My client didn’t have a plan, so I fired them

Joan Westenberg merit

Tech and startups commentator Joan Westenberg. Source: supplied.

I fired a startup this morning. I’ve been an adviser for the past six months, and I’ve helped them through some big decisions and given them direction. Unfortunately, we’ve reached a point where I have recognised I no longer want to be involved with a founding team who can’t make and follow a plan.

The sticking point?

They didn’t want to write a marketing plan. We’d been arguing about this for around six months. As their adviser, I’d been trying to push them to focus on business development and marketing through an overall, clearly defined strategy.

I wanted to set goals for user acquisition, press coverage, content marketing and side project marketing. I wanted these goals to be actionable, and I wanted clear plans, time frames and milestones in which to reach them.

The startup had expanded quickly, was committed to growth, but was losing ground because it wasn’t bringing in enough business. Their app was not getting new users.

We’d tried several times to create a marketing and business development direction, but each time the chief executive and chief operating officer had shut it down, with the repeated statement that they already had a plan and it was working without wasting time formalising it.

But they didn’t have a plan. They had a few vague notions, and concepts around what would make people pay attention to them, and as far as they were concerned that was all the marketing they needed.

Some of those concepts were alright; I’d even loosely call them tactics. They were doing some event appearances, working a personal network, sending out information packs and so on.

But none of those tactics were working, and none of them had been working since I signed on to help them out. Because it was just a bunch of random actions, with no follow through, no end-goal and no research. The marketing and the BD were whatever they felt like doing at any given time.

Stop chasing your tail — and make a plan

It came to a head today when, stuck on my couch and feeling sick as a dog, I dealt with an angry phone call from the chief executive, asking why my focus was still on marketing. It was his usual tactic when he could sense that things weren’t working.

And I realised: I couldn’t take the blind ignorance anymore.

The lack of a strategy in their marketing was symptomatic of a larger problem. They didn’t have enough focus in any of their key areas, from design to development. No matter how much they’re pushed to create a plan, it always sounds like too much work.

I want to make this a case study: if you want to achieve anything with your business or project, you need to have a plan in place. You can’t run around chasing your tail and doing random crap that just looks or sounds good. This happens to startups, artists, freelancers  —  everyone.

You need to set out a plan.

The plan doesn’t need to be complicated. It can be incredibly simple. But it needs to be in place so you don’t spend your weeks doing things for the sake of it, without tracking towards something bigger.

You need to have a plan because you have to be working towards a tangible end goal, that you can define and know if you’ve succeeded or failed at. That way, you’ll be able to continually evaluate and make sure you’re adjusting what needs to be adjusted, fixing what isn’t working.

Without an end goal, you will likely persevere where you should have turned, wasting valuable resources and time. It’s a sure way to end up in a total nose-dive, following the wrong path to the wrong destination.

In this case, it was about the marketing. The founders had no idea that what they were doing wasn’t working.

Their confirmation bias told them the business that was coming in was a sign of successful marketing and BD. With no end goal to work against, beyond a vague idea of having more customers, they couldn’t measure success.

You need to have a plan because setting time frames is crucial. Without a time frame, you can waste an ever increasing amount of time chasing tasks and opportunities without pausing to evaluate. You’d be surprised how quickly one hour turns into three. One day into three days. Three days into a week. There’s no limit if you don’t set one.

With a plan in place, you can set aside a set limit to work towards the goals you’ve already outlined and a set time to evaluate those goals. Without a plan, you will never understand where you are in relation to your targets.

I don’t know what this startup will do. I think they’re going to fail if they can’t turn themselves around and start building towards a larger goal. It’s disappointing, because they have a vision I was happy to get behind and they truly care about their business.

Unfortunately, that’s not enough. Passion is not enough. Excitement and faith is not enough. You need to be able to see where you’re going and know how to get there.

This article was first published at Pizza Party.

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