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.

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Building Houston

 
 

Raising funds anytime soon? Take these tips from a venture capital insider into consideration. Photo via Getty Images

I have had the incredible opportunity to work with New Stack Ventures as a venture fellow, and after sourcing investment opportunities, shadowing calls with founders, and even leading a couple calls of my own, I have learned a few lessons that might resonate with startup founders who are raising capital.

Responsive founders make a difference

The first and likely most important lesson I have learned during my tenure as a fellow is this: responsive founders truly make a difference in whether or not they raise capital.

I have sent several emails and LinkedIn messages to really intriguing companies, in hopes of connecting for a call and inquiring about their raise. And, I look back and see that many of those outreach messages were left unread. I have also engaged in calls with really intriguing companies where the founder never follows up, and the idea of moving forward with next steps dissipates.

On the flipside of the forgetful founder, I have also witnessed extremely attentive founders: founders who send follow-up messages when they don't receive an immediate response, respond to their emails within the hour, and go above and beyond by sending pitch decks and executive summaries (even when unasked). This type of founder persona excites me with their enthusiasm and eagerness to make a deal. Their responsiveness with the investment process sheds light to how they likely run their businesses.

At the end of the day, many founders can say that they are hustlers and go-getters, but I believe the founders that show me through their actions in the investment process.

Great founders are great storytellers

When I do connect with founders in introductory calls (after the back-and-forth, hopefully responsive email exchange), the thing I look forward to most is hearing their stories. I want to know your story. I want to know what you were doing before your startup (and how that helped prepare you), how you thought of your idea, how you validated your assumptions, how you grew your business, and… everything in between (but all in less than five minutes of time).

Great founders are great storytellers. The great storytellers I have come across invite me into their companies' journeys, and leave me actually caring about their success.

On the opposite side of the spectrum, the founder who gives short responses and shows no real connection to their work (giving off the vibe that this is just another startup for them) leaves me unattached to them and their business.

Venture capitalists are more accessible than you might think

Perhaps, I gave this point away when I said that I was sending several emails and LinkedIn messages to founders (which sounds a little desperate), but VCs are way more accessible than you may think. Before working with New Stack Ventures, I had this perception that VCs were extremely hard to reach, exceptionally busy, and a little bit scary. And while one of the two latter characteristics still remains true, I can say with certainty that VCs are not hard to reach.

I can't speak for everyone in venture capital, but I do know that the VCs I work with will respond to founders who message them. Putting yourself out there, as a founder, can lead to advice (which bodes well for your business), a new connection in the industry (which bodes well for your network), and even an investment (which bodes well for the future of your startup). In the end, VCs are spending hundreds of hours, searching for a tractable startup that will change the game, and your startup could be the very gem they are looking for.

So, be bold, be responsive, and tell your story to any and every VC who will listen. I'm all ears.

Note: I was inspired to write this piece by by The Full Ratchet's tips for fundraising entrepreneurs, I thought I would share.

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Christa Westheimer is a Rice University student and the managing director at Rice Ventures. She is a current venture fellow at Chicago-based New Stack Ventures.

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