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Nine Startup Diseases and How to Cure Them

"Game Over" screen from the '80s arcade game "Battlezone"

Maybe I’m a glutton for punishment: my current job as Tech Project Manager at b5media marks the fourth startup for which I’ve worked; if you count Mackerel Interactive Multimedia — whose story, Burying the Fish, was written by Cory Doctorow for Wired but never published — I’ve worked at five. I like the “feel” of working at a startup, and now that I’ve got experience and real-world and blog-based reputations to back me up, startups are willing to pay me not only to be part of their team but to also be the “adult supervision”. At the ripe old age of 40, I’m an elder statesman in these parts (and playing an old man’s instrument only adds to that image).

That’s why I read SitePoint’s article Nine Deadly Startup Diseases—and How to Cure Them with a sense of deja vu, going through each item in their list of mistakes and saying “yup, did that one…did that one too…”

Put together, the startups for which I worked had all but one of the diseases listed in the article except for “Marketing Blind Spot”. For some reason, there was always a marketer in our midst, drumming it into our heads that marketing was necessary.

I’ve taken their list of startup diseases and cures and summarized it in the table below. For full explanations behind each disease and cure, be sure to read the article.

Startup Disease Cure
Imaginary User Syndrome: Your product isn’t targeted at anyone in particular. Establish a small, defined set of users who could benefit from your product and tailor it to them.
Frenetic Distraction Pox: Wasting time on non-essential tasks that don’t bring the business closer to break-even or profit. Focus!
Wrong Hire Infection: You’ve hired people who can’t perform or who underperform. “The smart, brave solution in those cases is amputation. Let them go gently if you want, but let them go.”
Implicit Promise Fever: You’re assuming that there are certain promises made between you and your co-founders, but you haven’t discussed them directly or put them in writing. “Have those discussions. Write the results down.”
Stealth Product Delusion: You’re waiting way too long to show your product to users while honing it to perfection (or as close to perfect as you can get). Get people to look at it! They’ll have some criticism, but that feedback is going to be very valuable.
Wrong Platform Fracture: The platform on which you’re developing (language, framework, technology) keeps getting in the way of development. Maybe you think you’ve gone too far to turn around and switch platforms. Switch platforms! ““We’ve walked this far already” isn’t a good enough reason to continue heading in that direction. Chances are, you’re much, much further from the completion of your product than you think.”
Other Interest Disorder: Other interests are pulling at you; you’re either saying “but I’m still working on my startup” and “I’ll get back to my startup soon” or working on several startups at once. Pick the project you want to work on, and break cleanly from the others.
Perfection Hallucination: You’re spending a large amount of time getting your prodcut to the point where it’s perfect, especially close to the end of the product development cycle. “Users are more forgiving of progress in the wrong direction than of a lack of progress. What you’ve built will never be perfect, but if it’s close enough your users will tell you how to improve it…Release early, release often.”
Marketing Blind Spot: You’re not doing any marketing. Do some marketing! “Marketing doesn’t have to cost much, but if you don’t do enough of it, you’re setting yourself up for failure.”

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