“When they teach you how to drive a racecar, they tell you to focus on the road when you go around a turn. They tell you that because if you focus on the wall, then you will drive straight into the wall.”    – Ben Horowitz

Ben Horowitz has a great point. There are a myriad of pitfalls that can kill a startup, and worrying about all of them while trying to execute is a folly.

But I have found that not being aware of them at the outset is also a mistake.

I have spent a lot of my career looking into startups that are falling short of where they aimed originally. They are headed for the wall, if they are not already pinned up against it.

For the most part, these companies were not doomed from the outset by a bad idea. Nor did they make a single big mistake. They usually had one bad habit that ground away at them over time, until the only thing left to do was to make a hard turn to avoid crashing.

The most common bad habits:

  • Staying in the basement too long (over-speculating, over-designing, over-building)
  • Concession strategy, trying to be many things at once
  • Being slow to pivot when the evidence is screaming the right answer
  • Scaling prematurely

And you can usually spot the bad habits without having any company history, just by meeting the founders. Founders who love the tech are prone to staying in the basement too long. Founders who are gentle are prone to concession strategy. Founders who talk better than they listen are prone to being slow to pivot and scaling prematurely.

We all have tendencies that pull us in various directions. It’s important to understand those tendencies, and how they can pull you towards the wall if you if you don’t design ways to guard against them.

Weak tendencies, just being aware of them could be sufficient.

Stronger tendencies, you might need to find a co-founder who can counteract.

And the strongest tendencies might dictate which kinds of startups you are capable of leading. For example, I don’t like long odds over long timeframes. I will not build the next Facebook, because in 2006,  I would have snapped-up Yahoo’s $1B offer in a second. Had my co-founders disagreed with me I would have remained firm. Had my investors disagreed with me I would have remained firm. And in hindsight, I would have been dead wrong and responsible for an immense disservice to all stakeholders. So knowing that tendency steers me away from taking on go-long / go-huge plays.

In short, know thyself, and study failure before you start. Understanding all the ways in which you could hit the wall will help you set up your venture in a way that lets you focus on the road.