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A founder I was meeting for the first time was telling me about her startup. She spent the first 15-ish minutes of our meeting describing her project. Then, once she’d told me everything she wanted to explain, she asked a question that, to her, seemed simple. She asked: “Why is nobody buying my product?”

It wasn’t the first time I’d been asked that same question by a founder. In fact, I get asked that question almost weekly. But something was particularly jarring about the way this founder asked. She did it in the same way she might ask me to…


All successful entrepreneurs follow the same process (even if they don’t always realize it!)

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Entrepreneurship is a continuum. By that I mean every successful startup that’s ever existed has followed in the wake of other startups that came before them, ultimately making those previous startups irrelevant. And whatever successful startups are being built right now will lay the groundwork for future startups that will follow them and eventually supplant them.

You’ve probably never thought much about that fact. And why would you? After all, as an entrepreneur, your job is to focus on the company you’re building right now, not the companies you’ve made obsolete or the companies that’ll eventually replace yours.

However, for…


Sometimes great startup ideas only become great when they reach a certain size. So what happens before that?

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One of the hardest types of startups to launch — if not the hardest type of startup — is what’s called a “network effects” business. These are businesses where the company needs lots of users in order to function properly. For example, social media apps, multi-sided marketplaces, and dating websites all need large user bases, otherwise, the products are worthless. After all, who wants to join a dating website that only has 10 members?

Network effects businesses create what entrepreneurs colloquially call “the chicken and egg problem”… as-in, “Which came first, the chicken or the egg?” It’s a reference to…


Not every company is meant to be a unicorn, and that’s OK

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I was walking into my fourth meeting with a venture capital firm that was considering an investment in my company. Yes… the fourth meeting. I was still early in my startup career, and I was just beginning to learn that successful fundraising was nothing like how it was portrayed in Hollywood or TechCrunch. You don’t just meet with someone once and then they write you a check for millions of dollars. Instead, before a VC invests, you’re going to have lots of meetings.

Seriously… LOTS of meetings…

Every firm has its own process, of course. In the case of this…


If you don’t measure your growth properly, you’ll quit too soon

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I shut down my first startup after seven months because it didn’t seem like it was growing fast enough. I only had a handful of customers and I hadn’t been able to raise any money for it.

I shut down my second startup within its first year for similar reasons. It wasn’t turning into the startup “rocketship” I’d always imagined.

After six months of what felt like slow progress on my third startup, I was preparing to do the same thing. Luckily, I had a mentor who understood something important about startups that I still needed to learn. …


You surely know the most important question, but do you know what else matters?

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One of the most important questions an entrepreneur has to answer during a pitch is: “What problem is my startup solving?” Heck, it’s probably the most important question your pitch has to answer.

It’s a critical question because entrepreneurship isn’t about innovating for innovation’s sake. Instead, entrepreneurship is about innovating to solve problems. If you’re not solving anyone’s problem, nobody will use what you’re building, and your venture will fail.

However, as important as that question is, it’s also misleading because it implies that all problems need to be solved.

They don’t.

Instead, lots of entrepreneurs struggle growing their companies…


Only some startups should bother raising venture capital — is yours one of them?

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Entrepreneurs are constantly reading about fundraising and trying to understand how to raise venture capital. While there’s nothing wrong with wanting to learn more about fundraising, it’s worth noting that not every startup is a good fit for VC. In fact, most startups aren’t a good fit. Is yours?

To be clear, I’ve personally screwed this up numerous times. For longer than I’m proud to admit, I assumed that, just because I was building tech companies, I should raise capital for them. In retrospect, I should have been bootstrapping. …


Some entrepreneurs are trying to help you, but others are just trying to help themselves

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I invited a founder to be a guest speaker in one of my entrepreneurship classes. He’d recently moved his company to San Francisco and successfully raised a $3 million seed round, so I thought he’d have some good insights.

During his visit, I asked him to talk about his funding round and explain why he’d decided to take venture capital. Here’s what he said:.

“We actually only just decided to take on outside investors. We bootstrapped for the first three years. But now we’re at a point where we’ve proven our technology, we know how to acquire customers, and we’ve…


Entrepreneurs want to build iconic brands, but it’s a lot harder than it looks

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Certain brands have such enormous name recognition that they’re used to describe even the generic forms of their product. For example, when I need to blow my nose, I grab a Kleenex. When I want an icy treat on a hot summer day, I’ll bite into a Popsicle. And even my 2-year-old knows when she falls and scrapes her knee she should ask for a Band-Aid. She doesn’t care that all we have are generic, storebrand “adhesive bandages.”

From an entrepreneurial perspective, this kind of universal brand recognition would seem to represent the peak of success. After all, when your…


Every entrepreneur faces challenging choices, but making the decision doesn’t have to be hard

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A few years ago, I remember meeting with an entrepreneur struggling with a difficult decision.

“We got an offer to buy our company,” the entrepreneur said as he sat down across from me and explained why he’d wanted to meet.

“That’s great!” I said. “Congratulations.”

“Thanks,” he replied. “But the thing is, we’re not sure whether we want to take it. It’s not a bad offer considering where we are. It’s just that we’re worried we’d be selling too early and be giving up a lot of potential growth by exiting now.”

“That could be true,” I agreed, remembering that…

Aaron Dinin, PhD

I teach entrepreneurship at Duke. Software Engineer. PhD in English. I write about the mistakes entrepreneurs make since I’ve made plenty. More @ aarondinin.com

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