3 Signs Your Startup May Be Slipping

Originally posted by Emily Barnes, The Creative Destruction Lab The Rotman School of Management, University of Toronto

Businesses large and small can find it tough to spare a few moments to step back and look at the big picture. But immersed in the little details surrounding new product features and releases, you can easily miss a few telltale signs your startup is starting to spiral.

Luckily, Fred Dawkins has done the legwork for you. Partner of the Creative Destruction Lab, serial entrepreneur and founder of The Old Hide House, Dawkins has turned his past experiences into a series of books about entrepreneurship, the first of which is Everyday Entrepreneur. He recently hosted a number of workshops in partnership with the Lab, touching on everything from the misconceptions of entrepreneurship, to the day-to-day trials and tribulations of an entrepreneur, to the increasingly important role of small business in the global economy and all that’s in between.

If you can’t spare the few minutes to check in on that big picture, Dawkins asks that you at least watch for these three signs that your startup is on the out.


Undoubtedly, there’ll be an imbalance. There’s no denying that you’ll have to work long hours – especially in the startup phase and when you run into times of hardship.  Your social life will at times suffer, as will your relationships. But this anguish shouldn’t be a constant.

This may seem erroneous if you’re in the early stage of running a business. Timing is everything, and if you launch too late – especially in tech – it can make or break your success. It’s a bit of a catch-22. But unless you’re an anomaly, if you’re working an innumerous amount of hours, you’re doing something wrong. It’s symptomatic, and signals a discord elsewhere in your business. How strong is your team? Are you delegating?

Despite much popular literature that speaks to the contrary, you truly can maintain work-life balance as an entrepreneur.  Recharging your batteries is critical. Have your hobbies and have your venture. Sometimes the two will overlap. Even then, you must create that separation. When you lose sight of work-life balance, you also risk impairing your business’ vision. It’s important to step away from your company, if only for a few hours.


If you’re going to be successful, you’ll first need to know and understand your numbers. Metrics aside, look to cash flow. It’s right on your doorstep. Omnipresent, it serves as the perfect warning mechanism. If you’re running low on cash, you’re doing something wrong.

Too often, startups seem to bolt at the first sign of cash flow struggles, looking to investment for relief. Granted, it’s a quick and relatively easy fix (provided you can offer up a good pitch), but too many run into the open arms of deals that offer marginal amounts of cash for large chunks of equity.  It’s easy enough to relinquish control of your business because you have to – to bring in a partner or some easy money. But don’t make rash decisions without properly considering the long-term consequences. Do the math. Beware of commitments that’ll eat up your profits. Brick and mortar businesses tackle high overhead, hardware startups combat production costs, and SAAS businesses at first operate virtually cost-free. Remind yourself of this. In a startup press bubble that’s dominated by one funding announcement after another, it’s all too easy to start asking for money. Don’t forget about sales, the good ol’ fashioned revenue stream.

There’s a lot to be said for natural growth and learning to manage within your means. Bootstrapping isn’t a requirement so much as an opt-in measure of control.


Things are different when you transition from project to business. Parameters change, and your skillsets need to adapt along with them. But few people have the knowledge or experience necessary to carry an idea through to company, then onto global success. Don’t be afraid to hire people who know more than you do in specific areas.

You’ll be tempted to keep a short leash on success, and find it difficult to relinquish control of even the most minor of tasks. Don’t impede success for the sake of ego. Sometimes you’ll need to let go of responsibility, and sometimes that also means you’ll need to cut off a slice of the equity pie. Your ego will take a hit, and your percentage of future earnings will too, but you’ll mend and the pie may just get bigger.

Recognize your deficiencies. You can’t always keep pace with your company, or grow at the same rate it does – not everyone is that malleable. Hire those whose skillsets can compensate for the holes in your own. You are not your company and at some point your interests may diverge, so have an end game.

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