Startups face an uphill battle—from financing, to hiring, to distinguishing themselves from the vast crowds of competitors fighting for market share and publicity. The potential rewards might be great, but there’s a lot to navigate between here and there.

Take it from these entrepreneurs who have been in the trenches and have made it safely past the minefields of starting their own business to find success in their respective fields.

Here are their top five classic startup mistakes to avoid.

1. Don’t Understand the Problem You’re Trying to Solve. Ray Eames once said, “Never delegate understanding.” When you don’t know something and you’re anxious to get your product out there, you may feel pressure to find someone who can do it better (and faster). But in the long term, to be effective as a new founder, it’s crucial that you learn it—whatever the it is—yourself, or risk facing problems down the road.

Mike Goldberg, product designer and founder of StorkStand, knows the pitfalls of both e-commerce and hardware startups. He says, “Every mistake I’ve made has come from not understanding the problem I was trying to solve well enough.” Having passion and a great idea isn’t enough.

“For example,” he advises, “if you’re building a platform, learn the coding language you’re working with. Get a really good foundation. Even if you’re anxious to get going and think it’s a waste of time, it’ll actually save you time in the end.”

In other words: Don’t get caught with your pants down.

startup backup plan

2. Don’t Have a Plan B. This may seem like a no-brainer, but it takes legwork and creativity. For hardware startups, having a plan B is even more crucial than in software. You can’t necessarily push quick iterations out the door like you can with software updates.

Hardware startups have to invest in materials, manufacturing, complex prototypes, and warehousing. Goldberg advises, “Take the time to sit down and look at every single phase of the manufacturing process to make sure you always have a backup plan—at least one. You’ll be less likely to end up with a costly decision on your hands, but if you do, it’ll have less of an impact, with a quicker recovery time.”

3. Throw Money at Your Problems. This is an easy trap to fall into, whether you’re an e-commerce entrepreneur or a product designer. But throwing money at a problem doesn’t necessarily mean better results. Goldberg muses, “I thought if I hired the best contractors, it would guarantee our success, and it wasn’t true. I second-guessed my own experience.”

He goes on to say, “You’ll get so much feedback at every stage of the game, your job is to weed through it all and constantly check in with yourself, your own intuition. Whether you’re talking about hiring or prototyping, paying more isn’t necessarily going to lead to better results.”

4. Wait Till Your Product Is Perfect to Put It Out to Market. This is a classic mistake founders make—not wanting to put prototypes out there “too early” for fear of the reaction they might get. But not getting feedback early on can end up costing time and resources.

“You get so much in return when your prototype gets out there,” says Goldberg, “even if it’s ugly or not quite ready. During the prototyping process, it’s empowering to build a Rolodex of people who’ve tested your product and given their feedback. This is crucial for both hardware and software teams, and so worth it.”


5. Underestimate the Power of Passion (and the Importance of Sleep). Matt Lerner, founder of Walk Score (the walkable-neighborhood-promoting website recently acquired by Redfin), knows this particular subject well. “I’ve made so many mistakes as an entrepreneur, I don’t even know where to start. I think the biggest mistake you can make is starting something you’re not passionate about. It always takes much longer and is much harder than you imagine to start something new.”

Passion, however, doesn’t mean hurtling headfirst toward burnout. Lerner warns, “The flip side of that is that I’ve seen entrepreneurs run themselves into the ground not taking care of themselves, which is also a huge mistake. Fatigue can lead to little mistakes that snowball culturally, like the person you should have fired but never did that starts to spoil your culture.”

More Like This


You’re in.

Get smart on the future of making.

Subscribe to our newsletter.