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Dear Founder: The Definitive Don’t-Do List

No one works harder than the founder of a startup. They wake up with a hundred things to do and end their day thinking about another hundred things to be done. When a founder’s to-do list is already this long, maybe the best advice is what they shouldn’t do.

With this in mind, this article shares our definitive don’t-do List for the hardest working people in business.

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Don’t delay the hard decisions.

Putting off difficult choices feels easy in the moment but makes life tougher over the long term. Netflix Co-Founder Marc Randolph has three tricks for making those hard calls now, including one he borrowed from Amazon’s Jeff Bezos: in which a difficult decision is broken down into either 1) a one-way door where there’s no going back, or 2) a two-way door where you can still reverse course.

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Don’t do small things others can do 80% as well.

You don’t have to do every task perfectly. Find someone who can do them 80% as well as you, and free up your time for more critical tasks elsewhere. By trying to do too much, you may end up doing less.

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Don’t be too confident.

Founders swim in a sea of rejection, so they need a lot of confidence. But too much confidence can be costly. Jeff Bezos discovered this the hard way in the runup to Christmas in 1998 when he ignored warnings from every one of his executives and ordered US$120 million of toys. By January, it was clear he was wrong, and almost half the toys were given away.

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Don’t be complacent.

The cousin to overconfidence is complacency, and it’s killed more than one company. Take Kodak in the late 1990s. They had 140,000 employees and a market cap of US$28 billion. They also had the idea for digital photos, but ignored their research team because printed photos made so much money. Fast forward to 2012, and Kodak declared bankruptcy the same year that Facebook bought Instagram and its 13 employees for US$1 billion.

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Don’t move too fast.

You hear it all the time. Whether first to market or first to scale, we’re told that being first is the key to success. Not always. During Amazon’s rush to launch, they missed a technical flaw that allowed people to get money back for books they never bought. Sometimes fast is slow, and slow is fast.

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Don’t rely on one investor.

No founder has walked onto the set of the business reality TV show Shark Tank, hoping to find only one investor waiting for their pitch. And it’s not just because more investors mean more opportunities to raise money. Attracting more investors also means more expertise. Different investors can strengthen different stages of your business, from prototyping and hiring to manufacturing and marketing.

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Don’t hire the B-team.

Your first ten hires can make or break the company. If you settle for second-best, you’re going to come in second, and in the startup world, that’s as good as last. 

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Don’t fail slowly.

Stewart Butterfield founded the gaming startup Glitch in 2011 and pulled the plug just one year later with plenty of VC money still in the bank. Then he pivoted to a chat service within Glitch and turned it into Slack, the wildly successful messaging platform that was later sold for over US$27 billion. Fail slowly, and you’ll fail forever. Fail fast and come back stronger than ever.

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Don’t go shallow.

It’s tempting to sign up lots of early customers, but more customers can mean less activity and little feedback. Going deep with fewer customers will teach you what works and what doesn’t, which can then be repeated in one market after another.

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Don’t let your office replace your home.

Founders work hard and make lots of sacrifices, but no amount of success can replace the love of your closest family and friends. These relationships will cushion your lows and make your highs even higher. If work requires you to put them second today, make sure they’re back in first again tomorrow.

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Don’t ignore your health.

This is easier said than done. Starting a business is going to take a toll, whether you’re skipping the gym or unwinding after work with drinks. But these all come with hidden costs. That skipped workout could have triggered your next big idea, while more founders like Justin Kan are taking their cue from Warren Buffett, Steve Jobs and Larry Ellison by either giving up alcohol altogether, or joining a new ‘sober curious’ movement that prefers an early morning start to a bartender’s last call.

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Don’t give up.

It’s the last item on our list but perhaps the most important. Founders might struggle because they have the right product at the wrong time. Or, like the inventor of the world’s first bagless vacuum cleaner, James Dyson, they might have the wrong product 5,126 times until they hit on the prototype leading to a multinational business and more than US$5 billion in revenue. Either way, persistence is the key to success, and, as the legendary author and poet Maya Angelou once said: “You may encounter many defeats, but you must not be defeated.”

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Don’t-Do’s for Founders

We hope you find this Don’t Do list useful during your startup journey. While the tips may seem obvious, simple things can make a massive difference in helping you reach your full potential.


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