I have been lucky enough to see “under the hood” of 100s of startup companies — mostly early-stage web technology companies — and I’ve spotted some patterns.

That is to say, startups that I’ve seen succeed often adhere to many of these criteria. These aren’t “hard and fast” rules, but they are ways of increasing your chance of success, reducing obvious failures and making your startup journey a tiny bit less painful.

1. Solve a problem for a clearly-defined customer

A clearly-defined customer is best illustrated by way of a couple of example startup ideas;

  • Appointment booking for dental surgeries

  • Recruitment software for hospitals

  • A site that lets you compare local property agents


  • A social network

  • A search engine

  • An instant messenger

Not because the problem is “too hard”, but because the audience is too wide.

Too many startups say (and believe) that their product is for everyone. The allure of 6bn people — “everyone could use this” — is very strong. But this actually makes things harder not easier.

Because your audience is everyone, it’s also no one; you can’t tell the relevant people who might be interested and you can’t possibly hope to communicate with everyone.

2. Talk to an addressable market

This goes hand-in-hand with the ‘clearly-defined customer’ point. If you can define your customer well you should also be able to talk to them relatively easily.

A wide, poorly-defined market means that you don’t know which channels or message to use to reach people.

If you’re targeting a type of business, or a type of customer in one sector or niche — it becomes much easier to reach them.

For example;

“Our software helps restaurants manage their staff rotas and shift booking” allows you to identify;

AdWords keywords to investigate, Events to sponsor or exhibit at, Trade bodies to partner with, Business demographics to target ads to, …and many more, way beyond my marketing skills.

The inverse; “Our time scheduling software manages teams from 10 to 10,000” leaves you with very little to go on.

3. Offer a paid product from day 1

Pricing products is hard, this is true. However, it’s also true that people don’t value that which they get for free.

This is not to say that ‘freemium’ is a bad idea — offering a limited set of functions or a pared-back service for free, then converting customers over to a paid account can be the right approach.

The danger comes where you’ve only got a free product and hope to generate revenue from user mass. Twitter, Google, Facebook, etc — all operate in this way — giving away the core product but making money from the users at their massive scale.

You are not Google, Twitter or Facebook. Ask customers to pay for your product.

Additionally — solving a problem for customers, with a product that’s good enough for them to pay you is a great focus, and a great validator that you’re on to something.

4. Global from day 1

The biggest differentiator between online business and ‘offline business’ is the breadth of market you can reach online. A high street store selling widgets can still be successful, but an online widget store can reach the whole planet.

Too often we place barriers to global customers — some great tips are:

  • Make pricing clear, and maybe in US dollars

  • Make internationalisation a priority, including multi-lingual copy

  • Offer support at times that work for your customer base

Launching a startup that’s not aiming at global success seems like shooting yourself in the foot.

5. Don’t be first, be better

Don’t be put off because you’re not the first player in your market. Yes, some markets are over-saturated (Flappy Bird clones), but you also don’t need to be first to a market to make a success of it.

Competition forces all startups to work harder, innovate faster, and offer a better product.

Google wasn’t the first search engine Facebook wasn’t the first social network Dropbox wasn’t the first easy cloud backup service

You don’t need to be first to a market, you just need to be better.