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Start-up Advice

6 Costly Mistakes People Make When Starting a Business

Here are six pitfalls to look out for, along with expert advice on how to avoid them.

Lorie A. Parch




Like every start-up entrepreneur, Rodney Nelson needed a great website. Woolly Pocket, the company he was building with his brother, Miguel, aimed to sell its cleverly designed, eco-friendly wall planters online. But there were problems.

“Our first site didn’t follow the standard design protocol of a good website,” remembers business management consultant, Nelson. “It was difficult to navigate; customers had to scroll all the way to the bottom of the homepage and then to the next page to find ‘buy it now.'”

The brothers moved on to another developer, but their second e-commerce site didn’t work well either, and they found it hard to get the tech team to respond quickly. “The initial rate was affordable, but we had to redo it maybe six months later,” Nelson says.

“The second time it cost double; we were happier with it, but we weren’t ecstatic. Then we went to another company about a year later. We did three websites in one year. In the end, we’d done four websites in one and a half years before we got one that worked.”

It might not be your website that ends up costing you dearly, but something will – it’s the Murphy’s Law of start-ups. There are a seemingly endless number of ways to spend money, and it’s impossible to be wise about all of them. But a few common costly mistakes can sink a bootstrapped business.

Related: 9 Answers You Need About Yourself Before Starting Your Own Business

Here are six pitfalls to look out for, along with expert advice on how to avoid them.

Expensive mistake 1: The wrong team

Bill Aulet, managing director of the Martin Trust Center for MIT Entrepreneurship and author of Disciplined Entrepreneurship, says choosing the wrong team is the single costliest error entrepreneurs make, resulting in not only lost income and time but depleted morale.

“Choosing who to hire and work with in a start-up is like playing sports at school; you can pick your friends and play for them, but if you want to be good and continue to be on the field, you have to carefully pick your team,” he explains.

It’s crucial to choose people with varying skill sets. However, Aulet says, “much like a great sports team, they must also share some common values and the ability to trust each other in tough situations. That’s why past experience working with your co-founders and early employees in stressful times is much more important than being friends.”

Expensive mistake 2: Bad pricing


“My single biggest mistake with my first business – a handbag company – was in pricing,” says Sarah Shaw, CEO of consulting firm, Entreprenette.

Hers is a common misstep for product manufacturers.

“I didn’t understand that with any kind of clothing or accessories, you have to calculate the square footage of fabric, including the wasted fabric,” Shaw explains. Without an accurate understanding of her costs, she couldn’t price her products correctly.

“I thought you sort of doubled everything, but that’s not correct,” she says. “It’s a 2.5-times mark-up from cost to wholesale, which covers marketing, the showroom fee, all your expenses.”

By the end of her first two years in business, Shaw had put in more than $100,000 of her own money. Thanks to perseverance and media buzz (celebrities loved her bags), she ended up with $1 million in annual revenue and attracted investors, but she couldn’t recover from the downturn after 9/11 and closed the business in 2002.

Related: 5 Books To Read Before Starting Your Business

Expensive mistake 3: Waiting for perfect when good will do

When you’ve got a killer idea, it’s natural to want to introduce it to the world in a fully formed state. But it doesn’t take a chartered accountant to figure out that the longer you take to launch, the longer you go without money coming in.

“This is a common mistake, especially for tech people,” says Drew Williams, co-author of Feed the Startup Beast. “Many want to build an app and won’t let it go until it’s perfect, but then you take too long and spend too much.” Specifically, this error will likely leave you with no “runway” – the cash you’ll need to sustain you as you’re trying to get your product off the ground once it’s ready, but before you have customers.

“You need to come up with the simplest, basic version of your product that gets the idea across and try to find someone you can sell it to,” Williams says.

“Find one or two clients who are willing to do a pilot where you build, test and iterate it. Inevitably, your product will be different than what you expect, and then you build it. If you get a real, live client, you create a better product in a very cost-effective way.”

Expensive mistake 4: Not understanding technology


Mary Juetten was no Luddite when she launched Traklight, a software company that helps individuals and businesses identify and protect intellectual property, but she didn’t know everything. “I understood how to lay out what our software would do… but I didn’t know anything about coding software or web development,” says chartered accountant, Juetten.

She relied on a co-founder with that expertise, but when that relationship ended, she floundered.

“This is where I made my biggest mistake: I looked for the best deal, and I didn’t educate myself about different programming languages or bring someone else into the mix.”

The team she hired to create Traklight’s software told her that it “couldn’t” be built in one programming language and “had” to be built in another. “If someone designing my website came up to me and said, ‘You should use this colour instead of that colour,’ I’d be asking 17 questions about why,” Juetten says. “But I never asked why about this, because it was technology.”

Related: 10 SA Entrepreneurs On What They Wish They’d Known Before Starting Their Businesses

The four-month window for software development turned into eight months, then nine more. “With technology, it’s all about time to market,” she says. “So entrepreneurs who are not technical should educate themselves.”

Eventually Juetten took a “tech speak for entrepreneurs” class. She suggests other start-up founders who need more expertise find similar instruction at Codecademy or General Assembly.

