you’ll actually listen to.

Business flaws

Marketing and sales. If none of the above reasons describes your situation, your business may just have fundamental flaws – and many of those are in marketing and sales. Maybe you don’t have a marketing strategy, so your brand isn’t memorable and you aren’t reaching the right customers. In the realm of sales, you fix your hopes on a few big clients and stop cultivating other opportunities. In social media, you go in without a strategy and don’t engage customers in a regular, open, two-way conversation that’s appropriate to the channel you’re using.

The solution: Good marketing clearly communicates that you understand your customers’ pain and can offer benefits and value – not just features. In sales, recognize that a lack of a yes means no, and continue cultivating new leads. In social media, develop a strategy that focuses on increasing engagement and not just one-way broadcasting.

People. When interviewing people, you focus too much on skills and not on attitude and culture fit. Then, after you hire them, you let them use their smartphones during the day and get distracted.

The solution: Hire for attitude, and teach skills if you have to. That requires taking your time to truly understand a candidate’s history and goals. Once they’re hired, have a training process in place and give them a separate phone to use for work to reduce distractions.

Customer service. You treat customer service as an afterthought, and see it as a drain on your budget. That’s partly because you hate your customers: you think they’re dumb and hard to please.

The solution: Prioritize customer service, because it’s the flipside of acquiring customers: it allows you to retain them. Put resources into building a better experience, including shorter hold times, more live human beings on the line, and a friendlier attitude. See it as a form of marketing, which helps create word of mouth.

Finance. It’s no surprise that if you can’t understand your finances, you’re not making enough money. Maybe you make decisions based on your gut, rather than a solid grasp of what’s on your financial statement. You focus too much on revenue and topline growth, and you don’t understand the difference between fixed and variable costs.

The solution: Educate yourself. Have your accountant teach you how to read your financial statements so you can understand cash flow and figure out ways to increase it. Make a list of your fixed and variable costs, and try to reduce them. Set a budget for the year and share some of your financial goals with your employees.

Grade: B+

The categories of short-term thinking, fear of failure, ego, and fundamental business flaws are my distillation of Moltz’s book, which actually lists 25 separate errors. But enough of them are similar – or have similar causes – that I wished they had been grouped together. If fear of failure is making you be risk-averse, it’s probably impacting your sales and your HR policies, for example.

That’s my main beef. The other little complaint to note is Moltz’s view that personal smartphones don’t have a place in the office – which will seem outdated to most startup founders and employees.

Other that than, Moltz clearly captures a lot of the feelings and assumptions that you may just have in the back of your mind but don’t want to admit. His advice is to take it slow: pick one problem at a time to fix, and only move on to the next when you’re satisfied with the result. It’s a strategy of iteration – or “minimal achievement,” as Moltz calls it – that many entrepreneurs can get behind.

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Kira M. Newman is a Tech Cocktail writer interested in the harsh reality of entrepreneurship, work-life balance, and psychology. She is the founder of The Year of Happy and has been traveling around the world interviewing entrepreneurs in Asia, Europe, and North America since 2011. Follow her @kiramnewman or contact kira@tech.co.

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