The Globe and Mail: Overconfidence and isolation can sink your startup

This column is part of Globe Careers’ Leadership Lab series, where executives and experts share their views and advice about leadership and management. 

Think you’re the only one with the latest and greatest idea or next big game changer? Think again. If there’s one thing I learned at the helm of my own high-tech start-up, it’s that the chances of nobody doing what you’re doing are pretty slim. And the sooner you acknowledge it, the stronger your odds of succeeding.

When I reflect back on my personal experience launching a 3D imaging company in 2000, it’s easy to spot the mistakes we made despite our success. We eventually sold the company and I joined the business development team at Mitacs, a national not-for-profit organization that connects top-level research with private-sector needs. Now I rub shoulders with some of Canada’s brightest young minds every day, helping them to identify ways to get their own business plans off the ground.

Both experiences continue to shape my views on what small Canadian companies should and shouldn’t do to succeed. Here are the top five innovation mistakes I’ve found small businesses typically make.

Not seeing past the next deadline

Often with start-ups, there’s this romantic notion of two people starting out in a garage or basement, working night and day to solve a challenge and eventually getting noticed by the big guys. Then your first round of investment funding arrives and there are milestones to meet. You start to assemble people you know to help and work crazy hours. In short, your focus is on your deadline and little else.

It happened to me. I was fortunate to have a high-profile partner in my 3D imaging company. His name gave our company credibility and put us in a better negotiating position for raising capital. With each injection of cash came a milestone to meet and we were so dedicated to completing the task at hand, we weren’t necessarily planning for our future or looking to see what else was out there. When you work with blinders on, you’re going to miss something. It’s important to strike the right balance of shortsightedness and farsightedness – to invest time and energy into staying abreast of industry developments that could impact your business and adequately preparing for bringing your product to market.

Working in isolation

Had I known about the wealth of opportunities available to collaborate with Canadian universities, my business would have leveraged them. I thought we were doing a good job keeping a pulse on the latest research because we had hired a number of people with PhDs, we subscribed to publications, and we attended trade shows. But that’s just the tip of the iceberg.

If you’re actually collaborating with the top academics in your field, they’re going to be connected with other academics around the world and their partners. It will open your eyes to possibilities and will stop you from investing time and energy in a problem that has already been solved or where there’s existing research or technology that you can leverage to speed up your own development.

Designing yourself out of a market

Industry watchers call it the ‘Look what I can do’ effect. A company is so passionate about its invention, it loses sight of the market validation. Before you know it, you’ve added so many bells and whistles that the product may be too expensive for someone to actually buy.

Ask yourself, ‘Does this invention solve the right problem or does it further complicate things for users?’ In the long run, your ambition might simply create a market for someone else to exploit. When your slick technology doesn’t sell, it’s easy for the other guy to come along with a simpler – and inferior – product that appeals to the masses.

Ignoring alternate paths to success

One of the best decisions we made in my business was to acquire the rights to a technology that already existed. Using those components as a starting point allowed us to move forward faster and to concentrate on where we could really add value. Too many times, I see small companies reinvent the wheel, either because they think it hasn’t been invented yet or they think their wheel is different. Sometimes they just like the idea of reinventing it and owning it for themselves.

Purchasing intellectual property or partnering with another company can help speed your time to market and reduce risk. You may think sticking to your own development path is easiest because it fits your comfort zone, but it’s certainly not the safest.

Nobody knows what we know

There’s no room for arrogance in a start-up. You may think you have the greatest thing since sliced bread and you know more about your technology than anyone else, but that’s usually false. Just because you’re on the cutting edge doesn’t mean you’re alone. The sooner you explore your opportunities to network or collaborate, the more successful you’re likely to be.

All too often, small start-up companies get caught up in the activities of launching a business. You’re so occupied with deadlines, solving challenges, and thinking about cool features, you neglect to look beyond your four walls.

As early on as possible, map out a strategy for leveraging outside expertise, knowledge, intellectual property, and funding – and build your business strategy around those core pieces. You’ll get to market quicker, with the very best product or service at the lowest cost with the lowest risk – and you’ll avoid mistakes along the way.

Byline: Eric Bosco