Maybes are killing your startup

by Steli Efti

The path to success is paved with clear outcomes, good or bad. Most startups fail not because of their failures, but because of being stuck in the middle; what I call the maybe zone.

It's not hard to come up with new ideas, new experiments, new features for products, other means of distribution. What's hard is moving through them with enough velocity to learn your lessons and achieve sustainable growth.

Most people think that a maybe is better than a no, but that's seldomly the case for startups.

The maybe zone

That's the place where you didn't create a clear success or a clear failure. It's a dangerous quagmire that slows down your momentum and silently exhausts your energies. A yes and a no are both great - just get them fast.

What's killing you are the maybes.

  • "Maybe we're going to do it."
  • "Maybe this was not that bad..."
  • "Maybe when we continue it might end up being a good thing..."

In the maybe zone, decisions often get made based on irrational emotions, strong opinions and questionable interpretations of data. 

Hopeless optimism

As entrepreneurs, startup team members and sales people are all hopeless optimists. We always look at the potential, we always see the possibilities.

Let's say you've embarked on a new marketing initiative. You've invested a good amount of work into preparing and executing it, but the results are somewhat disappointing. They're not moving the needle as much as you hoped.

What do you do?

Most of us tend to look that the needle has moved a little bit (even though much less than expected), we tell ourselves: "Maybe we just need to push a little harder to turn this into a success!" 

But rather than pouring more resources into the initiative, what we should often do is to cut our losses and move on to something else.

What's your Plan B?

Whenever you embark on a new project, start a new initiative or run a new experiment, don't just go into it blindly. Don't just say: "We'll try it out and see if it works!"

Determine these three things in advance:

  • What will success look like? (What results/numbers/specific outcomes)
  • What will failure look like?
  • What are you going to do if the outcome you create is somewhat in the middle?

It's important to make these decisions before you get the ball rolling so that once the project is concluded, you know what to do next.

Before you embark on a new project or start a new initiative, define how you'll determine success or failure. That's the time when you're in the best position to make a good judgment call - not after you've already invested a considerable amount of resources into the project. It's a way of protecting yourself against the sunk cost fallacy (and yes, this cognitive bias is just as strong in smart startup folks as it is in Wall Street hotshots).

Maybe kills sales team performance

In sales, your job is to create outcomes: yes or no. Winning and losing deals. Both are good.

Optimize first and foremost for speed and clarity.

Don't try to optimize for maximum possible conversions. It's not about getting everyone to buy, everyone to agree, every deal to close.

Because if you try to optimize for the best conversion rate possible, you'll end up wasting too much time and energy waiting for certain deals to close... maybe! You're going to wait around and let the prospect 'think about it', let them extend their trial again, let them delay the decision to next quarter... and the next... and the next. (All to avoid a no, because that would be a lost deal).

Their indecision will take over all your mindspace, your pipeline, the mindshare of your team, like a slow poison it will slow down and finally kill your momentum. It's a waste of resources.

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