Why Do Start-Ups Suffer From E.D.?

Not that E.D., silly. I’m talking about “execution dysfunction”. And I’m referring to the flawed approach many start-ups take when launching a product or service. Now, before everyone jumps on me for singling out the start-ups, let me issue a caveat (sort of in the spirit of those disclaimers for solutions to that other E.D.)… There are numerous start-up launch successes (see Google, CareerBuilder) and a vast array of Blue Chip launch failures (see Ford’s Edsel, New Coke). However, because of the influence of external forces and limited internal resources, start-ups seem to be more susceptible to launch E.D. I don’t believe that start-ups make a conscious decision to launch a new product or service haphazardly. These companies are filled with bright, degreed professionals who typically have had formal mentoring and success elsewhere. Yet, frequently, the stakeholders – R&D, Marketing and Sales – are spread so thin that formal processes such as drafting an MRD (Market Requirements Document) or creating a product roadmap are instead subjugated to a seat-of-the-pants approach. Why? Often, in this pressure-cooker environment, there are external forces such as a competitive threat, VC expectations or, perhaps, an industry trade show that drive a “just-get-it-out-there” launch mentality. So, in this manner, the product is rolled out, “collateralized” and ultimately comes to rest on the shoulders of Sales to try to win customers. Sometimes it works, sometimes not. In this frenetic and deliverable-oriented environment, there exists little time for full product lifecycle analysis. Instead, the team starts development on Version 2.0. Internally, the stakeholders at start-ups tend to wear multiple hats and may not possess all of the necessary expertise. For instance, the Marketing Manager in a start-up might be responsible for the same key deliverables that a Product Manager (strategist), Product Marketing Manager (tactician & evangelist) and Marketing Communications Manager (“promotionalist”) would specialize in at a larger organization – a tall order, given all the other minutia for which the Marketing Manager (or, for that matter, the R&D and Sales) is also accountable. As the start-up evolves and begins to add layers to the departmental organization chart, “specialists” – often possessing large-company experience and now accountable for specific roles as described above – introduce formal launch processes. Ironically, many of their efforts are sabotaged by the “old guard” who have become so accustomed to the informal and unstructured launch approach that has “worked” up to this point. Again, I’m not picking on start-ups. Planning and managing a launch is tough stuff. If not, organizations such as Regis McKenna, the Chasm Group and, heck, Launch Clinic would not exist. So, how to cure a start-up suffering from E.D.? One could argue that there no definitive right or wrong way to launch a product or service. There exist proven methodologies, but start-ups (and even incumbent multinationals) must develop best practices in the context of their unique external and internal environments. A successful launch is contingent upon instituting and sticking to a formal process. Further, it requires vision, discipline and strong leadership to keep all stakeholders and their team members fully vested in the process and working in harmony. Of course, a little Barry White in the background can’t hurt.
David Daniels

David Daniels


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