Giving Up Too Soon, Persisting Too Long

Written by Sean Murphy. Posted in Customer Development, skmurphy

I took part in a number of great conversations at today’s Startup Lessons Learned Conference, probably the most common–and most vexing–issue that was discussed was whether to give up in the face of modest success. I had perhaps half a dozen conversations around “We’ve come this far and have paying customers but are not sure we should continue on the path we are on.”

This is a very tough issue to manage.  Here is a synthesis of the answers that I gave.

  1. When you make the decision to commit to a course of action write down what success and failure looks like and estimate how far you should be in a few weeks to a few months (depending upon the scope of the decision). Plan for two or three re-evaluation points. Only evaluate whether you on track on a pre-defined schedule unless something extraordinary happens. This prevents a very painful loop where every few days you are wrestling with whether to continue or not.
  2. Perhaps every two to four weeks but at least once very three month, assess where you are and what you have learned that you have incorporated into your process and approach. Periodically assessing what you have learned and how you have improved is another way to immunize yourself against doing the same thing over and over again expecting a different result: you should at least be making new mistakes.
  3. Talk to peers and advisors. One benefit of peer to peer discussions with other entrepreneurs is that they give you a chance to get different perspectives on your situation (often another entrepreneur may bring a valuable emotional distance that navigates the twin risks of giving up too soon and persisting too long).
  4. Be cautious in throwing away paying customers.
  5. If you have had success in several areas or with seemingly different customers look for a common thread or underlying connection.
  6. “Stubborn genius” is a tautology, but “stubborn fool” is as well, alas.

For the most part I  see folks  giving up too early far more often than persisting well past when they should abandon an idea. As Ringo Starr advises “it don’t come easy” and I see folks expecting a quick viral pop in two or three months giving up much much more often than a team persisting into their fourth year on an idea that’s clearly going nowhere.

But it’s possible that you have “climbed a small hill” and are in a market that is too small to support your firm.

Patrick Vlaskovits blogged about a related topic in “I See Dead Startups.”

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