Common mistakes founders make

Zach DeWitt
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Want to build a thriving startup? Discover the top missteps founders make and how to avoid them.

Legendary repeat founder Jyoti Bansal (who sold AppDynamics to Cisco for $3.7 billion and then went on to co-found Harness and Traceable) recently shared a few of the mistakes he made in the early stages of his companies.

Jyoti’s advice for connecting with customers is invaluable for early-stage founders:  

  • Don’t build too far ahead of customers’ current needs.
  • Meet them where they are.
  • Focus on solving problems, rather than selling the product you’ve built.

Here are a few more common founder mistakes I would add to this list. I’ve experienced or witnessed all of these firsthand!

Mistake #1: Premature scaling and strategizing  

Before you've found product-market fit (PMF), it's too early to decide how you'll sell your product. PLG, sales assist, outbound — these are all viable options, but you need to nail PMF first.  

Once you've got PMF, you can start thinking about the right go-to-market strategy. But don't put the cart before the horse. Figure out if customers actually want what you're building, then worry about how to sell it.

And definitely don't start scaling before PMF. I know, it sounds obvious, but I've seen too many founders get excited by early traction and start hiring like crazy. This is a big mistake.

It's a common trap: Perhaps a few customers are signing up, or you're getting positive feedback from early adopters. It's thrilling, and it's tempting to think, "This is it! We're ready to scale!"

But here's the thing — early traction can be deceiving. Just because a handful of people are using your product doesn't mean you've found true PMF. If you start scaling too soon, you risk building on a shaky foundation.

Many founders get caught up in the hype and start pouring money into marketing, expanding their team and increasing their burn rate. But without solid PMF, that growth is unsustainable.

The smarter approach? Be patient. Keep your team lean and your expenses low until you're certain you've nailed PMF. That means focusing relentlessly on your core metrics: engagement, retention and monetization. Are people sticking around and using your product regularly? Are they willing to pay for it? Are you able to acquire new customers at a sustainable cost?

Once you can confidently answer "yes" to those questions, then you can start thinking about scaling. But even then, do it gradually. Test and iterate as you grow, and make sure you're maintaining the key metrics that indicate PMF.

Mistake #2: Being afraid to pivot when things aren’t working

I've been there. In my first startup, we were struggling to gain traction, but I was stubborn. We kept pushing forward, even when the signs were clear that it wasn't working.

In retrospect, we should have pivoted sooner. It's tough to let go of an idea you're passionate about, but sometimes it's necessary. If you've given it a fair shot and things still aren't clicking, it's time to reassess.

Pivoting doesn’t mean you’ve failed — it means you’re smart and adaptable. The best founders are the ones who recognize when something isn't quite right and have the courage to change course.

When you pivot, you’re also not starting from scratch. Take everything you've learned and apply it in a new direction. But don't keep banging your head against a wall if you’re not making meaningful progress — the sooner you pivot, the better your chances of finding the right path.

Mistake #3: Obsessing over how fast you’re moving

In the early days of a startup, it's easy to get caught up in the idea of moving fast. That includes shipping new features, iterating quickly and learning at a breakneck pace. And don't get me wrong — clock speed is critical, but it's not everything.

I've seen founders become obsessed with speed to the point where it's detrimental. They're so focused on shipping that they don't take the time to really understand their customers or think strategically about their product.

Yes, you need to move quickly, but not at the expense of building something valuable. Don't just ship for the sake of shipping. Make sure you're learning and adapting based on real customer insights.

It's about finding the right balance. Move fast, but be thoughtful. Iterate, but don't lose sight of the bigger picture. Focus on building something that truly solves a problem for your customers. That's what will ultimately drive your success — not just how quickly you can ship new features.

The startup survival guide

There’s no denying that building a successful startup is hard. But by avoiding these common mistakes — scaling too soon and making critical decisions before achieving PMF, sticking to a failing strategy and prioritizing speed over substance — you'll put yourself in a better position to get the results you’re looking for.

Pace yourself and stay focused on solving real problems for your customers, and the rest will follow.

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