Why Startup Teams Fail and How to Prevent It

Having a team that can execute, adapt, and innovate is one of the most crucial factors that can make or break a business. No matter how big or small the team is they need to be connected, committed, and striving to achieve the same goals to succeed. Without that, teams waste time, money, or simply die out.

The next logical question is, how do you build a successful team? How do you anticipate their potential shortcomings or problems? As you continue to build a business and grow your customer base, how much time do you spend on 'team building'? A better to ask question is, why do teams fail? After watching numerous teams fail and watching a few rise to the top, I believe successful teams are driven by many different aspects that all boil down to that one thing. Creativity.

I am not going to try and define creativity. (Why limit it to one definition? Is a developer any less creative than an artist?) Creativity fuels startups. If a startup isn't innovative and isn't solving problems in an original way…they fail. Hands down. If Dropbox had made a regular product demo video and hit publish, they would have flatlined. Same goes for every major success story coming out of San Francisco right now. The teams are creatively solving problems.

So how do you 'make' creativity? How do you build a team around this undefinable concept? From my perspective, there are 3 major concerns you as a business owner/entrepreneur need to look out for.

Fear and Failure

Turns out, people are afraid. Indescribably afraid of failing. So much so, their fear inhibits them to even speak up or suggest a solution.

Seth Godin talks a lot about fear and failure, and his main thesis is the fact that there's no 'battling failure' or 'overcoming fear'. Fear is inevitable. Failure is inevitable. The work that you do: building products, listening to customers, creating solutions, also includes embracing fear and failure. And understanding your team will fail. There's no other option. If you’re innovating and building a business that relies on being original and growing an audience, sooner or later your team will fail.

So what can you do? Realize that bravery, courage, or motivation won’t save you. Seth believes in ‘dancing with the fear’ and accepting it as part of the process. Instilling that in your team is critical to building failure into the process of innovating and being creative. So the next time someone on your team asks, ‘What if we fail?’ Tell them that’s the wrong question. The real question is "…when you fail, what then? If you've chosen right you're in a better position to succeed the next time." - Seth Godin.


The Hidden Factor

Ed Catmull from Pixar is a new hero of mine. He is a top notch manager and leader for Pixar and, most recently, an author of a fantastic book, Creativity Inc.. The best part is, it gives you no tactics. No 'quick tips' on what he did to achieve the creativity necessary to build a multibillion dollar film animation company. All he does is explain his experiences as a manager. He explains how he tries to see those 'hidden' problems that, as a manager and leader, elude most people.

Every organization is complex. With more than four people, you can bet there are problems within the team, and outside the team, you don’t know about. Yet we constantly want to believe we have everything figured out. We think we know what will come next or what problems will arise. Unfortunately, we don’t know. We can’t anticipate some problems and can’t understand exactly everything that is going on. So launching a marketing campaign, building V2 of your Minimum Viable Product, or creating a well-oiled customer service channel, suddenly doesn’t look as simple as you think it does. How does a leader keep track of all the components of a startup? How does she anticipate changes in the market or competitive pressures? That is the power of a high-functioning team.

Seeing the hidden problems in a complex environment like a business, that not just one person can see, requires a team. A team that will speak up, voice their opinion, and suggest solutions. A team that knows the strategic goals of the company and can actively suggest changes, especially when those suggestions go against the status-quo or counter to what the leader wants. To build a team that can think critically and suggest solutions together requires a leader that can accept different viewpoints. And realize that they are ‘additive rather than competitive’, to the company. It means creating a relationship between the CEO, COO, CTO, and mid-level managers (if you have them), that enforces an open dialogue. Without it, I guarantee you will miss a problem that could hurt your business.



Last (but not least) is vulnerability. The key to innovation and creativity. Brene Brown writes about the Power of Vulnerability and it's connection to creativity and innovation. To be vulnerable is to accept flaws within yourself and your team, and be open to talking about key issues that you see. Most often, team dynamics fall about due to lack of communication. Is someone on your team not pulling the weight you want them to? Is no one speaking up during strategy sessions?

The job of a leader is to allow their team to be comfortable enough to be vulnerable. Maybe this involves some sort of 'team building' exercises, but in my opinion the most powerful way to do that is to open up yourself and show your team what vulnerability means. Admitting mistakes, pitching ideas and accepting criticisms (no matter how much it hurts), or daring to set an ambitious goal. The whole point is to connect with your team on a deeper level and bring clarity to what it means to be 'vulnerable' in the workplace: i.e. Accepting ideas, setting time aside to work through projects together, being open to feedback.


Ultimately, building creativity in your team is an ongoing process that requires your role as a leader to be more than a tech guru, or marketing mastermind. The role of a leader is about unlocking the potential of those around you, allowing them to grow and succeed in their roles, and be active in using creativity to see and solve problems. Perhaps most of all, a leader must commit. To creativity, to the work, and most importantly, to her team members. Cause without them, businesses fail.