The Signs That Your Company Is Going To Fail


I remember walking into the lobby like it was yesterday. I was excited because I was wrapping up negotiations to join the company as VP Marketing.

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I remembered seeing a planter with a dead plant outside. I didn’t think much of it at the time. Maybe I should have.

I went into the lobby, and there was the receptionist. I told her I was there to meet the CEO.

She escorted me to the CEO’s office, and the CEO greeted me warmly. We had been negotiating for weeks over equity.

The CEO and I came to an agreement on the equity.  

I agreed to join the company as Vice President, Marketing.

So, I joined the company and started evaluating the company’s business. One of things that attracted me to the company was the customer base.

The company was doing business with all the big telecom companies of the day..  Cisco was a customer. Lucent was a customer. Nortel was a customer. 

I was excited until I started digging into the quality of the business we were getting. All of the customers were using us for prototypes, not production.  That meant we had no sustaining revenue.


There was no way the company could grow and I knew it.  It was startup failure.


Every Friday I had lunch with the CEO, John. I told John we were going to have to make significant changes if we were going to grow.

John listened intently each week. And each week he committed to making changes.

And each week nothing changed.


The decision to join this company turned out to be one of the worst decisions I made in my career.


Within three months of joining, the CEO was fired. I told the board of directors I wanted to be CEO. I presented my vision for the company to the board, but the board went with an outside candidate as CEO.

I was fired three months later.

But, I could have seen the company was not well run. After all…


How can you run a company well if you can’t even water a plant?


Years later, I was raising money for my company, and we were getting close to closing one of the potential investors. They wanted to meet with us at our office.

We had several plants scattered around the office including one in the lobby. Our VP Engineering and co-founder, Jeroen, had brought the plants in when we moved into the facility. He had done a great job keeping the plants looking nice.

However, there were some leaves that looked like they were dying, so I went with a scissors and cut all the dead leaves. We weren’t going to lose a potential investor over a plant.

One of our engineers, Maurice, had removed the florescent light over his workstation because he didn’t like it. I explained to Maurice that we needed the light back in because we had investors coming to visit.

I assured Maurice that he could take the light out once the investors left.

Do you think we were we putting on a show? You’re goddamn right we were!

The small things matter when you're building a startup.


Is your facility clean?

  • What about the plants?
  • How about your light fixtures?
  • Are your bathrooms clean?
  • Does your lobby look presentable?
  • Are the chairs nice?
  • Is your kitchen useable?

They all matter.


How do you answer the phone?


I remember years ago when I was working at Maxim Integrated Products. This was in the ancient times when voicemail was just coming into existence.

We were starting to get complaints from our field sales people and customers regarding leaving messages for people. There was a clamor that the company needed a voicemail system.

Jack Gifford, Maxim’s very frugal (I mean this in a very complimentary way) CEO, had another idea. Gifford didn’t want to spend on voicemail.

Instead every employee received an answering machine on his or her desk. Now these were very special answering machines because they had one cassette tape, not two cassette tapes. And one cassette tape answering machines were dirt cheap.

You’re asking, why is that important? Well, if you only have one cassette that means you’re message of, “Hi, I’m away from my office” is on the same cassette as your messages.

Here’s the problem with one-cassette answering machines: The tape has to wind from your message at the beginning of the tape to the last message before someone could leave a message.


Someone could literally wait several minutes for the tape to wind!


There was no on hold music, just those tapes winding.

I can still remember walking through the office hearing the sound of those tapes rewinding. You knew whoever was on the line, waiting for the beep to leave their message, had to be frustrated!

Gifford was very frugal, but he wasn’t stupid. I am pretty sure we got a proper voicemail system pretty quickly after the answering machine debacle.


What about your website?


Think of your homepage like the lobby to your office.

Is your homepage inviting, clean and easy for someone to understand what your company does and how to buy from you? Or is your homepage a cluttered mess?

A cluttered homepage is like having dead plants outside your office. And we already know where that leads...


What the most important area that determines the success of a McDonalds franchise?


Clean bathrooms.

In a CNBC documentary on McDonalds, the manager says, “You’ve lost the customer if your bathrooms are dirty.”

You may not be operating a McDonalds, but your team, potential new employees, and customers all are using your bathrooms.

So maybe your bathrooms really are important? Hmmm.


And the list goes on and on.

Business on many levels is not rocket science.


It’s the attention to these small details that can make or break your company. Attention to detail doesn’t take intellect. Attention to detail is all about caring about the little things.

The funny thing is attention to detail doesn’t cost you much money. Most of the time attention to detail actually saves you money.

And, who wants to work where there are dead plants in the lobby, or where there are dirty bathrooms?


Getting the little things right is what allows you to get the big things right.


When you get the little things, like having clean bathrooms, right, it teaches everyone in your company that you're paying attention to the details.  And getting small details right builds the habit that allows you to get the big details right.

So, don't let that dead plant die.  Watering it will teach your team the importance of focusing on the details.


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