Expensive mistake 5: Skimping on lawyers

Tobin Booth, CEO of Blue Oak Energy, an engineering and construction firm for solar photovoltaic power systems regrets  skimping on legal fees in his company’s infancy.

“If I could do some of the early stuff over, it would have been to pay a few thousand to have a lawyer write up a proper contract,” he says. “I didn’t have the right attorney who really understood my business.”

A few early customers simply didn’t pay up, so Booth tried to move matters to a collections agency. “I found out that there were some clauses [in the contract] that didn’t allow me to collect on legal fees,” says Booth.

Shaw, meanwhile, unknowingly signed a contract that gave her handbag company the trademark to her name, so when investors came in, her name belonged to them. “I can’t use my own name in business again,” she says. “I wish I had hired an lawyer to watch out for me.”

Expensive mistake 6: Being cheap about marketing

“People think, everyone else has to market their product or service, but I don’t because this is so good,” says author Williams. The related myth is that you can rely on social media to build virality and attract customers for free.

“Social media is not free,” he says. “To do it properly takes unbelievable amounts of time, and it’ll typically take six months to a year before you’ve got even slight momentum – it’s not fast.”

If you’re not sure how much money to budget for marketing, Williams suggests aiming for 10% to 20% of your targeted gross revenue. “As you become a more established business, that drops to 5% to 10% of gross revenue, and for the largest businesses it’s typically 5% or a bit less,” he says.

After launching Traklight, Juetten found that her website wasn’t indexed properly for search engines. “No one was finding us,” she recalls. So she decided to invest in an inbound marketing program. “That initial payment is scary for a small company, but we don’t have to pay developers to make changes to our site, and they do e-mail marketing and CRM,” she explains. So far it’s working: In April 2013 the Traklight site recorded just 100 visits per month; by the end of the year it was getting 2,800.

How much does Juetten estimate she lost early on between the missteps in software development and inbound marketing? “As far as money thrown away – actual cheques written for useless things – that would be in the tens of thousands,” she admits. “As far as lost time [and] products not developed on time, it’s in the hundreds of thousands. We would be much further ahead now.”

In the end, the best way to avoid costly mistakes is obvious: Save and spend wisely. “Keep spending really, really tight,” Williams advises. “Leverage everything you can and give yourself as long a runway as possible. You’re going to need it.”


Start-up Advice

Alan Knott-Craig Answers Your Questions On Money And Partners

From starting the right business, to managing business partners and finding your magic number, there is a secret to happiness.

Alan Knott-Craig




If I get rich will I be happy? — JC Lately

Does money equal happiness? Mostly, yes. Research in the US shows that your happiness is proportionate to your earnings up until you earn $80 000 per annum. Thereafter, incremental income gains have a negligible effect on your happiness.

In other words: More money will make you happy as long as you’re poor. Once you break out of poverty and enter a comfortable middle-class existence, more money will not make you happier.

These are the top three for old folks:

  • I wish I’d spent more time with family.
  • I wish I’d taken more risks.
  • I wish I’d travelled more.

Therein lies the secret to happiness. Spend time with your family. Take risks. Travel.

But first, make money. Don’t do any of the above until you’re making enough money not be stressed about money.

Related: Your Questions Answered With Alan Knott-Craig

What is the magic number? — Mushti

The magic number is the amount of money you need to not worry about money ever again. If you don’t need toys like Ferraris, yachts and jets, the magic number is R130 million. Here’s the math: R130 million will earn R9,1 million in interest annually (assuming 7% interest). After tax that is R5,46 million.

Assuming you need 50% to maintain a good lifestyle, that leaves approximately R2,7 million for reinvestment, which is enough to keep your capital amount in touch with inflation for 50 years. The balance of R2,7 million (after tax) is for your living costs. In South Africa, R2,7 million will afford you a lifestyle that allows you to send your kids to a great school and university, to travel overseas a couple of times a year, and to live in a comfortable house.

Over time your living costs (and inflation) will eat into your capital amount. After 50 years you should be down to nil, assuming you earn zero other income in that time.

In 50 years, you will probably be dead. If you’re not dead, your kids will be able to support you (because they love you and they have a great university education).

I am the sole director of a company (the others still have full-time jobs and don’t want to be conflicted) and there is pro-rata shareholding based on our initial shareholder loans. However, I am putting in most of the hard work, together with one of the other actuaries. How best do I manage the director/shareholder dynamic? I obviously want to make as much progress as possible but there are times when I need the input from the others (and their responses aren’t always as quick as I would like). — Mike

If you have any perception of unfairness regarding effort/risk vs reward, deal with it NOW! You can’t do so later. The best approach is honesty. Call your partners together. Explain your thinking. Perhaps argue for 25% ‘sweat equity’ for yourself. Everyone dilutes accordingly. Ideally cut a deal whereby you have an option to pay back all their loans, plus interest, within six months, and you get 100% of equity (unless they quit their jobs and join full-time).

Equity dissent must be resolved long before the business makes money, otherwise it will never be resolved.

