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9 mistakes you're making as a founder

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5 min read

9 mistakes you're making as a founder

By Isidora Prohaska · May 11, 2021

Startups are scary. It's like the first day of kindergarten on repeat. Except you don't actually know where your classroom is—or where your school is, for that matter. 

A startup is also a breeding ground for mistakes. Some small, like the time I posted a bachelorette party outing on my company's Instagram story (thankfully we didn't have that many followers)—and some big, like thinking that micromanaging the new hire made me a good leader because I knew it all (she quit). 

Everyone will make mistakes, and that's part of the experience. But there are some mistakes you can make as a founder that can really cost you. And I'm not talking about not getting enough sleep or pretending your coffee counts as water. Those are important, yes, but I'm talking about the mistakes we don't realize are mistakes until it's too late. I'm a startup and small business consultant, so I've seen these mistakes up close. And, of course, I've made almost all of them myself.

9 mistakes you're making as a founder

As a founder, you have the weight of the world on your shoulders. It's do or die—not just for you, but for your family, your investors, and the employees relying on the company's success so they can see that next paycheck. Here are the mistakes I've seen from founders that are detrimental—but completely preventable.

1. Assuming your employees will be just as passionate about your company as you

You are the parent of your company; your employees are like the cousins. You're going to be up at night sweating the small stuff, worrying about growth and VCs and when you'll sleep again, while your employees are just looking to have a casual playdate. 

I've seen founders get so frustrated because their team just isn't executing at the level they expect, when in reality, they're comparing their team's performance to their own. Your company will always be a bigger part of you than it is for your employees. Expecting your employees to feel what you feel and work how you work is going to be a losing game.

Don't get me wrong—your employees need to be engaged in the work and support your mission. But just like the fun cousin, they'll get to leave at 5 p.m. and not spend their entire evening worried about all the terrible things that might happen to your baby.

2. Overhiring for specialties

I'm going to take a wild guess and say that your business doesn't have a lot of disposable cash.

You may feel the need to quickly hire a CMO or Director of Sales and start building the departments you will inevitably need. Resist that urge, at least for a while. You probably don't have enough for a specialist to do right now, which will be frustrating for them and also a big financial burden for you. Instead, think about what you need now and how well you need it done. Then go hire a generalist or two. They'll be able to build the foundations of these areas and automate the necessary tasks to keep you moving. 

3. Not making data-driven decisions

Whoever said "always trust your gut" didn't run a startup. Just like steak pairs well with wine, your gut instinct pairs well with data. 

I know it's a lot easier to just run with an idea and see what sticks—and there's definitely a time and place for that, like writing a new email sequence. But when it comes to bigger decisions that can greatly impact the direction of your company, like determining which industry your company should target next, use data. And wine. 

4. Not working on your leadership skills

Leadership isn't a part of your job—it's another job entirely. It requires just as much, if not more, attention and nurturing than your production responsibilities. And just because you're good at your job doesn't mean you'll make a good leader. 

Not understanding this was one of my biggest failures and greatest learning experiences. I was having the weekly one-on-ones, giving feedback, handing out tasks, and answering all the questions—I was making it so that my employees needed me around in order to succeed. But that just made me a subpar manager, not a leader. What my team really needed was for me to make them feel empowered.

5. Not leading by example 

Your employees look to you for guidance: they will mirror what you model. If you're working through dinner, coming in on weekends, never taking a vacation...chances are, most of your employees will do the same. The difference? They can quit when they burn out. You can't.

I remember consistently having this conversation with the founder of a startup. "We give our people unlimited PTO, but they never take it!" he'd say. And I would ask, "well, when's the last time you took a vacation?" [Crickets.]

Yes, taking a vacation is important for you, but it's also important for your employees. Block it off on your calendar and talk publicly about why you're doing it. Set the example, and allow your employees the same privilege of not burning the candle at both ends. 

6. Not delegating 

I get it: nobody could ever run your business better than you. You built it from the ground up. You know the ins and outs and the nuances. It's just easier if you continue to do even those small tasks that keep the gears moving. 

As someone who was paralyzed by the mere idea of handing anything off, I will tell you in my best Morgan Freeman voice that it is, in fact, not easier if you continue to do everything yourself. This isn't Thanksgiving dinner—no need to try to fit as much on your plate as possible. I promise that your employees want nothing more than to show you that they can tackle a task—and even improve upon it. 

7. Not listening to your employees

When's the last time you sat down with one of your employees and said, "I want to know from you what I could be doing better, as your coworker, as your leader, as the founder of this company. Where can I improve?" 

This kind of conversation can unlock another level of understanding and growth for both you and your team. For me, it became one of the conversations I most looked forward to. I could see how empowered they felt and how it helped them gain more confidence. And I learned more about myself from those conversations than anywhere else. 

8. Not being transparent 

There are some things that shouldn't be transparent. Like bathroom stalls. But how can you expect your team to do their best work if they don't know what the bigger picture is, or if they can't see behind the curtain?

If you want your team to become efficient, self-motivated, and to go above and beyond, they need to know the good and the bad. They need to know where the gaps are so they can help you. I've personally witnessed how a team's investment in their work drastically improves when they feel like they're in the know. When you're vulnerable with your team and show them the greater impact of what they're doing, it becomes more personal to them.

Plus, if you have a smart team, they already know what's behind the curtain, so hiding it only makes it seem like they should fear the direction of the company.

"Default to transparency" is one of Zapier's core values. But transparency has its limits.

9. Making your team constantly switch priorities

You know what's fun? A Nintendo Switch. You know what's not fun? Constantly switching priorities. It's exhausting, for both you and your team. 

The larger your business is, the more important it will be to stop and make sure the idea you're about to pull the trigger on is really something that needs to be done immediately—and if so, what other priorities can your team members shift off their plates to fully execute the new initiative? 

Having been a part of a startup that was a daily direction changer and then a startup that made more thoughtful, strategic decisions, the difference in company culture and employee happiness was astounding. Don't be the startup that does a million things at 50%, but not one thing at 100%. 

This was a guest post from Isidora Prohaska, founder of Lunarlo Consulting, a consulting firm that helps small businesses and startups build their plans, processes, and automation. She has spent many years working alongside founders and business owners and has seen her share of successes and mistakes alike. Her work as a generalist gives her unique insight into all facets of a startup. She offers a free 30-minute consultation to first-time clients to help get them positioned for success. Want to see your work on the Zapier blog? Read our guidelines, and get in touch.

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Isidora Prohaska picture

Isidora Prohaska

Isidora Prohaska is the founder of Lunarlo Consulting, where she uses her experience as a generalist to help small business owners and startup founders take control of their paths to success. She walks entrepreneurs through narrowing down their goals and then building their plans and processes so that they can maximize growth and ultimately, their bottom line.


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