4 scaling mistakes every start-up should avoid

Every start-up needs to learn how to grow. Here’s four valuable lessons from some of the most frequent mistakes experienced by up-and-comers

Whatever the endgame is – whether it is acquisition or becoming a towering presence in people’s daily lives – every start-up needs growth. Founders are quick to dream about scaling, but as everyone who’s been through this situation understands, it isn’t as simple as “if you build it, they will come.”

Once a start-up’s product is ready for the public eye, the question that’s on everyone’s mind is how to go about with growth. Doing this requires a delicate balance and coordination that, when applied successfully, easily meets the foreseeable market demand for the product. Mistakes in this process will inevitably lead to a decline in reputation which – at worst – may doom the entire project to failure.

To make sure you don’t fall into the pit of awkward scaling, here are a few mistakes you should avoid:

Don’t scale too soon

The lifeblood of your start-up is the product. Once you’ve finished it, you will be tempted to already spread it as far and wide as you can. While you need to provide the proper infrastructure for the demand you are anticipating, you might be doing all of this a bit too soon.

Before you scale, you need to gauge the market, figure out how large the demand for your product might be, and then work out a way to get enough people to test it so you can iron out the kinks that are still there. The idea is to gather a small group of strangers as a “study group” to figure out how an outsider experiences the product. This allows you to make tweaks wherever they are necessary before taking the plunge with a wider audience.

Here’s one last question you need to ask yourself: Do I even need to think about scaling yet? Take some time to think about this seriously. You should start growing in size when you can reasonably anticipate a growth in demand. The takeaway here is that you should not be too eager to grow when you’re still in the incubation stage.

Weak infrastructures weaken your product

You could have a highly-competitive product on the market with a well-polished user experience but if it runs on a mediocre infrastructure, it will be judged by the latter rather than the former. To put this into perspective, think of a beautiful apartment on the 40th floor of a high-rise building. Now, imagine that the lift that takes you up there gets stuck frequently and stops at every floor.

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It’s hard to think of all the work that was put into the kitchen’s countertops when all you’ve been doing for the past hour is waiting for the lift to reach your floor. The same applies to poor infrastructure hosting your product. A good solution is to replace the elevator with a series of specialised lifts, each meant to bring people to particular areas of the building and prioritise traffic in such a way that no one arrives late.

This analogy applies to load balancing, which can ensure a high availability by spreading the load and demand across a distributed infrastructure, thus ensuring optimal performance even amid traffic and usage spikes. Once your product starts picking up serious demand, it’s time to start thinking of smart ways to carry the traffic so that the user can enjoy it without any hiccups.

Don’t compete solely on features

Once your product has matured and you want to start expanding it, the typical reaction is to look over your shoulder at whatever the competition is doing. Myspace fell into this trap and ended up being pinned down by Facebook. While it’s not necessarily bad to have a peek into the competition, you should still think of your product as an entity operating within its own plane of existence. Your features shouldn’t mimic what everyone else is doing. Rather, you should be building on the generally-perceived strengths you already have.

Everything that sells your product should be unique rather than a “more refined” version of other contenders’ ideas. In the rush to pile on features, people may get creeped out by the excessive bells and whistles. Know your strengths and the value proposition that keeps customers using your platform, and then focus on these, rather than adding features just because everyone else is doing it. The focus should always be on what your product primarily does. Everything else should be on the periphery and politely pay homage to the centrefold.

Filter positive feedback

While it’s nice to receive positive feedback on your product, it may overinflate its actual value. Positive commentary does little more than indicate that something is good, but it doesn’t say how your product can be better. A product consistently improves by addressing the problems that people complain about the most. When it’s time to get to work, filter out the encouragement and focus on how the product can improve.

Encouragement may be a sweet nectar, but it also breeds the complacency that can kill a billion-pound idea.

The takeaway

The amount of start-ups still alive after four years is anywhere between 37 and 58%, depending on the industry you’re in. While the reasons for failure vary, you’ll significantly lower your start-up’s chances of joining the half of businesses that fail in the UK by timing your scaling correctly, providing a cost-efficient backbone, and distinguishing yourself from your competition by making intelligent use of your strengths.


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