Related: Alan Knott-Craig’s Answers On Selling Internationally And Researching Your Idea

What do you think of WiFi in taxis?— Ntembeko

It’s a good idea, but not original. Before embarking on a start-up, you should survey the landscape for competitors. Just because there are none doesn’t mean no one has tried your idea.

It just means that everyone that tried has failed. You need to be 100% sure that you have some ‘edge’ that makes you different from everyone who came before you (and failed). Otherwise you will fail. What is your advantage that is different to everyone who came before?

Read ‘Be A Hero’ today


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Start-up Advice

What You Need To Know About The Lean Start-up Model

The Lean Start-up philosophy was developed by Eric Ries, a Silicon Valley-based entrepreneur who also sat on venture capital advisory boards. He published The Lean Startup in 2011, igniting a movement around a new way of doing business.





The model follows key precepts that include:

Taking untested products to market

The fact that too many start-ups begin with an idea for a product that they think people want, spending months (or even years) perfecting that product without ever testing it in the market with prospective customers.

When they fail to reach broad uptake from customers, it’s often because they never spoke to prospective customers and determined whether or not the product was interesting. The earlier you can determine customer feedback, the quicker you can adjust your model to suit market needs.

The ‘build-measure-learn’ feedback loop is a core component of lean start-up methodology

The first step is figuring out the problem that needs to be solved and then developing a minimum viable product (MVP) to begin the process of learning as quickly as possible. Once the MVP is established, a start-up can work on tuning the engine. This will involve measurement and learning and must include actionable metrics that can demonstrate cause and effect.

Utilising an investigative development method called the ‘Five Whys’

This involves asking simple questions to study and solve problems across the business journey. When this process of measuring and learning is done correctly, it will be clear that a company is either moving the drivers of the business model or not. If not, it is a sign that it is time to pivot or make a structural course correction to test a new fundamental hypothesis about the product, strategy and engine of growth.

Lean isn’t only about spending less money

It’s also not only about failing fast and as cheaply as possible. It’s about putting a process in place, and following a methodology around product development that allows the business to course correct.

Progress in manufacturing is measured by the production of high quality goods

The unit of progress for lean start-ups is validated learning. This is a rigorous method for demonstrating progress when an entrepreneur is embedded in the soil of extreme uncertainty. Once entrepreneurs embrace validated learning, the development process can shrink substantially. When you focus on figuring the right thing to build — the thing customers want and will pay for, rather than an idea you think is good — you need not spend months waiting for a product beta launch to change the company’s direction. Instead, entrepreneurs can adapt their plans incrementally, inch by inch, minute by minute.


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Start-up Advice

Start-Up Law:  I’m A Start-up Founder. Can I Pay Employees With Shares?

Bulking up employee salaries with equity is a common method to attract, retain and incentivise top talent.




Every early stage start-up company battles with restricted cash flow and not being able to pay market related salaries to their employees. Bulking up employee salaries with equity is a common method to attract, retain and incentivise top talent.

Can I pay salaries with shares?

South African labour laws require that employees be paid certain minimum wages, and “remuneration”, as defined within the Basic Conditions of Employment Amendment Act, either means in ‘money or in kind’.  ’In kind’ does not include shares or participation in share incentive schemes, as determined by the Minister of Labour. As such, there is no room for start-ups to completely substitute paying salaries with shares or share options. However, there is no restriction in topping up below market related salaries with equity via an employee share ownership plan (‘ESOP‘).

Related: 7 Ingredients Of Small Business Success Online

Employee Share Ownership Plans

There are a variety of ways in which employees can be incentivised, and it will always be important for the start-up founders to consider what goal they wish to achieve by incentivising their employees.

ESOPs can be structured in several ways, for example: employees may be offered direct shareholding in the company, options for the acquisition of shares in the future; or alternatively, a phantom / notional share scheme can be set up.

ESOPs permit employees to share in the company’s success without requiring a start-up business to spend precious cash. In fact, ESOPs can contribute capital to a company where employees need to pay an exercise price for their share options or shares.

The primary disadvantage of ESOPs is the possible dilution of the Founder’s equity. For employees, the main disadvantage of an ESOP compared to cash bonuses or bigger salaries, is the lack of liquidity. If the company does not grow bigger and its shares does not become more valuable, the shares may ultimately prove to be worthless.

Related: 7 Strategies For Development As An Entrepreneur

Key Features

Some key features to consider when setting up an ESOP are:

  • ELIGIBILITY – who will be allowed to participate? Full time employees? Part-time employees? Advisors?
  • POOL SIZE – what percentage of shares will be allocated to incentivise employees?
  • RESTRICTIONS – will employees be able to sell their shares immediately?
  • VESTING – will there be a minimum period that service employees will have to serve with the start-up to receive the economic benefit of his or her shares?

Employee share ownership plans are great corporate structuring mechanisms for attracting and retaining employees, as well as fostering an understanding of the company ethos and encouraging loyalty and productivity. It is essential when implementing an ESOP that all the tax implications are considered and that the correct structure and legal documentation are in place.

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