Can we KNOW a Startup Will Fail?

Paul O'Brien
4 min readFeb 19, 2024

Are there factors that determine a startup’s success from the early stages?

Consider, that this question is studied to such a great degree that while we can’t guarantee your success, we’re pretty good at knowing with 99% confidence if you will fail. Here’s how to avoid it…

Take heed VCs (and founders) because it’s frustrating when we see a founder trying, or investment into, something that we can all but guarantee won’t work out.

(Yes, it’s very common and aggravating to see a VC invest in things obviously set to fail — stop it! 🤣)

  1. You must have a team. Solo founders almost always fail. Exceptions to the solo founder rule that you might be able to give me, don’t change the fact — you cannot do this yourself.
  2. You must prioritize and focus on marketing before anything else. Marketing is not promoting what you’re doing! If you think it is, you’re already likely to fail. Study the market, know what might work, how, what’s valued, know the competition, know the investors, and know what has failed before. We can tell you’re likely to fail if you’ve already built and MVP or send a pitch deck seeking funding (as it’s clear you didn’t to this first and foremost).
  3. There is a right personality. Like it or not, this is near proven fact. Oxford did a study of some 22,000 founders and found that success all but requires “Need for variety and novelty, reduced modesty, an openness to adventure, and heightened energy levels.” Not you? That’s fine… but the only thing you should be doing right now is finding the cofounder who is.
  4. Have fluid intelligence. You WILL be told no. You WILL be told you are wrong. Shut yourself down trying to convince people. You need to listen. Take the punches. Here’s the trick though — people advising you and giving you feedback don’t KNOW either; don’t take advice as though it’s correct but shut up and listen rather than trying to be right. You can’t be right… if anyone was right, they’d just do it and there would be no reason for you to be trying. Handle the pressure and stress.
  5. Be open minded. You are not right. See #4. If you come at the market as many very bright people do, of little advice that I can say I’m certain, it’s telling you that “you are wrong.” We see this (frankly) among MBAs, PhDs, academics, and professionals (such as Doctors or Lawyers); and I don’t intend to pick on those fields/people, but Education/Intelligence tends to correlate with people wanting to prove how smart they are, that the field they are in requires that they come across with confident certainty or wanting to prove that education/training means they know best. Hopefully you’ve caught wind of the fact that a great many successful entrepreneurs are C students or even college dropouts. 100% certainty — “you are wrong,” so stop lying to yourself that you know everything. The only founders that succeed are the founders who test, iterate, pivot, and get it done. Your certainty and education aren’t advantages, they’re a handicap in entrepreneurship. Stop telling me you think you’re right because you sound like an idiot; do it or give your idea to the people who will. Listen to everyone, they’re choosing not to help you, or disagreeing with you, because you are wrong.
  6. You must have experience. My other like-it-or-not consideration, the average age of success as a founder is mid-forties. Nothing you can do about it but the likelihood of great startup success at 22 years old is somewhere around .0000001%. So, good luck. Find the people that know what they’re doing and if you want success at that point, join others rather than trying to start yourself; they far more likely know what they’re doing, have a network of people to whom to turn, and have resources to bring to bear… bringing me to the last point —
  7. Starting costs money and you don’t get paid. No one gets funding to start something. EVER. If you don’t have the means to give it a go for 18 months, don’t try. Figure that out first. If you’re doing a startup in hopes of starting our own business, working for yourself, or hoping to get rich, I hate to break it to you… you’re in startups for the wrong reasons. Go find a job and get that experience all but necessary, and then come back when you’re ready to do this, because you’re passionate and capable.

Lacking any of that, I wouldn’t invest.

The due diligence, the talk of evidence of revenue or customers, the sacred 20% MoM growth rate… those are all metrics the startup ecosystem has provided as a kind way to say “no” and to try and explain why they won’t invest (when in reality, they really can’t put their finger on what’s wrong with what you’re doing). THIS is what causes failures and if you lack any of this, you’re getting push back and misleading advice.

And yet, even having all of it, we can’t guarantee success.

What we know is what doesn’t work, to such a degree that even if you think I’m wrong and you want to prove me wrong, I might bet money you will fail.

This is what it takes to be successful; most founders/teams don’t have it.

Founders, what should you focus on tomorrow? First thing? Whatever you have missing from the list above.

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Paul O'Brien

CEO of MediaTech Ventures, CMO to #VC, #Startup Advisor. I get you funded. Father, marketer, author, #Austin. @seobrien & @AccelerateTexas. https://seobrien.com