Guest column

Why you need to prevent 'expert syndrome' and find a market need for your startup to succeed

The biggest reason startups fail is because of no market need. Emilija Manevska/Getty Images

It's a brave new world. It's an era of hot IPO's, next-generation technological disruptions, Silicon Valley tech-storms, and many startups that eventually nosedive. Many startups believe that they are creating the next best thing, but in reality, more than 80 percent of the startups fail on a global scale.

These are staggering numbers as the world is evolving, and the job market is saturating exponentially, giving to the rise of startups and entrepreneurial ventures. Nowadays, it's easy to get caught up in the endless stories of startup successes, but in actuality, startup failures are way more common that startup successes in accord with data from CB Insights.

According to the surveys by CB Insights analysts and researchers, more than 70 percent of upstart tech companies fail, and their counterparts the 'consumer hardware startups' are prone to failure with 97 percent ultimately dying or becoming "zombies." Let's talk about why startups and businesses fail. One of the significant factors that cause startups to fail miserably is that there's no market need.

Preventing 'expert syndrome'

Startups can run into the problem of their being little or no market need for the product or service they are providing. Startup founders tend to overrate and overestimate themselves and underrate the more experienced people around them. This is known as 'expert syndrome,' and it is one of the contributing reasons why many startups tend to fail and nosedive.

Ignorant individuals are often bursting with escapism, unrealistic expectations and grandeur emotions, which may cause their businesses to fall out. The actual feeling that you are in control combined with an idealistic inevitability that there is market need for the creator's product or service can lead to inevitable failure.

Expert syndrome is recognized in the field of psychology as the Dunning-Kruger effect; cognitive bias of superiority in the mind of an individual that believes their knowledge is greater than it is. This can also result in unrealistic expectations for otherwise relatively small impact incremental innovations.

As an MBA, I have seen this in myself over the years (admittedly often in hindsight) and in waves of fresh MBAs trying to turn their class project business plan into a real business. However, it is not exclusive to MBAs as any domain experts' true knowledge could be limited by their perspective and experience of a given situation. On the contrary, the secondary issue of the nature of innovation is more complicated as it presents a cause and effect relationship with the market scenario.

For a startup's success, it is essential for the product or service to be more 'disruptive' in nature rather than being merely incremental. The startup needs to solve an unsolved problem rather than assisting the problem.

Lessons learned

Now, the million-dollar question is how to learn from 'No Market Need' as the leading startup reason for failure. My advice is to get out and speak early and often with those with a different perspective on the innovation, certainly outside of the area of the innovator. From my experience this is better done in waves in that the questions are asked to the relevant persons, first reaching out to those most proximate to but outside the invention and inception space. After that moving further out from the center to find reason, logic, and ideas for validation of the disruption that can support the startup momentously.

For example, the technology for Solenic Medical addresses infections on medical implants, which was invented by a pair of university researchers at UT Southwestern. The first is an expert in infectious diseases and the second is a thermal medicine engineer.

In my due diligence research, I first reached out to orthopedic surgeons who perform the implant surgeries and deal with the first challenges of infections that arise. Receiving great feedback, almost too good to be true at first pass, I moved on to a next wave of doctors a little further out. I spoke to an ER doctor, a neurosurgeon, an interventional radiologist, and so forth, which didn't result in the same level of enthusiasm but raised good questions that drove further investigation in the due diligence effort.

From there I moved on to contacts in surgical centers and medical billing experts, further removed from the problem and again less enthusiastic. Less enthusiastic for sure, but none of them raised significant barriers, and some helped refine our understanding of what it would take to get the product to market within facility budgets and medical reimbursement requirements.

The crux here was not in any way to disrespect or discredit the inventor of the invention, but to get a perspective that complements the inventor(s) and validate the technology in multiple dimensions: the customer perspective, the product enabled by the technology, team requirements, funding challenges, all leading to valuable insights on the value of the innovation itself.


Obviously in the case of Solenic Medical, we chose to license that technology and form a company around it because we became confident that there was significant market need worth the challenges of bringing the medical device to market. This is what 'Market Need' is all about. It's about finding the right need at the right time and in the right manner.

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James Y. Lancaster is the Texas branch manager for Arkansas-based VIC Technology Venture Development. Lancaster, who lives in College Station, oversees business there, in Dallas, and in Houston.