The Curse of the Start-Up . . .


If you chase two rabbits, you will lose both.

Start-Ups are fascinating.  Those who found or join a start-up company find it exhilarating, inspiring, creative, fast-moving, hectic, exhausting and thrilling at the same time. There is always something exciting and new to work on, new ideas to develop into products or services, new people to meet and pitch to, late nights and of course, a mountain of pizzas.

So with all that creativity, energy, excitement, passion and hard work, why is it that so many start-ups fail? It’s not for lack of trying.  The normal answers are that they run out of money or fail to get their product to market fast enough.

But Why?

I have to ask, “Why do they run out of money? Why do they fail to get to market quickly?” It’s the answer to these why questions that can provide great insight for other start-ups and entrepreneurs.

The curse of the start-up is lack of focus!

In most start-ups there are so many cool and exciting things to work on, new ideas to bruce-leepursue, new functionalities to add.  One of the most frequent phrases heard inside many start-ups goes something like this: “Wow, wouldn’t it be cool if we could  . . ?“, or another version, “What if we added this . . . ?”  One entrepreneur I spoke with recently said this about his company: “It’s organized chaos around here, with an emphasis on the chaos!”

I believe many start-ups fail due to lack of focus on the few key success factors that will get them from start-up to sustainable business. Not because they don’t know what these key success factors are, but because they don’t religiously focus on them enough. Chasing new ideas and new functionality may be exciting and stimulating, but it wastes time, energy and cash, and all the while the market keeps moving away from them.

An Execution Roadmap

Discipline and focus are hard things to instill in a start-up and they need help, an execution process if you will, to avoid the “what if we . . .” syndrome. Too may start-up are long on ideas and short on process, yet a few appropriate business processes can be critical in moving from start-up to sustainable enterprise.

One important process for the start-up is to implement and use a robust Goal Alignment and Execution Roadmap.  Using such a process keeps the important tasks and initiatives in constant focus and aligns the entire organization around those few critical success factors.  Once a Goal Alignment and Execution Roadmap is developed, it becomes easy to check each new idea or proposed functionality against the roadmap, using the simple questions: “Is this critical to our overall success?  Will it help deliver our end goal, or is it just a cool idea?”

A good Goal Alignment and Execution Roadmap has the following elements:

strategy flow

Which can then be easily turned into a Roadmap, with a traffic-light system for keeping everyone focused on the overall delivery of the business results.

SoaP traffic

Such an execution roadmap helps not only keep everyone focused on the important activities and goals, but is an excellent tool for communication, getting everyone on the same page, real-time updating, accountability, governance and open transparency.  One of the joys of working in a start-up is knowing everything that is going on and seeing how each person’s actions fit into the overall goal of building a successful enterprise.

That’s been one of my mantras – focus and simplicity. Simple can be harder than complex: You have to work hard to get your thinking clean to make it simple. But it’s worth it in the end because once you get there, you can move mountains.  ~Steve Jobs

To learn more about the organizational benefits of an Execution Roadmap and how to build one for your company, see FASTBREAK: The CEO’s Guide to Strategy Execution, available in paperback and eBook from Amazon.

Thanks for joining the conversation.

 John R Childress
Senior Executive Advisor on Leadership, Culture and Strategy Execution Issues,
Business Author and Advisor to CEOs
Visiting Professor, IE Business School, Madrid

Twitter @bizjrchildress

Read John’s Blog:

John’s Business Books Website

Just Published: LEVERAGE: The CEO’s Guide to Corporate Culture

Read  The Economist review of LEVERAGE
Also on Amazon:   
FASTBREAK: The CEO’s Guide to Strategy Execution

PS: John also writes thriller novels 

About johnrchildress

John Childress is a pioneer in the field of strategy execution, culture change, executive leadership and organization effectiveness, author of several books and numerous articles on leadership, an effective public speaker and workshop facilitator for Boards and senior executive teams. In 1978 John co-founded The Senn-Delaney Leadership Consulting Group, the first international consulting firm to focus exclusively on culture change, leadership development and senior team alignment. Between 1978 and 2000 he served as its President and CEO and guided the international expansion of the company. His work with senior leadership teams has included companies in crisis (GPU Nuclear – owner of the Three Mile Island Nuclear Plants following the accident), deregulated industries (natural gas pipelines, telecommunications and the breakup of The Bell Telephone Companies), mergers and acquisitions and classic business turnaround scenarios with global organizations from the Fortune 500 and FTSE 250 ranks. He has designed and conducted consulting engagements in the US, UK, Europe, Middle East, Africa, China and Asia. Currently John is an independent advisor to CEO’s, Boards, management teams and organisations on strategy execution, corporate culture, leadership team effectiveness, business performance and executive development. John was born in the Cascade Mountains of Oregon and eventually moved to Carmel Highlands, California during most of his business career. John is a Phi Beta Kappa scholar with a BA degree (Magna cum Laude) from the University of California, a Masters Degree from Harvard University and was a PhD candidate at the University of Hawaii before deciding on a career as a business entrepreneur in the mid-70s. In 1968-69 he attended the American University of Beirut and it was there that his interest in cultures, leadership and group dynamics began to take shape. John Childress resides in London and the south of France with his family and is an avid flyfisherman, with recent trips to Alaska, the Amazon River, Tierra del Fuego, and Kamchatka in the far east of Russia. He is a trustee for Young Virtuosi, a foundation to support talented young musicians. You can reach John at or
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