I read an article a few days ago about how drowning doesn’t look like drowning. “Drowning is not the violent, splashing call that most people expect”, says the author of the article.
Startups are a lot like that. There are great startups and there are failing startups. The ones that are failing don’t look like they’re failing. They don’t crash and burn. Failing startups, like drowning people, don’t make a sound. They rarely have anything to announce, rarely hire any people and often lose the best ones.
I think the biggest reason why failing startups fail is because the founders are as breathless as they’d be if they were drowning. They can’t call for help, either because they’ve lost faith in what they do, because they’re afraid of what others will say or because they can’t see how anyone could help them. All founders go through this. Whoever says they haven’t is lying.
Over the past twelve months, I’ve had a couple of friends whose startups have failed. The symptoms were exactly as described above, and the founders were as breathless as I’d ever seen them. So if you’re talking to a fellow entrepreneur and everything seems OK, don’t be so sure.
Most often the most common indicator that a startup is failing is that they don’t look like they’re failing. Generally the founder will start talking a lot when he’s asked how he’s doing, without mentioning any actual progress. He’ll mention he has some new interesting ideas he’s been thinking about. He’ll allude to M&A “discussions”. I’m sure there are more indicators, but the bottom line is that if it’s a friend you’re talking to, you will notice that something’s wrong.
There are two things to learn from this parallel: firstly, that one should let their friends and fellow entrepreneurs know when they need help. But more importantly, I believe it’s our duty as entrepreneurs to help our peers. That means noticing when someone is drowning and pulling them up. We don’t do enough of that.