Unforced Errors

Jun 18, 2023
More startups die of indigestion than starvation — Bill Hewlett

In tennis, unforced errors are shots that should have been easy to return but were missed nonetheless. They aren’t attributed to an opponent's strength but are the result of our mistakes. Unforced errors are subtle mistakes that compound over time.

Unforced errors are the top cause of startup failure (and maybe even companies at scale). They come in all types of flavors. But I think the most apparent unforced errors come from action rather than inaction. Responding to a competitor without thinking. Copying another company without understanding the motivation. Pursuing too many opportunities and losing focus on the main thing. Out-of-touch messaging. Fighting the wrong battles.

Many incumbents today are making unforced errors when it comes to generative AI. The space was Google’s to win: decades of industry-leading research on AI, large-scale deployments of AI, and the world’s biggest collection and organization of data. Yet — they fumbled. They lost the messaging, the narrative, and the deployment. They made sloppy mistakes and launched things like Bard. Even with generative AI, there are no serious competitors to Google Search — although if Google makes enough drastic changes, they might make it a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Reddit is another company in the midst of an unforced error. Regardless of your view on their API pricing changes and rollout, you can agree that the company has created a PR disaster for itself. Needlessly antagonizing mods, developers, and users. Maybe there’s some internal pressure to monetize, but nobody forced Reddit to go down this route. No real competitor is challenging Reddit’s position.

Avoid unforced errors because they are the ones in your control. Keep the focus, obsess over the customer, and get the fundamentals right.