Make more mistakes to accelerate your startup

Like every startup founder, I want to go faster. Ship features faster, test hypotheses faster, sell faster.

The best way to go faster is to do less. Only build features customers want, market to the right customers, etc. Unfortunately this is easier said than done – no matter how well you execute a Lean Startup strategy, waste is inevitable. I don’t have a crystal ball to help me predict the optimal route for success.

Working harder is another way to go faster. But as we all know, “work more” has diminishing returns.

So you’re a Lean Startup doing your best to minimize waste and already working as hard as you can. What else can you do to go faster?

Accept mistakes.

Our startup’s mistake “policy”

We have a rule at SoHelpful – mistakes are fine if you make them while trying to go faster.

That’s it. We don’t have caveats. None of us want to make mistakes – we all take pride in our work. But we tolerate mistakes to go faster.

Startups have only one real “mistake”

A bad mistake can cost bigger companies profits, customers, and bonuses.

Startups? Statistically speaking, our entire companies’ existence is probably a mistake – most startups fail. The only real mistake we can make is “we failed to discover a profitable growth business”. There isn’t anything we can do worse than that.

If we’re not making mistakes … we’re not going fast enough. And going too slow practically guarantees we’ll fail to discover a scalable new model.

Your team will judge you by actions – not words

This all seems really obvious, right? Just accept mistakes and you’ll go faster.

Like everything else in startups, it all comes down to execution. It’s easy for leaders to say “mistakes are ok…” until they happen. If you freak out when mistakes happen your team will react accordingly to prevent them.

They’ll get more cautious, go slower, and your odds of failure go up.

Example: software bugs

Nobody wants to ship buggy code. Customers complain and sometimes leave. Developers get sidetracked into fixing problems instead of releasing new features.

So buggy code got released … problems ensued. What do you, as the leader do?

If you’re a manager a big company you’re probably going to get the QA team and developers into a meeting and investigate what happened. You’ll ask about process, testing strategies, continuous integration, and requirements specification. Your goal is to prevent such problems from happening again – your job may depend on it.

So what happens when you bring these same management practices to your startup?

You probably don’t have a QA team, so you have the same conversation with the developers. They acknowledge the problem and commit to putting more mature software development practices in place. Suddenly you’ve got more paperwork, more meetings, a testing framework …

…and you’ve just slowed everything down.

Your alternative – do nothing

What’s your alternative? Don’t do anything – just let the developers fix it and see what happens. When they’re done, ask them to tell you what happened and how they fixed it. Just listen.  Most likely they’re trying to get things done so they can move on to the next thing.

They’re just trying to go faster – exactly what you want.


Photo credit: Jimmie


  1. Yazin (@yazinsai) September 30, 2014 at 11:50 am #

    I agree with making mistakes in the name of speed. I’d add suggest attaching the 5 Whys to the end of each “mistake” discovered though, to prevent the *same* mistake from happening again.. and the time spent in prevention would be proportional to the size of the mistake.

    Great post!

    • kevindewalt September 30, 2014 at 5:29 pm #

      Thanks Yazin. Be careful with “5 Whys”. It can lead to …

      “Ah, I know why! We don’t have full test coverage and an integrated CI server!”

  2. Eyram Sotome September 30, 2014 at 12:03 pm #

    It’s funny but very true. Mistakes accelerate progress. The faster you can make them (and realize what they are), the more robust and efficient your strategies become. I’m working on this myself and I’m learning that as long as I focus on what is most important, the mistakes on the IMPORTANT things will prove to be the most useful to the foundation of your work.

    Great article;)

  3. Rahul October 1, 2014 at 12:06 am #

    Honestly, this made a lot of sense…trying not to make mistakes is indeed slow…
    I think I felt the lightbulb glow 😀

  4. Ryszard October 13, 2014 at 11:46 am #

    What about a prototype B2B software platform? I need another 2 months to minimize the risk of common bugs in the software. If I go to a company and try to convince them to buy from me (not from the competitors, enterprise solutions, costing hundreds of thousands of dollars a month) and show a piece of software that does not work because of a stupid bug they are likely not let me in the door again in the next 6-12 months. I have lost a potential prospect. It is not B2C unfortunatley, therefore I have only 1000 potential prospects in my town, of which only 50 will probably respond to my initial cold emails. I will be lucky to I I hit 20 sales in my hometown. Is it worth investing time in the prototype, risk producing some waste and fail later in the process instead?

    • kevindewalt October 13, 2014 at 5:49 pm #

      In my experience – and this is just my experience – your bugs won’t matter. The biggest risk is that you’re really not solving their problem or they don’t trust you to deliver in the long haul.

      Sales isn’t about bug-free code.

      Most of the entrepreneurs we help have terrible results with cold emails unless they just want to be the cheapest solution.

      We teach investing in relationships, they matter a lot more than bug-free code:

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